Chef Mark Noguchi has been in Hawaii nearly his entire life, having grown up in Manoa, he lived for many years on the Big Island and now works (and plays) on Oahu. Noguchi (a.k.a. “Gooch”) attended the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at Kapi’olani Community College and then the Culinary Institute of America before taking his first job as a cook at Kona Village Resort on the Big Island. Later working at some of the leading restaurants in Hawaii, including Town and Chef Mavro, Noguchi has been a constant reminder that Hawaiian cooking is only as constrained as it allows itself to be.
In early 2011, Noguchi decided to strike out on his own, helping to open He’eia Pier General Store & Deli off the side of a highway on the north side of Oahu, wedged between pick-up trucks and fishing sloops. Noguchi’s culinary philosophy—to use only fresh, local vegetables, fish, and meat—is shared by his cooks at He’eia, many of whom grew up fishing at the same pier.
In July 2012, Noguchi again sought to change the Hawaiian stereotype, pulling up stakes from He’eia to form his own catering company, Pili Hawaii. His goal is to get away from the tradition of poorly executed catering on the islands and instead provide “thoughtful food” to events and to treat each catering gig as a singular one. But he’s also supporting other chefs; Noguchi—who received the 2012 StarChefs.com Hawaii Rising Star Community Chef Award—has partnered with local lunch trucks and Taste Table to showcase myriad on-island talent.
Interview with 2012 Hawaii Rising Star Chef Mark Noguchi
Nicholas Rummell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Mark Noguchi: My time as a hula dancer, I got to eat and experience lots of foods. In the 7th year, as much as I loved to dance, I realized there was something missing. I came back from a tour and saw one of my best friends at a community college, and he asked me: “have you ever thought about being a chef? You know, KCC has a culinary program.” And I said, “A cooking school?” No way.
NR: So you weren’t interested in cooking?
MN: Not at first. I had always cooked for parties. It was my love, and never thought anything of it. I had done a short stint at some place but got fired; I couldn’t even make meatballs. But my friend told me to talk to the councilor at [Kapiolani Community College], and after talking with her I decided “why not?” Now when I see my hula mentors, I say it was one of the hardest things to give up what I thought was my path in life. So I got an application to KCC and said to myself that at the very least I’ll end up a better cook. I loved it. I found all the little quirks in my personality fit into this industry.
NR: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
MN: I have the belief that going to school, nobody can take education away from you. Culinary schools, however, need to be more realistic in what they tell students. Truth is that you go to culinary school and get a skill set, when you come out you are still going to start out at the bottom. I’ve worked with amazing chefs that never went to school. It is good to spend those early years, to make mistakes and grow. At the very least it’s an expensive networking location. Now I have peers all over the world.
NR: What goes into creating a dish?
MN: It is very much product-based. I was talking to one of my good friends and he was asking me about plating. And he asked me about esoteric products, which I appreciate, but they don’t drive me. I don’t go out looking for the newest ingredients. I always keep the rules “four ingredients or less” and “hot, salty, sour, sweet” in my mind. I always try to keep it as simple as possible. Most of my dishes will have some kind of texture or crunch, which is why I love fried foods.
NR: How do you define Hawaiian cuisine?
MN: A few years ago a lot of people here didn’t understand pa’i’ai but they understood poi. There is such a strong frame of reference from an ethnic point of view on the islands. Hawaiian cuisine is a melting pot, but it is very much ethnocentrically defined. To a visiting eater, they may not see it. When Pacific Rim cuisine first came out, it was all about the flavors, but it was all just what we grew up with. Take away all the classical technique and it’s still rooted very much in that rustic frame of reference.
NR: What culinary trends do you see in the market now?
MN: We still cook with Pacific Rim flavors. There is still a much stronger push to purchase what you can from where you are. Sustainability is a given out here. You don’t see it on menus. The time of the FedEx chef is over in Hawaii. Roy [Yamaguchi] and Alan [Wong] came together because they didn’t want to spend so much for frozen Dover sole while we had such great local fish right here. There’s a better recognition of what we have as a state. Now my generation can cook what they want to cook. They educated diners here and visiting diners so we could cook from our heart, instead of catering to the tourist niche.
NR: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
MN: If you look at it from sheer land mass, it’s hard to get outer-island guys together. You have fewer restaurants spread out over a large area. Oahu being the “city island,” the media is very Oahu-centric. It’s hard to get outer-island chefs to do Oahu events because of staffing or the money it takes to fly. But our generation is a lot tighter, and a lot less cliquey. We seem to be a lot more collaborative. We still have egos, but there is a greater understanding that to move forward we have to move together.
NR: TasteTable is a good example of that collaboration. How did that come to be?
MN: It’s such a new concept in Hawaii. We’re so new that the attorney general wants to check us out to make sure we’re in concordance with health code and permits. Our goal until next fall is to make enough impact so that culinary schools decide so that they want to help us. So we can rebuild with a certain space. The idea of Taste is that if it can be branded and replicated into another outlet; maybe not on Oahu, but maybe we can move to the West Coast. I do know in my research that with test kitchens it’s hard to fill slots and pop-up times when it is an empty space. With us at Taste, I am the resident chef, so me still being there, that’s what generates buzz. If we do something that works, who’s to say we can’t do it elsewhere?