Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Two Oahu Chefs Take Different Paths

The (semi)-traditional career path in the culinary world is: culinary school, food prep, line chef, sous chef, leading to eventually head chef for a big restaurant or owning one's own restaurant. This path doesn't always work for people, either by choice or by economic conditions.

On my visit to Oahu last month I was introduced to two local chefs that are making their own way in the Honolulu area food scene. Andrew Le and Mark Noguchi have both worked as chefs at Mavro and Mark at Town as well before leaving to pursue divergent paths. Andrew has been doing a pop-up restaurant called The Pig & The Lady while Mark went to the windward side of the island to take over a small 'deli' and general store on He'eia Pier.
(What is a pop-up restaurant? It is another food trend happening mostly in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. That doesn't mean we haven't had them here too. Basically it is a temporary restaurant. Pop-ups happen when a chef is without a restaurant and wants to put together a special menu featured at a temporary location for a few nights. Locally we've had an example with Pajo Bruich when he had been serving out of a commercial kitchen every so often before he moved to Lounge on 20.)

Andrew Le

The Pig & The Lady is a pop-up that has been serving a few nights of a set menu about every six weeks. They set up in Hank's Haute Dogs (famous for crazy hot dogs made with lobster, rabbit, alligator, and the regular kind).

When I asked Andrew what his ambitions were he said that he was still uncertain and that was why he was choosing to do a pop-up. It gave him the opportunity to work everything from sourcing the product to creating a menu and seeing it all through to a finished dinner. He wasn't sure if opening his own restaurant was on the horizon or whether he would figure out a different way to go in the future. But for now, he enjoyed the freedom and independence he had from the pop-up. Certainly it is also affording him the opportunity to gain new fans so that when he finally decides, he'll have clientele to follow.

Andrew's partner, and the Lady, is Martha Cheng. She has bounced around the Honolulu restaurant scene and had been a partner in the popular Melt truck, which featured high end grilled cheese sandwiches. Melt is no longer and for the time being she's working as Andrew's sous chef.

Andrew's servers and platers were his family - mom and siblings. You could tell that they were proud of his culinary accomplishments.

Squash blossoms with zucchini mousse, pickled hearts of palm, summer vegetables,
 tomato curry vinaigrette

The squash blossoms were unfamiliar to a lot of my tablemates because they aren't as squash happy as we are. You bit through the crisp exterior to a lovely mousse inside.

Caramelized fish with sea asparagus, jicama, pressed jasmine rice

This was really fish with a caramel sauce, versus caramelized. What I enjoyed the most was the sea asparagus, a crunchy seaweed that was new to me. I wish they had it here because I fell in love with it. It doesn't taste salty like the sea like most seaweeds do. It really is more akin in texture and flavor to asparagus.

Pork loin with pig trotter croquette, pickled mustard cabbage with bacon,
roasted pineapple pork jus

The standout here was the croquette made from pig trotters. I never bother with trotters because I think they are too much work. I'm sure this method was as well, but as the consumer I enjoyed the flavor and texture of the pork and fat bits encrusted and deep fried.

Bun Mang Vit - duck and bamboo noodle soup, rau ram vermicelli

This lovely soup featured three types of bamboo: fresh, dried, and the baby sprouts. Andrew's mother came out to explain to us that they harvest the sprouts when the bamboo is only a couple of inches out of the ground. They looked deceivingly like mushrooms in the bowl and had a meaty taste and texture to them. This soup was a family recipe and was refreshing while being full of rich flavor.

Jasmine tea ice cream with honeycomb sugar, mung bean cake, figs

The ice cream was the star of the plate, but everyone seemed to love the crunchy honeycomb the best.

Mark Noguchi

With Mark, Andrea, and Mari

Mark chose to get away from the city and took off over Pali Pass to buy the small general store and deli at the end of He'eia Pier. As you see above, there is just a tiny counter at the windows or outdoor seating. The place is really very small and not where you would expect to find gourmet food.

Mark is an example of a Hawaiian locovore chef. He buys all of his produce from area farms or at the farmers market, fish from the daily catch, and meats from other local providers. As with any locovore establishment, that means the menu changes frequently.

The other attraction of the pier for Mark was the sense of community. His partners had grown up in the area and fishing at the pier. There was a history of family memories that appealed to Mark. Here was a place that he could have closer interaction with his customers and community.

That doesn't mean he's left Honolulu behind. On the contrary, Honolulu treks out to the pier. Word has spread of the quality food being put out by the small kitchen and city folk and tourists are often found occupying the outdoor picnic tables. It was Honolulu food bloggers Mari and Melissa from that brought me here. Mark had been expecting us and was generous in bringing out dishes that Seattle blogger Myra and I could try.

Taro cakes with fiddleheads, tomatoes, and pork

Forget the poi! You'll love taro when it is eaten in many other forms. This taro cake was a bit chewy - it was all about the texture. Pair that with great produce. I know about fiddleheads, but I think this was the first time I had actually ever eaten them. Another new veggie to love!

Luau stew - stewed taro leaves with smoked, salted beef

I was somewhat fascinated with this dish. Just as it says, this simple dish was just a bowl of stewed taro leaves and pork. Yet the simplicity of the dish packed an amazing amount of flavor. I'm a taro fan now. You can't quite see how richly deep green the color is. Certainly it looked unappetizing in the bowl, a bunch of green mush, but I loved it. Mari is such a fan that she ordered a separate to-go order to take home. It is only available on Thursdays.
Luau stew recipe.

Guava chicken - succulently sweet

Honestly, I was so full that I only took a nibble - but it was moist, sweet, and delicious over the fried rice. Mark was too generous on food! Not that I'm complaining.

Cheekeater burger - grass fed beef burger, cheese, soft fried egg, thin chips of spam and portuguese sausage, homemade thousand island

Named after a chef friend's nickname, the cheekeater was a cardiac arrest that you would die happy with a smile on your face. You can barely see the thinly fried chips of spam and sausage. A soft yolk that spills over the burger when cut or bit into is always a nice touch. This is the most popular (and constant) item on the menu.

I was lucky to get to meet and eat with these two popular Oahu chefs. If you go on a trip to the island, be sure to find out what they are up to - it will certainly be tasty!
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