Story by Catherine E. Toth
Photos by Megan Suzuki (on O‘ahu) & Sean M. Hower (on Maui)
Edible Hawaiian Islands sent one local chef on assignment into foreign territory: a vegan boot camp in the kitchens of two female-run eateries. It didn’t take long for him to feel the beet.
“I know this is a natural food store, but is there any caffeine in here?”
And that’s how Mark “Gooch” Noguchi, local chef and commentator for the Cooking Channel’s “Unique Eats,” walked into Kale’s Natural Foods in Hawai‘i Kai.
If you know him, you wouldn’t be surprised. Noguchi is comfortable anywhere, even in a super cramped kitchen in the back of a health food store deli that specializes in vegan and vegetarian dishes.
This is not Noguchi’s element.
Not that the formally trained chef isn’t into health food. Noguchi, who grew up in both Mānoa and Hilo eating mostly traditional washoku (Japanese home-cooking), has experimented with cleanses, vegan food, juicing and the raw diet. These are just not techniques he uses often — or professionally.
“I happen to know vegan and raw is not just rabbit food,” says Noguchi, who recently opened LUNCH BOX to provide the Hawaiian Airlines staff with healthy locally sourced meals. “But a lot of local people think that. They think it’s only lettuce, and that’s not true.”
And that’s certainly not true at the deli at Kale’s, where sisters Jennifer and Christina Hee have built a reputation for serving delicious vegan and vegetarian dishes that have garnered loyal followers who stop by every day to see what the pair is whipping up in the kitchen.
Dishes like a wild mushroom risotto or a healthy loco moco with a beet burger served over organic spinach, brown rice and quinoa with mushroom gravy.
“There’s a misconception that vegan food doesn’t taste good or is bland,” Noguchi says.
Noguchi donned an apron — he actually put on a hot pink paisley one from the sisters’ collection first before pulling out his own — and got to work, learning from Jennifer how to use ingredients like organic spelt flour, coconut oil and vegan butter.
There’s no professional mixers or commercial convection ovens here. The Hees use an induction burner and a home oven for their dishes, mixing by hand and eyeballing most of their ingredients. They aren’t professionally trained, but what they make is prepared deftly and passionately.
“I’m so impressed by their spontaneity and their energy,” Noguchi says afterward. “There’s a lot of love in that kitchen. I felt the warm fuzzies.”
Noguchi helped prepare the deli’s popular polenta with local kale and vegan sausage made with beets, apples, beans and tapioca. The vegan polenta is pan-seared, then sautéed with the vegan sausage, red onions, red bell peppers, Portobello mushrooms, organic apples, garlic-roasted beets and locally grown kale — with a few other secret ingredients. It was full of flavor and texture.
“This style of cooking isn’t something that’s really taught in culinary school,” says the graduate of the Culinary Institute of the Pacific and the Culinary Institute of America. “But it should be.”
Noguchi, who has worked with the farm-to-table advocates at Town in Kaimukī and at Chef Mavro, has long been a believer in sustainable cuisine. He has supported like-minded local chefs and food producers at his pop-up venue TASTE in Kaka‘ako, but had never, himself, used the kind of ingredients and techniques he learned with the Hee sisters.
Like using beets and organic spelt to make vegan chocolate cupcakes. Or swapping butter with coconut oil or a vegan substitute made with soy (and tastes a lot like cheese). Or using an egg replacement made from tapioca and potato starch. Or that cane sugar isn’t necessarily vegan.
“Man, this is good stuff,” he says, tasting the beet frosting he made to accompany the vegan cupcakes. “This is really cool.”
His new perspective on cleaning cooking was only reinforced on his recent visit to Choice Health Bar in Lahaina.
Owned by best friends Emily Kunz and Kathryn Dahm, Choice is a bustling café that resembles a trendy coffee shop minus the coffee. Instead of lattes, it serves a variety of innovative smoothies, açaí bowls, juices and health elixirs that use seasonal fresh produce from Maui, superfoods and almond milk and coconut water made in-house.
With omiyage (gifts) in hand, Noguchi walked into lively café and couldn’t believe how much work goes into creating the thoughtful raw, vegan and vegetarian dishes Kunz and Dahm come up with.
“They are so innovative, it was cool,” Noguchi says. “And they’ve got a freaking following. I was helping them prep and I saw people in there, waiting 45 minutes to an hour before (the café) opened for lunch. They crank.”
Its popularity comes from the interesting dishes Kunz and Dahm serves, using whatever local produce they can find— Kunz actually drives to farms on Maui to pick up ingredients.
“Our menu changes daily based on what’s available,” Dahm says. “Our focus is on local and fresh… It’s about pure food. The less you do to it, the better. You can cut an avocado in half and it’s a five-star meal.”
And they really do use whatever’s on hand, from romanesco broccoli to kohlrabi to heirloom carrots. They even have customers who bring in fruits and veggies — like oranges and figs — from their backyards.
While its menu is mostly smoothies, juices and açaí bowls, Choice does serve full-on meals like a raw falafel wrap with a Peruvian olive tapenade and a cashew tzatziki sauce, a robust Mediterranean kale salad with an herbal-infused lemon vinaigrette, a sunflower-walnut burger with raw ketchup and bee pollen “cheese” on a collard leaf, as well as a variety of soups.
That day, Noguchi helped prep what the friends jokingly refer to as the “two-day entrée” — the HI Vibe Pad Thai dish. It’s a play on the Thai noodle dish, except this is made with green papaya, carrots, red bell peppers, daikon and other veggies julienned to look like noodles. The dish was topped with an almond ginger sauce and coconut-ginger black forbidden rice.
“They were telling me, ‘You know, don’t worry if you can’t finish it because it’s a three-day prep for us,’ and I was, like, ‘No way. I’m banging out this entire thing,’” Noguchi says, laughing.
And he did.
He saw firsthand how much work and effort it took to make a healthy dish appealing to people who might not be familiar with vegan or raw cuisine.
“They think like chefs,” Noguchi says about Kunz and Dahm, neither of them professional trained. “They think about the way food feels in your mouth, about balance… It was really impressive.”
In both kitchens, Noguchi learned something he joked he would steal for his own restaurant concept. He was thinking about making a beet foam or an Asian dressing using raw almonds and maybe adding blenders and juicers to his kitchen. He realizes how, once you cut into an ingredient, you change it. And he knows that anything, even kohlrabi, can taste good. You just gotta work at it.
“How we look at food now is radically different than five years ago,” he says. “We’re stepping away from white rice and mac salad. It’s changed, it’s evolved. It was nice to be in kitchens that weren’t staffed by my team or by professional cooks. And it was all women. I never did see more passion than in those two kitchens.”