Let’s Talk Food: Na‘au, defining Hawaii’s culinary scene

  • Courtesy of AUDREY WILSON “Steak 'N' Eggs"
  • Courtesy of AUDREY WILSON Lawai’s Flight

When chef instructor Brian Hirata of Hawaii Community College’s Culinary Arts program spends his spare time thinking about how he can improve and further teach his current and former students about the food of Hawaii, you know a man’s passion.

Hirata launched Na‘au, a transcendent culinary concept with two pop-ups. The first was on Oct. 13 at Anna Ranch Heritage Center. The second is slated for 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, at Palms Cliff House Inn in Honomu.

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“Na‘au” means “where your soul resides” or “the place where you know things and hold the entirety of life’s experiences.” This is the culmination of Hirata’s life and culinary career. He hunted, fished, farmed and foraged in the islands from the time he was a child and gained an appreciation and profound respect for the outdoors and cultural values of the islands.

After obtaining his culinary degree at HCC, Hirata worked at various restaurants throughout the state and is now an assistant professor and program coordinator for the Culinary Arts program. He recently earned this tenure at HCC. He decided it was time to help local culinarians — chefs and diners alike — reconnect with their roots, become better acquainted with the bounty of ingredients available in the islands and perpetuate the unique culinary heritage of Hawaii.

Combining his classical training in European cooking techniques, his exposure to a broad range of regional cuisines and extensive knowledge of local ingredients, Hirata came up with the Na‘au concept. He believes all chefs must preserve their heritage by having a firm understanding of the locale from which they came. Having a food connection is integral in understanding one’s own roots, which is essential in progressing the local cuisine in a more conscientious fashion while presenting a more authentic view of oneself.

He plans to incorporate his specialized style of cuisine, which uses myriad cooking concepts, along with his understanding about how to source and process coveted, wild, but relatively unknown local ingredients to help perpetuate Hawaii’s culinary heritage.

Na‘au is Hirata’s papai‘ai, or cooking house, where the familiar and unfamiliar converge to discover new ingredients in a space that feels like home or somewhere warm, friendly and comforting so guests would be more open to new encounters. The aspiration is for guests to leave with a truly authentic cultural experience, an enhanced cognizance of what makes Hawaii so special as well as a feeling of gratification after having a memorable meals.

“I believe that when you lose a part of your heritage, you tend to struggle with moving forward thoughtfully because you don’t have a good understanding of where you came from in the first place,” Hirata says. “I think we lost this food connection, in a sense, and I want to see if we can find a way back to it.”

By sharing his love for the land, the awe for the ocean, his fond childhood memories and reverence for our islands’ unique heritage and culture, Hirata hopes to stimulate dialogue to increase Hawaii’s presence in the global culinary milieu.

We were greeted with Mirabelle Brut rose provided by Ryan Kadota, with canapes of burnt miso liver pate, Maui venison heart pastrami sandwich.

Amuse bouche was grilled “faux scallop” tinono using the ahi swim bladder muscle, which is usually thrown away when gutted. Its interesting chew resembled scallops.

Grandma’s Shrimp Tempura was Molokai ama ebi with ebi mousse and loli daikon oroshi.

Chef’s grandmother’s shrimp tempura was stuffed with surimi and breaded with Panko, so this dish brought back those memories — with a twist.

Hawai‘i’s Rainforest was a combination of various foraged vegetables: hapu‘u (kakuma), ohe or takenoko (bamboo shoots), ho‘i‘o, pepeiao (black wood ear mushrooms) and freshwater prawn cake in a chilled prawn broth. For Hirata, this dish reminded him or watching his great-grandpa foraging the forests for delicacies.

Lawai’s Flight consisted of two dishes, a cold smoke mu tartare and a shrimp chip, with limu ele‘ele, “Bug Juice” and “Furikake.” The hot course consisted of “Fish and Poi,” or cooked mu filet with wu gok (crispy taro cakes) and tamarind sweet-sour sauce.

Pairing a classic Chinese dim sum with the poached fish worked beautifully.

One of my favorite dishes was the Kupe‘e Con Vongole, which was kupe‘e, or sea snails, with hau‘uke butter and fresh pasta with smoked dried akule in the style of katsuoboshi. In consideration of my allergy to wheat, the crew made me a kupe‘e risotto, which I could have had four more servings!

The Intermezzo was “Arnold Palmer” mamaki tea lemon peel. It was a nice palate cleanser for the main courses that followed.

“Steak ‘N’ Eggs,” the next course, was grass-fed beef, 65-degree Keaau quail egg yolk, cauliflower-egg white mousse, garlic-creamed mallow and ki nehe (Spanish needles) salsa verde on Punalu‘u sweet bread toast.

“Braised Shank,” or lamb leg, kimchi harissa reduction, kimchi braised radish and garlic chive pesto, was locally-raised mutton paired with Korean kimchi flavor profiles.

The dessert was “Mom’s Ohelo Berry Cheesecake” of chevre, ohelo berry compote, ki ash tuile and sheep sorrel. Hirata remembers going to Volcano as a child to help his mother and aunty pick ohelo berries. His mother would go home and make cheesecake with Avoset whipping cream and top it with the ohelo berries they gathered, but the goat cheese chevre cheesecake he served us was over the top!

The meal and its matching beverages, which included flavored kombucha, Echigo Koshihikari beer and wines, were done perfectly with much thought and care.

The Na‘au program, as Pam Hirabara stated after the dinner, is like having a master’s degree program for the Culinary Arts at Hawaii Community College.

Foodie bites

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Hawaii Community College’s Culinary Arts program Cafeteria is open today till Friday. Call 934-2559 for takeout orders.

Email Audrey Wilson at audreywilson808@gmail.com.

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