After cooking in restaurants across Maui for more than three decades, Lahaina resident Ron Sambrano decided he was ready to kick it up a notch.
What he started with friend Danny Agdeppa in 2004 as a project to share cooking tips and tricks on public-access television ended up turning Sambrano into a kind of local-style Emeril Lagasse. Shot in professional and home kitchens all over the island, "The Ron Sambrano Kitchen" has featured a freewheeling Sambrano swapping recipes with Mauians ranging from well-known local chef Mark Ellman to Maui County Council Member Gladys Baisa.
"We just started shooting pretty much nonstop, doing all different kinds of dishes," he said. "It developed into kinda a good-size following on the island."
Maui TV chef Ron Sambrano displays beer-battered fish in a recent episode of his public access cable television show “The Ron Sambrano Kitchen.”
Sambrano applied for his first kitchen job at age 15, thinking he'd like to earn some gas money for his VW Rabbit. Although hired as a dishwasher, the restaurant's chef evidently had other plans for him, and his first assignment was to learn how to filet an ahi - something the chef said he would demonstrate only once.
"The next day, he says, 'OK, there's another big-a-- ahi back there. Go cut it up," Sambrano recalled. "I mangled the fish. I wasted it, pretty much. He was kinda pissed off, but that's the way chefs are."
The next day, the chef gave him a tutorial on how to make chocolate mousse. Noticing that that he had a knack for cooking and was a quick learner, the chef soon had Sambrano doing food prep, then working as a line cook, and later making sauces.
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He said his brother pushed him to become a chef, and even offered to send him to culinary school.
"I was an underachiever," he said. "Like, 'Nah.' "
Sambrano said he was happy just being a cook.
"I worked at pizza places, sandwich places, fine-dining places," he said. "I know food, and I'm still learning about it, which is why I like to talk to other people about it."
Making the transition to the TV kitchen has been a learning experience. Sambrano said the first show featured a delicious recipe for moi, but was shot "kinda ghetto style," and the lighting ended up being "horrible."
As he and Agdeppa have become more comfortable with their technology, new challenges have arisen.
"What I'm learning now about this whole TV thing is there's a lot of flakes," he said. "You have the meetings. They say, 'We'll get you whatever you need.' Then they don't call you back, you have to cancel everything, and I'm standing there looking like a dumb a--."
But he's found success bringing local celebrities on the show - some of whom have turned the tables on him.
Baisa took over the kitchen, cooking dinner for him and his crew, whipping up a tasty batch of "green Portuguese bean soup," and packing up all the leftovers for them to take home.
"It was frickin' good," he said. "She was cooking stuff and chopping. I learned a lot."
The format for the show remains loose, with episodes ranging from 15 minutes to over an hour. "The Ron Sambrano Kitchen" can be seen on Akaku: Maui Community Television cable Channel 52. Telecast times vary.
While he's worked in some of the island's fanciest restaurants, Sambrano said his favorite things to cook remain simple dishes like breakfasts and stir-fry. One show was devoted to Sambrano cooking a rib-eye steak.
He said most people cook steak by heating up oil in their pan. But for a quality, marbled piece of meat, a better way of doing it is to place it directly on the stainless steel pan, without any oil.
"It sears the meat and gives it a nice crust," he said. "I was taught long ago to do it that way. I'm just old school in things like that."
He shares more kitchen tips on his blog, chefsambrano. blogspot.com, where one recent post recommended improving the flavor and body of soups, stews and chili by stirring in a dollop of mayonnaise.
Sambrano said he continues to be surprised by the number of people who recognize him from TV. But he recognized that something about the show's enthusiasm for simple, local food seems to have struck a chord with viewers.
"It's amazing," he said. "We never started out to get recognized. We were just having fun."
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Neighbors: Profiles of Our Community" is a periodical feature about everyday people who make the Maui community unique. To nominate someone for a "Neighbors" feature, email The Maui News at email@example.com.