Cooking with Intent | Page 5 | Go Hawaii

Cooking with Intent


Mark Noguchi

Pili Group Executive Chef
Having recited a chant, asking permission to gather leaves to hand craft a lei that he will offer as a gift, Mark Noguchi stands at the threshold of Hālau O Kekuhi, the hula hālau
(school) he used to belong to. He hasn’t set foot inside once since he left. He thinks back on all he’s been through in the intervening years.

He went to culinary school and then the East Coast to perfect his cooking, and returned to Oʻahu to become one of the most celebrated local chefs. But something was missing. He found himself drawn not to running restaurants, but to the way food makes connections. To heritage. To certain places, cultures and times. To other people. And he deeply yearned to be of service.

Now he runs a catering group and works with teachers to develop food- and culture-based curriculums. As he visits farms and fishponds across Oʻahu, he’s not just seeking ingredients for a meal. He’s building bridges of understanding to help communities become stronger and more resilient.

His old friend opens the door and welcomes him back to the hālau. Mark realizes with a smile that he didn’t leave hula behind. He carries it with him always as a professional, in the kitchen, in the classroom, following his calling to educate and inspire.

What’s the ideal patron, for you?

The ideal patron to me is one that will trust us. Make themselves vulnerable to have a dialogue that will allow us to take them somewhere. Which is why it's really important that our staff understand where our ingredients come from. As chefs we can be real selfish, because you can get on a phone and be like, “Hey, yeah, this is Mark with the Pili Group. Can I get five pounds of carrots? I need the best green beans that you can, blah blah blah. And I need it for tomorrow, k? Thanks, bye.” Without any inkling or understanding of where it came from.

But then you come to this farm on the west side of Oʻahu, MA‘O Organic Farms, the largest organic farm in Hawaiʻi at just shy of 50 acres. They take the Waiʻanae youth, in one of the most impoverished areas in Hawaiʻi, and they cultivate them into leaders by providing them with a tuition stipend for college as well as a lot of good guidance from a lot of good mentors. Our staff are required to go out there to meet and to get to know the MA‘O crew.

And they learn that MA‘O doesn’t just grow food. They grow leaders. You have these young motivated kānaka (Hawaiians) changing the world, because people visit from all over the world to this farm and are blown away by what they're trying to accomplish. And you see how hard these kids are working. They've been working since before the freaking sun came up. And then you begin to realize how much work it takes to make food. It inspires us to be better people when we leave.

"I think you can taste intent, the way that you put in good energy."

How does that impact your food?

I think you can taste intent, the way that you put in good energy. Our co-producers have the best intent in the food that they're producing, in the ingredients that they're producing. So when it comes to us, it is our kuleana to also treat it with the greatest respect possible. We see and we've felt how much energy it takes. When you go to restaurants where they cook with intent, the space has that feel. Guests can see. They can read about where they want to go before they eat it. They can see what the food looks like. And people appreciate a story of understanding, how we understand where food comes from. This is Hawaiʻi. This is what we're about.

Fortunately there is this resurgence of cultural awareness, and so places like the fishpond, Paepae o Heʻeia, are being restored by the people from Hawaiʻi. The Hawaiians built that pond, almost 800 years ago, that far back. There are fishponds all over Hawaiʻi and as we moved into modern times the methods and cultural practices of how we source became diluted and started to disappear.

In the past 10 years this grassroots effort has restored the fishpond, stone by stone. And chefs have noticed, and other community leaders have noticed, and the Hawaiʻi community as a whole has noticed. People are proud that they're from Kāneʻohe and they've seen the fishpond come back, they look at it now and it's clean and it's open. The wall’s fixed.

Or out in Waiʻanae, the community is proud of MA‘O. You know the majority of the community may not eat MA‘O veggies every day. They are still proud of it, right? It strengthens the community by being successful. But it’s also a very tangible example of the possibility of “what if?”

We're an island. So if we can be successful sustainably, if we can prove that it’s possible here, imagine what's possible out there over the ocean, on a continent that has so many more resources than we do. We can do it here. We can make do with what we get. So why can't you?

Is there such a thing as traveling with intent?

You’ve gotta go with intent. What are you gonna leave behind? And, I'm not talking about your Snickers wrapper. What are you gonna leave behind as a mahalo (thank you)? What are you gonna leave behind as an acknowledgement that you came, you left ... you know, you gave something of yourself? Because I guarantee you, when you come to Hawaiʻi, you're gonna leave a better person. That's how we are. But, you cannot just come and take.

I have met a lot of visitors, that's just my industry, that leave saying, "Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Even just leaving, going, "thank you," that's huge. If everybody thanked each other all at one time, oh, the world would explode!

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