Pili Group Chef Mark Noguchi Shares A Recipe For Haupia

Go on a seaweed scavenger hunt with Honolulu chef Mark Noguchi

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Everyone on Oahu seems to have a story about Gooch, aka chef Mark Noguchi.

The Pig and the Lady's Andrew Le remembers actively avoiding his fellow Hawaiian on campus years ago at The Culinary Institute of America, and then how Gooch showed up when he was working at Chef Mavro one day and ended up getting hired, too. "Gooooooch," Le seethes jokingly.

"He is so outgoing and larger than life," Ed Kenney of newly opened Mud Hen Water says. He brought Noguchi from Mavro to work at his first restaurant, Town.

"The first couple nights he's there, he walks into the walk-in and comes out with his apron filled with our produce and has a grin ear to ear," Kenney remembers. "He says, 'This is the most local produce I've seen in two years at my other job!'"

I have a Gooch story, too. The first time I met the storied chef who many also call Mr. Aloha is not at one of his two restaurants on the island but on Pali Highway during a drizzle. We are on our way to Kaneohe to pick limu (seaweed) off He'eia Fishpond. Running slightly late, Gooch jumps out of his square white van, shirtless in swim trunks and that big smile on his face.

The fishpond is massive and serene, a 1.3-mile stone-walled kuapa-style enclosure that was made by thousands of Hawaiians 600 to 800 years ago in order to catch fish in the low tide. Floods and mangrove overgrowth destroyed parts of the pond, which is why we're here with Keli'i Kotubetey, the assistant executive director of Papae o He'eia, a nonprofit group dedicated to restoring the pond and providing fresh fish to the community again.

"This is very, very special," Noguchi says as we stand on the rocks. "The health of a fishpond directly affects the health of a community. As chefs, we can be selfish, but our first kuleana ("responsibility") is to feed our community."

Mark Noguchi (right) showing off the limu haul with Keli'i Kotubetey

That's why we are trudging through the waters with big nets to scoop up limu, the wiry brown invasive species, instead of the excellent fish locals wait hours for. Noguchi holds the big orange bin while Kotubetey does quality control, making sure we don't accidentally touch white bulbous creatures that attach themselves to the seaweed.

"Part of this physical restoration was joining different groups together, and Gooch was instrumental in that," Kotubetey says. "He asked what can you give me, and that forced us to think and act. That forced us to think not only about our restoration but about food."

Less than a mile away is He'eia Pier, where Noguchi made national headlines by turning a ramshackle 30-year-old diner into He'eia Kea Pier General Store & Deli, the most-talked-about restaurant on the island in 2010. Armed with immersion circulators and the freshest fish he could find, Noguchi turned the humble Hawaiian plate lunch into something exciting with crisp ahi katsu and warming luau (taro leaf) stew.

Just two years later, he left to start Pili Group with his wife, Amanda Corby, where he caters and feeds Hawaiian Airlines corporate employees at Lunchbox and, most recently, history buffs with Mission Social Hall & Café at the Hawaiian Mission Houses. Clearly, Noguchi has a knack for finding unusual homes for his cooking, and he's making big statements. Honolulu Magazine nominated the six-month-old Mission as a finalist this year for Best New Restaurant.

Once the limu is collected, Noguchi stuffs it into his van and takes us to Ili of Waipio, Kaneohe's neighboring wetlands, his sort-of-secret hideout. Sprawling greens line the land, rain starts to pour and precarious rocks (and Noguchi's careful hand for support) lead us to a tiny swimming hole, where we get a little lesson in the land.

"One of the most sustainable trees in the world," he says pointing to a nearby kora tree. "And this ginger, we use that for house takuan."

His hyperawareness of his surroundings and cooking sensibilities come from his past career as a hula dancer.

"In hula, when you go to gather ingredients to make a lei, the respect that you have for that can transfer directly to the product," Noguchi says. "So that's the philosophy now when we tell our cooks. It's all connected. You appreciate it. You give thanks."

Back at Mission, the limu we gathered is speckled sparingly over tender grilled octopus, adding a crackly, saline texture. He spent nearly four years finding a way to cook 16-grain rice to serve with his iconic luau stew, now home at Mission, too, but he doesn't waver from sticking the usual Hawaiian Sun brand of coconut milk in his version of haupia (see the recipe). The Hawaiian variety of Jell-O, the milky, jiggly blocks are potluck essentials but, here, smartened with toasted coconut flakes and a sprinkle of flaky salt.

"He's cooking dishes that meant something for him," Kenney says. "And I just want him to open up some restaurant where he can actually feed a lot of people. And I think he will someday."

Noguchi bristles when people ask him when he's going to open a "real" restaurant.

"Just because we have stuff on aluminum platters or don't have a full bar, how does that not make us a restaurant?" he asks. "As far as right now goes, we're on a mission. We have good work to do here."