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Ed Kenney meant to open just a neighborhood restaurant in Kaimuki, a breezy, Brooklyn-esque neighborhood on Oahu.
"For me, that is really the attraction of this business: feeding the same people, day in and day out," the Hawaii-born chef says. "We've had people come in for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and just leave to go home to shower and change and come back."
And that's how it unfolded when he opened Town a decade ago, his slightly Mediterranean-with-a-hint-of-Italian restaurant that serves a cult-status parsley lemonade. ("It was really a California restaurant uprooted from the Bay Area and dropped down in Kaimuki," Kenney adds with a laugh.)
Then GQ writer Alan Richman came in two years later.
"After the meal, he professed to loving everything about it, but he said, 'Ed, from where I sit in New York City, the epicenter of the culinary universe, Hawaii has dropped off from the face of the earth,'" Kenney recalls. "My jaw dropped."
Clockwise, from top left: Grilled pa'i'ai, inside the restaurant, saimin-like pig's feet noodle soup, signage and chefs Ed Kenney and Dave Caldiero
Things began to shift at Town. The restaurant made kuleana ("responsibility") and aloha 'aina ("love of the land") cornerstones of the menu as much as Parm and parsley. Kenney and his chefs started working with local farms like Ma'o Farms and reviving ancient arts, like hand-pounded, fermented pa'i'ai from Daniel Anthony. And Kenney began to mull over a new restaurant idea.
"Although I never intended to making any national or global splash, all of the sudden the focus changed. This place is too special, and the stories are too rich to not tell them through food," Kenney says. "Mud Hen Water has been in my psyche ever since."
Five-month-old Mud Hen Water, the literal translation of Waialae, the main road that runs through Kaimuki and street where the restaurant sits, is Kenney's tribute to home. Town has garnered all the praise—StarChef's Hawaii Rising Star Restaurateur award in 2012 and nominations for James Beard Award Best Chef West the past two years—but Mud Hen Water is where Kenney bares his soul.
It shows in the breeze blocks he hauled from Palolo Valley and stacked up for the whitewashed walls. It shows in how he uses coconuts, cold-pressing the juice for the loveliest squid luau, grinding the spent coconut flesh into gluten-free flour for dessert and tossing the ripped husks into the restaurant's hearth. And it shows in how Anthony orders the grilled pa'i'ai every time, a riff on the Hawaiian kid snack of griddled mochi drizzled with soy sauce and sugar, and gives Kenney a big hug right after.
"It resonates with local people on an emotional level," he says. "Whereas we get people from the mainland who come in, and they're like, 'What the heck is this?' or 'This is the craziest, most creative food.'"
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Though Kenney would never admit it, Mud Hen Water is monumental. It's the first of big openings hitting Honolulu this year, with Chris Kajioka shooting for Senia to open at the end of the year and former Vintage Cave chef Jonathan Mizukami also on the hunt for a space. And it's bringing the spotlight back to the overlooked islands after the rise (and eventual fizzle out) of Hawaiian regional cuisine.
However, it's also monumental in that Kenney, a Hawaiian boy and the son of famed hula dancer Beverly Noa and Broadway performer Edward Kenney, is finally going back to his roots, instead of, say, Alice Waters's. He's making the food he grew up with, from puffed, soy-crusted mochi to canned-coconut squid luau, but with restraint and sophistication. Now Mud Hen Water is the hottest ticket in town.
A bunch of apple bananas and the roaring hearth fired by coconut husks
"This was the most difficult menu I had to write, because everything is personal," Kenney says. "You don't want to mess with something if it's not broken, but we wanted to be a little culinary and enhance things a little bit."
Which is what Kenney does with romesco, whirring together crisp, thin-skinned shishito peppers and macadamia nuts in place of red peppers and hazelnuts (see the recipe). Smoky, bright and slightly vegetal, it's the ultimate condiment workhorse at Mud Hen Water, whether lacquered over late-summer eggplants or fall's roasted turnips.
Sometimes Kenney wonders what would have happened if he opened his restaurants in the so-called "epicenter of the culinary universe."
"How would we be cooking?" he wonders aloud. "I don't think we would put Spam on the menu just because I'm a Hawaiian chef. We would channel the spirit of aloha 'aina by asking what can we do with dishes we grew up eating and recreate it with what's there, not for the gimmicks but for the soul of Hawaii."
And that's exactly what Kenney is doing on his home turf. And people are noticing. Looks like someone should book his return flight to Oahu soon.
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