For born storyteller and world champion spear fisherwoman Kimi Werner, cooking is all about telling stories with food. Kimi left cooking in restaurants where the food came frozen, imported, and mass-produced. She found the stories too redundant — they all started with “once upon a time, in a land far, far away.” After an amazing journey of self discovery, world travel, art, and adventure, she decided to set deeper roots in her home of Hawaii. Together with her pro videographer and editor husband Justin and their baby Buddy, Kimi started a backyard cooking show where the stories all begin with “just this morning, in the ocean by our home.” She sat down with Dalstrong to tell us about her journeys with food.
Can you tell us about your background? Why spearfishing, and what makes it special for you?
When I was about four or five years old my dad would go spearfishing just to put food on the table. We didn’t have a lot of money, so that was how he would feed us. My mom was often working, so he would take me along as his tag-along. I was way too young to hold a spear, so my only job was to keep up with him. I would just tell him what I wanted for dinner and he would just dive down and get it.
Usually, when people hear that story they think I have been spearfishing my whole life, but the truth is that phase of my life only lasted a few years. By the time I was seven they had saved enough money for my mom to go to college for the first time at 41 years old. She went to Maui community college, got a nursing degree, graduated top of her class and became an ER nurse. My dad finally had the money to start his own construction company and it just took off, so we had the money to change our whole lifestyle. We moved from a tiny little shack in the boonies to a nice house in the suburbs and started getting food at restaurants and grocery stores.
Something about that form of progress always felt like a bit of a loss to me. Whenever I thought about my childhood I remembered how fun it was, how connected I was to my food. Watching my dad catch it, helping my mom clean and cook it. These memories kind of haunted me for a long time and I really missed them.
And how did you come back to it?
I went to college for the culinary arts, and when I graduated I started to realize that something was missing from my life. I was working in a restaurant cooking the same things every night and not enjoying it. None of it spoke to me, and I was still dreaming of those childhood days of diving for our own food but I had never tried it myself. I kept dismissing those feelings as nostalgia, and I even looked up the definition of nostalgia, and it said “longing for something that no longer exists.” I thought maybe that was true, maybe that lifestyle no longer exists. Living so close to nature and your family and letting it feed you felt like a lifestyle that no longer existed but that I was very lucky to have experienced.
By age 24 I was really starting to feel down. Something was missing. I realized that it wasn’t just going to come to me, I had to make it happen. I was living on the island of O’ahu, my dad was on Maui. One day, I saw some people grilling these little fry fish. When I saw them hit the grill, I remembered those fish. They spoke to me. I realized the food I was cooking every night was frozen, imported from far away, and it had no story. I didn’t know the story of that food. But I knew the story of these little fish on the grill.
I asked those men if they would take me spearfishing with them, but nobody ever called me back because my resume was basically “I used to dive when I was five years old.” I was too much of a liability. So finally I went out and bought myself a very simple, primitive three-prong spear. It had no trigger mechanism, just a rubber band that you pull to launch the spear. I only had boogie board fins, no wetsuit, no real experience.
I drove from Honolulu out to the beach and I remember being very self-conscious. There were a lot of people there and I thought they would all look at me and realize I had no business being there. I remember trying to hide my spear and hide myself as I walked down to the water. I was hoping the nerves would go away in the water, but I was actually very scared. I couldn’t see behind me, and more than ever I felt I had no idea what I was doing. I made myself just keep swimming for a while, and right when I was about to turn around I remember a little wind swell came up and made these little bubbles.
My whole body just went calm, and I remembered being a little kid when my only job was to keep up with my dad. Sometimes I would get distracted: I would see something really pretty like a beautiful turtle, and I would stop looking at my dad and follow the turtle for a while. All of a sudden I would realize I didn’t know where dad was. I felt so small and scared in that big ocean, but I would look hard for the little bubbles of his fins and know dad was right there. Those little bubbles calmed me right down, and I kept swimming until I found a little reef. I went down to the ocean floor and hid in the shadows, and just remembered how dad used to do it. Through lots of trial and error, swimming up and down again and again, that day I caught five fish.
I can’t even explain the glory and the victory I felt in that. It was one of the best feelings, just knowing that I had secured this food. The woman who came out of the ocean was a completely different one than the woman who entered the ocean. I didn’t try to hide myself anymore. I held my head high. I felt like a lioness who had secured her prey.
I took those fish home and cleaned them the way my mom and grandma had taught me and cooked them so simply. That felt like the best meal of my culinary career.
How did you become the National Spearfishing Champion?
Once I decided to step into diving, it was like falling in love. Everything in my life got better the more that I embraced this passion. I still worked a job I didn’t really care for, but when you’re in love you walk on clouds. Every time I closed my eyes there were fish behind my eyelids. I got some great mentors and learned so much, and soon I got interested in competing, and I qualified for the National Championships.
That was my first time swimming outside of Hawaii. The championships were in Rhode Island. I only got there about four days before the tournament, and I realized it was nothing like diving in Hawaii. I was used to much cleaner, clearer, warmer water where I could see the ocean floor and all the fish and plan my drops. At Rhode Island it was colder and darker. It was like learning all over again.
Four days later I became the National Champion. I won every category that I was eligible for and was named rookie of the year. That really put me on the map. That first win was amazing, but competition didn’t really call to me as much so I moved away from competition and more towards the things that really mattered to me, community, family, food, sustainability.
Tell us a bit about your journey becoming a YouTube personality.
When I left the competitive circuit, I started carving out a new path in life. Conservationists didn’t know what to think of me — I was a girl with a spear who killed fish — and hunters and competitors didn’t know what to think of me because I just wanted to talk about sustainability and how we could save the ocean. I knew it was all about balance and symbiosis and I was determined to keep following my instincts and sharing my values.
I thought I was going to lose sponsorships and risk my career under the water, but the more I stuck to those values the more companies came forward to support me. I got to do so much with diving that was beyond my wildest dreams. It was all work that was so true to the core of who I was, and working with companies like Patagonia and National Geographic I also got to travel the world. I went swimming with killer whales and narwhals and creatures that people don’t even really know exist like these little sea angels. I got to know so many cultures and foods and traditions. It was amazing.
Before I knew it, I was in hot demand and traveling more than I was ever home. After about eight years of that fast pace, I was once again feeling like it was time for change. I loved what I did and I was passionate about it, but my inner voice started to crave something else. I wanted to go back to the basics of catching those little fish and eating them the same day. I wanted roots.
Then I found out I was pregnant. That was scary and exciting for me. I had never been sure that was in the cards for me. My life was so on-the-go, I was 39 years old and my partner was as on-the-go as I was. We were always ships in the night, ready to answer calls and travel at a moment’s notice. When I found out I was pregnant I was sure I would lose my sponsorships. After all, they had signed me as a jet-setting adventurer, not as a mom.
I was speaking to my husband (we got married right away when we learned I was pregnant) and he said “sure, everyone knows you as a free-diving, spearfishing, world-traveling sustainability girl, and that’s all you, but what you have another passion in your life, and that’s cooking. You haven’t shared that passion yet with the world, but you do it every day three times a day and it’s been lifelong.” He was right, I have always loved cooking. I was president of the Food Services Club in high school, got my degree in culinary arts, and even though I walked away from the restaurant industry I never walked away from cooking. That’s when we decided we were going to make a cooking YouTube channel.
We decided to keep it really authentic and show the real catches, even if they are humble, because these ingredients are gold. We’re going to show our life as new parents to our baby boy Buddy. We prepared a bank of videos so we would have a few to release with the launch of our channel, and we were planning to launch in April of 2020.
We had no idea what was about to happen in 2020. All of a sudden, people couldn’t travel. Things were scary and chaotic, people couldn’t go to restaurants, they didn’t have access to the things they had before, and everyone was cooking at home with their families. The timing was actually perfect, and it was so rewarding to be able to help people cook simple meals at home. It was about those genuine moments at home. We kept in all the moments of being new parents too — having Buddy cry or roll down a hill or smack a spoonful of ingredients so things went flying. Those real life moments generated a lot of comments from other parents who appreciated the humor and the struggle of managing a growing baby.
What are your cooking highs and lows? (Favorite vs something worth the work)
I would say the low moments of cooking for me were when I was working in the restaurant industry cooking meals that didn’t speak to me. The frozen, imported ingredients whose story I didn’t know and couldn’t tell. What I love about cooking is the creativity and the colors and being able to really tell a story with food and when that isn’t there it’s just work.
For the most part, cooking for me is a real high. The greatest high point has been this YouTube channel because I am not compromising my dream or my cooking style at all, and I get to share it with people and serve my audience. I got to bring a gift I was sharing with friends and family to a whole global audience, and that is definitely a high point for me. And right behind that is getting sponsored by Dalstrong. That is something that is seriously so exciting and feels so amazing to me. It makes me giddy to think of it, and it makes me more inspired to cook.
What is Buddy’s favorite food?
Buddy loves raw fish. He is not a picky eater which makes me so happy, because he genuinely loves my cooking. I went beaver trapping in Montana recently so he has a beaver lau-lau for his lunch today and he loves that, but his favorite food for sure is just raw fish with shoyu sauce. He is the most passionate eater, right next to his father. They are such enthusiastic appreciators of food. I remember when Justin and I were first dating, he was so expressive about how much he loved my cooking, and I thought surely that enthusiasm would wane, but 10 years later he is still so verbal about how much he enjoys it and Buddy is the same way. I just love watching his chubby little hands pick up food and he will make “num num” noises and just really share his love of food with us, it feels so amazing. I love it.
Is there a spice or a dish that you secretly hate?
I’m not a picky eater at all, but I think I might be a particular eater. If I am eating eggs benedict at a restaurant for example I will always ask for a side of lemon because I think it just needs a little extra zing on it. Nobody makes hollandaise as good as my mom, so I always want to doctor it up.
If you could cook for anyone, past or present, who would it be?
Probably my grandparents who have all passed away. My grandma on my mom’s side was a great cook and taught me so much, and I definitely cooked with her, but when she got cancer it took her really quickly. In her final days, she really had no appetite, and I wish I could cook her something that would just bring her tastebuds to life again.
I would also really like to cook for Anthony Bourdain. From when I first saw him on TV I feel he really inspired me in so many ways. I had never seen TV like this before. He was so authentically himself, even when it broke the “rules” of TV. What I love about him is he didn’t try to sell me perfect, and I appreciated that. He showed up as who he was, and there were good days and bad days. He would call it out if they had a fake scene: “They want me to dive for this, but there is already a dead octopus that they have wedged in the rocks!” He let everyone be who they are, and he was always himself.
Who are your cooking heroes?
My mom and her mom are definitely cooking heroes. Them and Anthony Bourdain.
When you’re looking at partnerships, what do you look for?
Dalstrong Valhalla Series Kitchen Knives
I have to share your values, and you have to share mine. With any relationship, you want it to succeed so you want both partners to benefit and flourish. I like to know that we’re a good fit and that we respect each other’s values. I love the story, too, so I like to know why the company started and what pushed you to start doing what you do. I love that Dalstrong saw a need and took the risk to make these products.
I’m not really a “stuff” person, so for me, I really only keep products that I use in my everyday life and that enhance my life. My Dalstrong knives enhance my life and I use them every day. I also think the longevity of these products is really important to me. The single most sustainable thing a product maker can do is make things that last a long time. We live in a throw-away world, and it’s so important to make things that last not just for my lifetime but that I can maybe pass down to Buddy one day.
I seek out products that I will use every day, that will last a long time, and also that will bring joy. I love knowing that Dalstrong knives are made with passion and care. They are not just some cookie-cutter generic thing, these are made with creativity and purpose.
What is the one kitchen tool you can’t live without?
My knives, for sure. I definitely think these will be passed down to Buddy one day, and what I really love about them is how they have changed me. I was never someone who went too far with knife care, but now I think “how can I be better to this knife?” I instantly wash them and wipe them down and put them back in their sheath or on the magnetic stand. It teaches me that I really care about them, and that’s so rewarding to me. I’m suddenly attached to a product. I want to care for it and protect it. Taking care of things activates a part of your brain that gives life more meaning, and it feels really nice to care for something and think of how some day it will be an heirloom I pass on to Buddy.
What would your last meal be?
It would have to be a big beautiful spread because there are so many things I love, but it would definitely have to include some of those beautiful little fish from my childhood. I would like them just scored and salted with good salt, hand-harvested from Hawaii and lightly fried. That, and my mom’s eggs benedict. Nobody makes it as good as hers, her hollandaise is so bright and flavorful and brings the taste to life.
What’s next for you?
We have some episodes coming up with Meat Eater, they are giving us a channel on their YouTube account which is amazing because we’re getting real support for this dream of ours.
Now that the world is opening up again, travel has been calling me, so next we need to find out how to do this as a family. I don’t want to be a ship passing in the night with my husband and I don’t want to leave Buddy behind, so I want to figure out how to travel a bit as a family. We’re definitely looking forward to more adventures together.
Love adventures, sea creatures, and home cooked meals? Follow Kimi and her family as she tells more stories with fresh-caught food through her website kimiwerner.com, on YouTube or on Instagram @kimi_swimmy. Love the knives she has? Check out the Valhalla and Frost Fire series.
Written by Abby PollenAbby spends her free time exploring her home turf of British Columbia’s west coast and snacking on all the wild edibles there from blackberries to maple tree blossoms. She’s a certified word nerd with a French degree, a passion for scrabble, and a repertoire of terrible puns. Some day Abby hopes to have a proper farm, but for now she’s making do with a back yard garden.