There’s no doubt our readers love their four-legged family members, and this year more than 200 photos were sent in for our Second Annual Pet Photo Contest with Wallis Annenberg PetSpace!
The photos of dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits and even a gold fish that filled our inbox brought us smiles, laughs and even a few “awws,” but what we really enjoyed was reading all the pet adoption stories and how much people care about their pets! Whether recently adopted during the pandemic or part of the family for years, many pet parents shared that adopting their companion animal was one of the best things that’s happened to them and their families. We also loved hearing about your pets’ unique and playful personalities, like Pepper who turns into a puppy again when he visits Westchester Park to look for gophers or Jasper who likes being naughty and finding household items, even toilet brushes!
Michael Kitano loves mixing flavors and cuisines, so it’s no surprise that when he decided to launch his new catering company, Hapa Meals, he would pull together what some might call unlikely pairings to create unique dishes with a twist. Asian inspired Chicken Parmesan? Hawaiian Meatloaf? Poke Nachos? Korean Style Tostadas? Yes, please!
Kitano’s love for cooking and inspiration to get creative with recipes began by watching the original Iron Chef on TV. Iron Chef showed him that there is room for experimenting in the kitchen. Looking for an outlet to express himself, he enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in Orange County. Even at Le Cordon Bleu, his yearning for creativity and innovation was met with some resistance.
“One Cordon Bleu instructor asked all of the students to state two foods that go together,” said Kitano. “Students said things like, ‘spaghetti and meatballs’ or ‘bacon and eggs.’ I said ‘chicken and waffles’ and even the instructor was shocked! They had never heard of putting chicken and waffles together!”
After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, he got a job working at Disneyland. He quickly discovered that this position didn’t allow any deviation from recipes and was definitely not the type of cooking he had hoped to be doing after culinary school. Everything in the kitchens was prepackaged, premeasured and carefully designed. Kitano knew that this was not the vision that he had as a chef and he left after two years. He bounced around from restaurant to restaurant for a while until he landed in a traditional French restaurant. This eatery utilized the French Brigade System or Brigade de cuisine, a system of hierarchy found in restaurants and hotels employing extensive staff. The concept was developed by Georges Auguste Escoffier in 1846 and is still used in many kitchens today. So, Kitano began as a dishwasher and worked hard to move up through the ranks and ended up being trained by a French saucier. His mentor spoke no English and Kitano spoke no French, but he learned the impeccable technique that is required to make the five French mother sauces: béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise and tomato. This classical sauce making technique would later earn Kitano many awards in competition cooking.
Kitano then moved to Pennsylvania because his family was opening a restaurant there and he knew he could help. When things didn’t work out as planned, he wanted to get back to his Southern California roots. Originally from Culver City, he was looking for some place close to home and ended up in Westchester. Unfortunately, after so many ups and downs in the restaurant world he felt like his “culinary flame died out.” He stopped cooking for a time and went to work for his father.
After a few years, he began volunteering to make meals at the Venice Free Methodist Church for their large events. He learned what it took to cook for big groups of people, and he was finally allowed the freedom to try out new recipes and experiment with his idea of fusion cuisine. He quickly discovered that people loved his food, and his culinary flame started to re-ignite.
Kitano took pleasure in cooking for friends and family, and his food was getting rave reviews, but then 2020 hit and so did COVID. With no gatherings to try out new recipes or competitions to enter, he used quarantine to learn everything he could about grilling. Through YouTube videos and lots of trial and error, he is now a self-taught pit master and expert on smoking meats. Char-Griller took notice and now he is sponsored by the company, which sends him their newest grills and smokers to try out. Sparked by his newfound skills, he launched Hapa Meals in February of this year. The catering company is based out of his home and customers can place orders online and pick up their meals curbside. The future of Hapa Meals includes brewery tours, as well as other pop-up events.
Over the years, Kitano has enjoyed entering competitions and as early as 2015, began winning blue ribbons for his cooking in numerous categories at events. In 2015, his bean dip took first place at the Orange County Fair, and he has won ribbons at the Orange County and Los Angeles County Fairs for dishes like deep fried Spam musubi and kimchi.
He added to his ribbon collection this year when he won first place, as well as the whole sauce division for his Korean-inspired BBQ sauce at the 2021 Orange County Fair. His culinary genius was on full display during the creation of this recipe. He was whipping up his regular sauce and added spicy Korean bean paste by accident instead of another ingredient. He tried it and discovered that it was a tasty mistake. He added other Korean ingredients and his blue-ribbon winning sauce was born. He enjoys entering competitions because he feels it is validation for him and his cooking.
“I feel like, if the judges like it, people will like it too,” said Kitano.
His French sauce training has come into play in another one of his passions: Italian food. His alfredo sauce won the 2018 Sauce Off at the Westchester YMCA. He even beat out a few local, well-known hometown food heroes. He is proud to mention that his sauce won by a landslide. Italian food is one of his favorite types of cuisine to pair with other flavors.
“Italian food can be fused with anything. It is a good foundation for all other types of cooking,” he explains.
This month, he will compete in the Westchester Elks Chili Cook-Off competition for the first time, and is hard at work crafting his recipe.
Kitano lives in the Osage area of Westchester with his wife and two daughters. The family enjoys entering family cook-offs, as well. His daughter is following in her dad’s footsteps and won second place at the 2018 L.A. County Fair in the Spam recipe contest.
In addition to cooking, Kitano is an avid runner and continues to volunteer at the Venice Free Methodist Church.
Kitano is a quiet and humble person, and when asked he says that he has no aspirations to appear on a cooking competition TV show, like the one that originally inspired him to want to be a chef.
“I don’t want to be in front of people,” said Kitano. “I prefer my food to speak for itself.”
Visit hapameals.com or view his Instagram @hapa_meals to view his current menu and future pop-up events.
The Westchester Blue Jets completed a rare three-peat capturing the Western States AYSO soccer championship for a third consecutive season.
The Western States Championship brings together the top AYSO soccer teams from California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington for a tournament to conclude the season. The Blue Jets first captured the Western States Championship in 2019 and maintained their championship throughout the pandemic-shortened 2020 and 2021 seasons.
The Blue Jets competed in the U-13 AYSO Extra boys division for the 2021 season. The team finished in first place in the spring regular season for Section 1, despite playing against older competition, and earned a return trip to the Extra Championship Match in May in Redlands, California. There the team defeated Menifee 3-2 in the match.
As the pandemic starts to appear in the rear-view mirror and vaccination numbers continue to rise, local businesses and organizations are beginning to plan and host events again.
While last year every major summer happening was canceled or went virtual, as we move toward the state’s June 15 reopening date, more activities and events keep getting announced. With many organizations still working on finalizing their calendars for the next few months, here’s a snapshot of some of the exciting events and activities that have been announced so far for this summer!
Baseball teams headed to American Field on Saturday, March 27 to participate in the Del Rey America Little League’s (DRALL) Hit-A-Thon and Home Run Derby to help raise money for the league.
More than 125 players, as well as a few coaches and managers, battled it out to see who could hit the ball the furthest in the younger divisions and who could hit the most home runs in the Majors division, to the delight of parents and teammates who were eager to participate in this tradition.
The Home Run Derby came down to a nail-biter finish as the top two hitters headed into extra rounds. In the end, the Yankee’s Julian Knudsen took home the title of Majors Home Run Derby Champion with a total of 20 home runs. The Reds’ Mason Kenny took home a close second place. Best of all, however, was that DRALL was able to raise approximately $30,000 during the event through donations and pledges to help with their operating and maintenance costs!
“It feels amazing to see the kids playing baseball once again! Our board of directors has put in countless hours on Zoom since last March trying to figure out how we could make this season happen; our number one goal has been to get the kids back on the field as safely as possible,” said Vickie Farmer, DRALL’s Fundraising Director. “Things look a lot different this year––masks are required for everyone, the bleachers have turned into spaced-out dugouts for the players and fans spread out along the fenceline––but the kids are playing ball, and that’s really what matters! I really hope this is a sign that we are getting back to a sense of normalcy! This past year has been challenging in so many ways, so it feels absolutely amazing to see these kids in action again. They deserve it!”
DRALL is open to boys and girls ages 5 to 12 who live in parts of Westchester and Playa del Rey. To learn more, visit drall.org.
1. Explore the native flowers and plants at Ballona Discovery Park
April is a great month to check out Playa Vista’s Ballona Discovery Park and the plethora of flowers in bloom. Walking around the two-acre habitat and admiring its pollinator, medicinal and native gardens, it’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of a bustling community. In addition to connecting to nature while you stroll through the park, which is part of the Ballona Wetlands ecosystem, make sure to take the time to read all the interpretive signs to learn about the history of the area, while listening to birds chirp and being on the lookout for local wildlife. Ballona Discovery Park is located at 13110 Bluff Creek Drive in Playa Vista.
If you’ve ever wanted to run for the Neighborhood Council of Westchester/Playa (NCWP) and make your voice heard when it comes to issues that impact Westchester, Playa del Rey and Playa Vista, now is your chance! Elections happen every two years, and the candidate filing period is now open through March 23.
The 15 positions up for election this go-round include the following seats: Education, Community Organization, Service, Youth, seven based on residence, two based on business location and two At-Large.
Read below to hear from three passionate volunteers who currently serve on the NCWP to learn about their experiences being neighborhood representatives and visit ncwpdr.org/run2021 for more details on how to apply.
Important NCWP election dates:
March 23: Last day to file to run April 9-June 1: Stakeholder vote-by-mail request period June 8: Election Day
Imagine please, stepping back in time, 80 years to the early 1940s during WWII. And imagine, then, just 20 years after women had received the national right to vote, business woman Ella Drollinger went out for a drive to explore a budding new neighborhood close to Mines Field, a dirt landing strip surrounded by bean fields that Frank H. Ayres told her would someday become one of the world’s largest airports. At a time when being a real estate developer was not a usual vocation for a woman, pioneering Ella Drollinger took a chance, purchased the land, and in 1944 funded construction of the first three commercial buildings in Westchester.
Ella was born in 1891, the only daughter of Robert and Alice Lewin, who immigrated to the United States from the Isle of Man in England. Robert arrived in 1856 with just a third-grade education and a deep admiration for statesman Abraham Lincoln, who would soon become president. He eventually found his way to the Land of Lincoln, Illinois, where he worked as a farmhand and eventually saved enough money to purchase his own farm.
Everyone’s business could use a little help these days, so every month we’re featuring a different small business to help promote shopping locally and to support community members. Westchester mom Julie Michals never thought about being an entrepreneur and owning her own business, but after looking for her next career move, she decided to take the leap to become her own boss. Since October, Michals has operated Card My Yard West L.A. and is bringing smiles to people across the community by staking their front lawns with colorful signs to help celebrate all of life’s happy moments from birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and everything in between.
Get the scoop on this month’s business spotlight by reading below!
Anyone who knows Carol Kitabayashi and her work with Westside Pacific Villages (WPV) will not find it surprising that she has been named the 2021 Citizen of the Year by the Westchester Rotary Club. The club selects an annual honoree to celebrate at their spring event for their outstanding work in the community.
As WPV’s Executive Director for the last nine years, Kitabayashi has made it her mission to support seniors who wish to “age in place,” allowing them to remain active and independent at home. Prior to WPV, Kitabayashi worked in human resources, but always felt she would end up in the nonprofit world. Through her work with the Meals on Wheels program, she happened to meet someone who was on the board of WPV. Already interested in issues impacting seniors and with experience taking care of her parents and older relatives, she thought the organization was a great fit. A few months later, she was hired to lead the nonprofit.