Cover Story continued

Mark Noguchi stands in front of the “idea wall,” where potential customers have brainstormed.
Image: WANDA A. ADAMS

Come to Table

Noguchi, Pig and friends launch new endeavor

Forget farm-to-table, organic, even popup.

They’re old news, established already, here to stay.

The new buzz word in the food world (and the business world in general) is “hub”–as in an accretion of like-mind people and businesses supporting each other, trading ideas, brainstorming, sharing space, creating synergies, teaching and learning together.

One such hub is Taste, at 667 Auahi, in the former Aikane Café space, where several of the hottest names on the Oahu food scene, and a gaggle of their friends, are joining forces.

The players include Chef Mark Noguchi (formerly of He’eia Kea Pier Deli & General Store) and his catering business, Pili Hawaii; Poni Askew of Eat the Street; the Le family of Pig and the Lady; assorted friends from across the back parking lot at The Whole Ox; and various supporting cast from the Prima/V Lounge family of eateries.

And they are setting out to create . . Wait! Let’s guess, shall we?

A pop-up?

A takeout joint?

A sit-down restaurant?

A meeting space?

A cooking school?

A catering facility?

A place to hang out?

Maybe even a studio for a TV food show?

And the answer is, of course, all of the above, which is pretty much what the word hub, as in nexus, as in headquarters, as in center, implies.

They call it Taste. As of Monday, they were planning a soft opening so pillowy Noguchi didn’t even really want to talk about; it was more a long the lines of “a few friends coming by” Saturday 10/20. Follow developments at [pilihawaii.com] and its Facebook and Twitter accounts. Taste will offer flavors of many sorts with Noguchi and Pig and the Lady taking turns at the kitchen and others stepping in.

Noguchi said Taste came about when Askew put him together with Kamehameha Schools senior land assets manager Christian O’Connor and cornered the 533-square-foot space for something that Noguchi could not previously have seen himself doing.

He wasn’t a great fan of pop-up; why go through the hell of an opening for just one night or two? He didn’t know Kaka’ako (he’s been primarily hanging out Kaneohe side), this idea soup of a community that’s bubbled up in the interim between the present and whenever Kamehameha Schools gets its redevelopment plans off the ground and bulldozes the whole area.

Pig and the Lady have committed to using the space Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday. “Gooch,” as he’s known, will be there other days. Others in need of a commercial kitchen might rent. Pop-ups and special events will come and go.

It’s all pretty loose right now.

What’s up with ‘The Gooch’

Noguchi said he’ll continue to pursue his vision of playing off the pre-contact Hawaiian diet–not exactly Hawaiian food deconstructed, he said, because there is protocol he doesn’t wish to violate. But he uses Hawaiian ingredients, Hawaiian cooking concepts.

He’s been working, for example, on how to prepare luau leaf in a way that dissolves the itch-enducing calcium oxalate crystals but preserves the leaf’s fiber and shape. Ten hours in an 85-degree circulator (a controlled-temperature sous vide bath) does it, he’s found. Taro leaf dolmathes, anyone?

He’s been delving into ways to combine flavor and texture components that please his local-boy palate but that make use of sophisticated kitchen tools, such as the circulator and dehydrator in back.

A case in point is an ingredient he allowed me to taste that looks like nothing so much as graham cracker crumbs and tastes like a spicy, salty beef dish. “Crunchy gravy!” I cried. “Exactly!” he said. He’s still not sure how he’ll use this dehydrated blend of minced shallots, Maggi beef broth concentrate and chili peppers. I can’t wait to find out.

Noguchi himself is a bit of a nexus. Raised in a food-loving family in Manoa, he spent his early 20s in Hilo, dancing for Halau O Kekuhi, a rigidly traditional school of hula. At 26, he decided to become a cook, became fascinated by food history, studied at the Culinary Institute of America and worked at Chef Mavro and town before becoming famous at Heeia Kea Pier Deli & General Store, known for healthful and high-concept plate lunches sourced within nearby ahupuaa (and no, you’re not going to learn here why he left there; he doesn’t talk publically about it).

Noguchi doesn’t consider himself in the same league as his white tablecloth, fine dining friends. “Fine dining doesn’t drive me,” he said. “It’s not my passion.”

But the classic techniques of fine dining–and of good, everyday home cooking–do turn his crank.

He can talk with great eloquence about his father’s way with shabu shabu–the family used to gather for this nabe (broth-based) meal every Sunday–or about the pristine simplicity of luau stew. The simpler the dish, he says, singing my song, the less you have to hide behind, the more each step becomes vital.

Luau stew contains all of a half-dozen ingredients. But the putting together is everything: Salt the meat first. Brown the meat in small batches; get it good and brown and don’t crowd it. Remove it and cook the onion in the fat. Put the lu’au leaf on top of the onion, the meat on top of the luau leaf to hold it under the liquid, add water last. Salt, pepper. Cook slow. Done.

“It’s the kind of thing you have to shut up and watch for years to get it right,” he said. He actually cried the day he made shabu shabu for his father and, after many sessions when he had his knuckles rapped with hard chopsticks, his father murmured, “Pretty good.”

He thinks young chefs today don’t get enough of repetition. He tries to persuade them that the garde manger (fresh food cutting station) is the most important step. It’s where most of the first courses emerge, setting the stage for the guests’ meals. And it’s where basic skills are honed.

At least for the next few months (he’s got some larger projects on the back burner), he’ll be bringing this idea to the hub that is Taste.