Stories / Impact, Interviews, Scholarships

Women in Culinary Leadership Q&A with 2016 Grantee Kelley Pittman, Mark Noguchi, and Matt Jennings

Maggie Borden

June 13, 2016


Photo: Pili Group


Kelley Pittman is trading luaus for lobster boils. The Hawaii-raised chef has devoted the sum of her early career to the islands, starting as a farmworker at Ma’O Organic Farm before joining JBF Chefs Boot Camp alum Mark Noguchi’s Pili Group. As a recipient of this year’s Women in Culinary Leadership (WICL) grant, Pittman will be traveling to Boston for a six-month internship at Matt Jennings’s Townsman, where she’ll be trained in both front- and back-of-house positions. In anticipation of the annoucement of the new class of 2016 WICL grantees, we chatted with Pittman, returning mentor Matt Jennings, and Mark Noguchi about their hopes and goals for the program, the Hawaiian culinary movement, and the role of women in the professional kitchen.




Photo: Townsman

Matt Jennings


JBF: What are you hoping to explore with Kelley during this internship?


MJ: Kelley is going to get deep experience in kitchen production—doughs, sauces, butchery, vegetable prep, and more. She is also going to be immersed in the front-of-house culture here at Townsman, where she can learn from some of the best in the business about what it means to manage a team and create results. 


JBF: What have you learned from last year’s WICL internship program? Are you planning on doing anything different this year?


MJ: I’ve learned that every team member, WICL candidates included, require his or her own customized approach to what we do. People all communicate differently, work in different manners, and bring different skillsets to the table. I’m eager to get Kelley here and watch her grow and become inspired. That is what it is all about, at the end of the day. 


Kelley Pittman


JBF: How did your experience at Ma’O Organic Farms inform your perspective on cooking in general, and being a part of the Hawaiian food culture?


Kelley Pittman: Being a part of Ma’O’s internship taught me how to know my food. Knowing my food and seeing the whole process of growing some of the finest organic produce on our island also taught me how to appreciate not only the ingredients, but also the people who grow them. Being a part of the Hawaiian food culture is a privilege. I’m not Hawaiian; however, growing up in Hawaii, I’ve come to respect the diverse culture. Hawaiian food is hard to explain. It’s prideful, soulful, traditional, and extremely family-oriented. The power of this food and how it brings people together is enticing. Aside from the native Hawaiian food, the cuisine here is really a melting pot. There’s Japanese, French, Latin, American, Tex-Mex, Vietnamese, and more! 


JBF: Have you been to Boston before? What are you most excited to experience in the Townsman kitchen?


KP: Yes! I have been to Boston before. It wasn’t for cooking, but I was traveling looking for colleges back in high school. I’m most excited to learn anything and everything at Townsman. Having the opportunity to cook in another state is exciting in itself!


JBF: What made you want to apply for the WICL program?


KP: I’ve been cooking in Hawaii for roughly 4 years now, starting basically immediately after high school. I haven’t really experienced what other places in general have to offer. I’ve always wanted to explore, and WICL was that push to help me get started. I feel so fortunate that it’s actually happening!


Photo: Pili Group

Mark Noguchi


JBF: Why is Kelley such a great fit for the WICL program?


Mark Noguchi: Kelley has a work ethic that surpasses many of her peers, but what really makes Kelley stand out to me is her empathy. I believe that good humans will make good food, and Kelley embodies a good person. Mind you, she comes from one of the most impoverished areas in Hawaii, but thanks to her family (all of the Pittman clan are beautiful people,) she was instilled with good values. I believe that Kelley is a great fit for the WICL program because she will combine her innate goodness with all that she will learn in her travels. When she comes back to Hawaii, she’ll use that knowledge to motivate everyone in our culinary movement, in ways that are much more meaningful than just being a talented cook. She will educate and inspire, and that ability is priceless. 


JBF: What can we all learn from the Hawaiian sustainable food movement?


MN: Close to 90 percent of everything we consume here in Hawaii is imported, which scares the sh*t out of me. Kelley comes from farming roots, and as a former Ma’O Organic Farm intern she understands the importance of food sustainability. If the collective effort of Hawaii’s culinary community can work to lower that percentage, we’ll show that a small community can create a shift in the overall conception of commercial food insecurity. And beyond that: if it’s possible to create change on an island with finite resources, imagine what’s possible on the continent.


JBF: What do you hope Kelley will bring back to the Pili Group after her internship?


MN: It’s not necessarily about what Kelley can bring back to Pili Group: I believe that at this time and place in her career, she’s learned as much as she can with us. It’s time for her to spread her wings and fly, and this was something that we discussed many times over the past year. Kelley will continue her cooking education on the East Coast: she’s very fortunate that at such a young age, she’s garnered the respect of many chefs, from Hawaii to San Francisco to Chicago to New York City. I’m going to miss her dearly—she has been with us through thick and thin. She is family, and like every young family member, there comes a time when they must continue their life journey. 

What I hope that Kelley brings back to this great state is her spirit, and her willingness to share what she’s learned along the way. Whenever she comes home for good (because I know that’s a goal for her), it will be her time to lead by example. 

I cannot thank JBF enough for creating this scholarship—it is priceless. Our industry needs more women. I applaud you all for the tireless advocating that you do.


Learn more about the Women in Culinary Leadership Program.



Maggie Borden is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.