Red Salt’s formidable female chef adds her own culinary touch on the Kaua‘i restaurant’s new menu.

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Classic offerings from the original menu (burger photo courtesy Red Salt; dessert photo by Daniel Lane, ponophoto.com).

Noelani Planas helms the kitchen at Ko‘a Kea hotel & resort. You wouldn’t know it by her quiet demeanor, youthful face and 5-foot, 3-inch frame, but she’s a formidable veteran in the restaurant industry. Despite her experience, this is the first time she’s been an executive chef.

She began by redesigning the breakfast and lunch menus at Red Salt, the resort’s signature restaurant, and this February, she rolled out a new dinner menu. Creating a menu with nearly 30 new items allowed her talents to shine, especially since she’s a female chef with no formal training working in male-dominated kitchens.

The boys tested Planas when she joined Red Salt last May. As newly graduated chefs bristling with bravado, they’d brag about their schooling and joke that Planas didn’t attend culinary college. One pedigreed chef curdled a sauce and the kitchen was out of cream. when he asked Planas for advice she said, “I don’t know, what did they teach you in culinary school?” she offered to make the sauce for him, but he declined.

“Although women have become more prominent in the culinary world, being a female chef has many challenges,” says Planas. “I never went to culinary school, which made my journey in the kitchen a little more difficult. My training came from chefs who had the patience and time to show me sophisticated techniques and how to develop flavor profiles.”

Sophisticated techniques and complex flavor profiles are evident in her smoke-infused charred octopus appetizer. Braising whole octopus with red wine and vegetables achieves a crunchy exterior and succulent interior. Once it’s cool, she removes the head and lets the rest soak in a marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, red wine vinegar, rosemary, thyme and chili flakes. The tentacles are charred and sliced, then placed over a salad of baby arugula, fingerling potatoes, artichokes and plump oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, all tossed in sherry vinaigrette. Flaky sea salt and micro lemon balm are sprinkled on top, along with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

“Noelani is one of the most promising chefs on Kaua‘i,” says Jean Marie Josselin, a pioneer of Hawai‘i regional cuisine and owner of Jo2 in kapa‘a. “She learned to be fearless in a business that, unfortunately, is still not that friendly to women.”

Thirty-two years ago, Planas began her culinary career at age 15, after learning she was too soft spoken to become a police officer. Instead, she took a job washing dishes at a Pacific Cafe, Josselin’s first and now closed restaurant. In-between work and classes at Kapa‘a high school, she took culinary workshops for low-income kids and won first place in regional competitions.

After high school, Planas worked a series of jobs in Las Vegas beginning with opening Josselin’s restaurant 808 at Caesars Palace. Afterwards, she trained under award-winning chef Michael Mina and celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. As a sous chef for michelin-starred Joel Robuchon, she was the only female in a kitchen crew of 13. In 2014, Planas returned home and took a position as chef de cuisine at Kauai grill, a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant.

“Once i worked with a cook who had epilepsy and it took him 20 times to make one dish,” she recalls. “Everyone made fun and yelled at him and every day he came to work sad. I worked by his side and eventually, he became a great cook.”

Of 30 Red Salt menu items, only two signature dishes remain: Madagascar Vanilla Bean Mahi with ginger, kaffir lime and coconut black rice; and the lavish Red Salt burger, with snake river wagyu sirloin, oven-baked applewood smoked bacon,butter-poached lobster and seared foie gras.

The rest of the dishes are new, including the ahi tartare appetizer. Planas whips heavy cream into soft peaks and folds it with smashed avocado and fresh tarragon. The avocado mousse is topped with small cubes of fresh ‘ahi, shallots and chives. A pungent soy-ginger emulsion enhances the mild ‘ahi and avocado and chili oil adds a bit of heat.

As a prep cook at a Pacific Cafe, Planas watched Josselin use classic french techniques to pair local ingredients with complicated sauces, and learned to step up, whisk to whisk, to his tough training.

After spending a day in the office, Josselin would enter the kitchen minutes before service. He’d fire orders and do a line check. Despite a perfect sauce, he’d throw away what Planas made and tell her to start over. She calmly looked at the tickets to see what was needed and quickly made a small batch followed by a large batch.

“He’d look at me with a smirk and I could tell he was thinking ‘I’m testing you and I want to see how you’re going to handle it,'” recalls Planas with a delicate laugh. “Then he’d try my sauce and say, ‘not bad for a girl.'”

Kona Lobster Gnocchi is a rich and earthy dish that includes an aromatic butter sauce flecked with black truffles. Petit lobster tails, house-made potato gnocchi and chunks of juicy crimini mushrooms are sauteed until just done, then tossed with charred leeks.

Braised Short Ribs are further evidence of Planas’ talent. The ribs are coated in salt, pepper and flour and seared until caramelized. In the same pan, she sautes rosemary, celery, onion and carrots along with smashed garlic and ginger, then deglazes with red wine, hoisin and oyster sauces. She simmers everything in the oven until the meat is tender and the liquid reduces to a thick sauce. Four-ounce portions are served on a bed of roasted beets, carrots and wild mushrooms with silky yukon gold mashed potatoes.

On clear days, Planas rides a 400-pound honda motorcycle to work. She revs the 118-horsepower engine and leads the bike through the tree tunnel, Kaua‘i’s iconic entrance to Koloa and Po‘ipu. The canopy of eucalyptus trees throws dappled sunlight as wind blows through her helmet, puffs her leather jacket and fills her riding gloves, exposing a lattice of black tribal tattoos. Underneath leather pants, tattoos trace the curves of her hips. a tribal pattern stretches across her upper back and a nautical star is tattooed beneath her belly button. Leyla, the windswept woman whose face is painted on the lower half of the cycle, looks as exotic as Planas.

“I took me three years to try and rebuild that bike,” says Planas, who eventually set aside books and youtube videos to have a shop finish it. “I was busy working and I’d never done it before, but I like a challenge.”