Stories from The Sage:
Tales from California’s Eastern Edge
Rena: My name is Rena McCullough, and I’m from June Lake, California.
Giles: Rena McCullough is the chef and owner at Ohanas 395, a Hawaiian Soul Food Truck that lives in June Lake. McCullough has cooked all over California and Hawaii. A native of California, McCullough grew up working in the family salsa business, and says she learned her love of alternative ingredients and creative combinations from her father. She was taken with Hawaiian Soul food while living in Hawaii with her husband, who was born and raised there. A 20-year resident of June Lake, MCCullough raised two daughters and several adopted and foster kids in June, coaching at Lee Vining High and cooking and baking for several East Side establishments before starting her own business almost four years ago.
Giles: So can you tell me a little bit more about the food that you make here?
Rena: So, when we did talk about starting a food truck, and just dreaming big and going for it without reservation because sometimes you have to be that crazy, the one thing I knew for sure, was that it was going to be Hawaiian food at base. And that to me was soul food. It’s all cooked with love, it’s cooked by the aunties, it’s got vegetables, and meat, and grains, everything you need.
They love a little bit of sweet, little bit of spice, little bit of salty, and I knew that wasn’t being done in any way, shape or form but the Hawaiian food too is very much who I am. Because it means slow food. Hawaiian food is slow food. I can’t rush it, I can’t mass produce it, which makes everyone crazy because we do sell out, we have limited hours and we still sell out.
That’s because it’s cooked slow, it’s cooked with love, and thoughtfulness, and kindness. I want every plate of Ohanas food to feel like a hug.
And I can’t do that if I’m rushing, or I’m buying a pre-made product, or I’m just doing what everybody else is doing. I need to do my own thing, we have to tell our own story. And so that’s what we’re doing.
Giles: Starting a food truck business in the Eastern Sierra was by no means easy–McCullough said she started out selling about 70 plates of food a week. The Sheet caught up with her at Ohanas on Saturday, July 15. It was a record sales day for her– she and her family of employees served up 520 plates of food.
Rena: We had so many years of drought and June Mountain closed early. And June Mountain closed early. And people lost jobs. People were losing their homes. Property values were going down. Businesses were hanging on by the hair of their chinny chin chin. There was not much to go on. And, the Brewery showed up. And if you could point to one thing, June Lake Brewing was the tipping point for this town.
It was sad. It was not in a good place. People were leaving. There was no work, it was dark. And they came, and that kind of brightened things up a little bit. They invested money in town, they hired locals, they paid them a living wage. June Lake is in such a good place right now, and you haven’t been able to say that in at least twenty or thirty years.
It’s in such a good place. Every business is thriving.
Giles: McCullough calls her food “fusion confusion.” She takes pride in using the whole animal, in adding a flare to classic dishes people are familiar with. It’s not uncommon to see snails and alligator on the menu, along with classics like the kalua pork burrito and plate lunch.
Rena: The other thing I knew besides exactly what I would serve was that I knew the name. I knew the name the minute I wanted to have a restaurant, I knew it would be Ohanas. Because family is everything to me, and family is the essence of the Hawaiian culture. It’s my youngest daughter on the grill, my cousin at the window, sometimes on the grill, my nephew running food, my husband running food, one of my adopted daughters at the window. I have a goddaughter coming to live and work with me, and I’ve had other various nephews, nieces, an older daughter, adopted daughter work for me in the past, so it’s just… family.
There’s a Chinese proverb that I adhere to every single day, say inside my head a hundred times a day, and the Chinese proverb says that, you eat the energy of the last person who touched your food. We all have to have love in our hearts for the food and for the people. And if you’re going to eat the energy of the last person who touched your food? You’re going to eat love. From Ohanas. That’s it.
Giles: This story from the sage featured Abagael Giles chatting with Rena McCullough at Ohanas in June Lake, California. For more stories about people and place in the Eastern Sierra, visit www.thesheetnews.com