Restaurant Insider with Anne Lee: 7-Eleven Hawaii

Restaurant Insider

March 27, 2022

Story By: Anne Lee | Photos by: ANTHONY CONSILLIO

(From left) Anne Lee, competition winner Kaleb Molina and 7-Eleven Hawaii’s category manager of fresh foods Debbie Lee Soon show off Molina’s prize-winning meal.

ANNE LEE speaks with 7-Eleven Hawaii’s category manager of fresh foods DEBBIE LEE SOON and competition winner KALEB MOLINA

7-Eleven Hawaii is empowering our future culinary leaders and supporting local agriculture with an annual competition of students enrolled in the culinary programs at Kapiolani and Leeward Community Colleges.

What makes this fun and challenging for the students is that they have to follow the different criteria and parameters determined each year, and the first-place winners will have their dish featured at all 7-Eleven Hawaii locations for a limited time.

Vegan rigatoni pasta ($5.99 on Oahu and $6.59 on the neighbor islands)

This partnership started in 2018, and first, second and third place winners are chosen by judges and awarded a cash prize. I spoke with 7-Eleven Hawaii’s senior category manager of fresh foods, Debbie Lee Soon, and this year’s winner, Kaleb Molina of Leeward CC, to learn more about this annual event and his winning dish, a vegan rigatoni pasta ($5.99 on Oahu and $6.59 on the neighbor islands), which rolls out March 29. This will be available at all 7-Eleven Hawaii locations statewide, chilled in their food display case or heated in the warmer ready to go, depending on the time of day and location.

AL: Debbie, how did this competition start?

DLS: One of our initiatives is to be involved in the community. Kapiolani CC culinary arts instructor and Culinary Innovation Center director, Lauren Tamamoto, reached out to us and put together the parameters for this contest. This was a way for the students to be given an opportunity to showcase their talents and be noticed statewide.

AL: One of the toughest challenges that contestants had when making these prepared dishes is the stability and consistency of the entrée. Tell me more about this.

DLS: Each entry needs to retain its taste and flavor, so we ask that they make it ahead of time, chill it, microwave it — it must hold up in a warmer — and we’re-taste it after all of this. For each student this is challenging, and the results of the dishes submitted are very creative.

AL: What do the winners receive?

DLS: The first-place winner’s dish will be introduced and featured in our marketing and advertising efforts and also provide opportunity to work with them on future dishes. Their dish will also be available for purchase statewide at all of our Hawaii locations in addition to a $1,000 cash prize.

AL: Kaleb, why did you want to go to culinary school?

KM: Food has always been a love and luxury for me. I found a passion for it back in my senior year of high school when I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I joined a culinary class at Moanalua High School with Lars Mitsuda, which encouraged me to jump right into Leeward CC’s culinary program right out of high school. I was relieved to know that this program was still being offered and open during the pandemic. It was more difficult in the beginning but now with things being more accessible, it’s a relief to culinary students coming back to campus.

AL: Tell me more about how you came up with this winning dish.

KM: Bolognese is a classic sauce with beef that’s cooked down to bring out all of the flavors of each ingredient. In Italy, the ingredients are of the highest quality, and the simplicity and flavor make this an amazing sauce.

I replaced the meat with a plant-based substitute. The sauce starts off as a pomodoro sauce, which I cooked down about 3-8 hours, depending on the flavor, and added some ground basil, sweet onion and San Marzano tomatoes, which are known for their sweet flavor.The sauce by itself is a lot of prep work and is the foundation to this dish — everything else just adds to the flavor.

I chose to pair this with a vegan rigatoni pasta. It’s a capsule for flavor, as this dish is usually served with a bucatini or spaghetti pasta. This particular pasta is made with durum flour, and the noodle is very durable, does not contain egg and has a higher protein content, which made it a good choice to be able to have the shelf life to offer at 7-Eleven Hawaii’s statewide.

AL: What words of wisdom can you share with your peers?

KM:I am currently finishing up school and working 40 hours a week at MW Restaurant as a chef. Cooking is a passion and a love that fuels me and when I see someone smile from tasting a dish that I created, it’s simply something that I can’t describe. Not every profession allows you to see the fruits of your labor. Cooking is something that you feel and my peers in this industry share the same passion. If you want to do this, just do it, no holding back. What other industry can provide you with access to learning from the best in the world?

AL: How did you feel when you found out you won the competition?

KM: Joyous! The previous year I entered, and it was fun and an educational experience. I learned how to put my creativity out there, what worked and didn’t work. This year when I entered again, learning that my dish won, the feeling is indescribable. This is a tremendous opportunity for me to get my name out there in this industry. 7-Eleven Hawaii is a household name statewide and I have family all over Hawaii and am so proud to have my relatives and friends hear about this. I am the first in my family to go to college.


Here are updates on previous winners and where they are now.


Name: Primo Mateo Dish: Chicken Pastele Stew with Gandule Rice Bento Launch: February 2019

Mateo graduated from Kapiolani Community College in spring of 2018 and now works at La Tour Café.

2019 Name: Kainoa Reloza Dish: Shrimp and Vegetable Sinigang Noodle Soup Launch: February 2020

Reloza graduated from Kapiolani Community College with an associate’s in pastry and culinary in 2019. He is currently the pastry chef at Miro Kaimuki.


Name: Eri Abe Dish: Ulu Beef Stew Bento Launch: August 2021

Abe graduated from Kapiolani Community College in winter of 2020 and is now the product development supervisor at Warabeya USA, 7-Eleven Hawaii’s commissary partner, located in Waipahu, which helps develop and produce the company’s fresh food products.

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