Aloha means “doing things for people without expecting anything in return.” We are hoping to get this point across with our attitude and the ambiance of my restaurant, 'āina.
The goal is to spread aloha as far as possible through food.
However, the word "aloha" gets used so much that I always like to revisit its meaning before I decide to use it. Aloha means "doing things for people without expecting anything in return." We are hoping to get this point across with our attitude and the ambiance of 'āina, my pop-up brunch concept that is now becoming a brick-and-mortar modern Hawaiian eatery in San Francisco.
People who work here will speak to our guests and the rest of the staff in Hawaiian. In my kitchen, instead of saying "oui, chef!" we will say, "ai!" In Hawaii, when you have a teacher, they will ask you, "Are you ready?" To which you are expected to respond, "ai!" We will also be living and sharing the term "mahalo nui," which means "thank you very much," and it is a phrase that I think better reflects the soul of true Hawaiian culture.
We will have a very well-respected hula teacher come and do talks with my staff and cooks about what it means to be Hawaiian, and what it means to have the privilege of serving people food. Restaurants tend to forget that it is a privilege to put nourishment into people, and that is a bummer. In Hawaii, we refer to nourishment and its power and lifeforce as mana. To be able to help someone carry on with their day, or to give them a feeling of enjoyment at the end of a hard day, is the most gracious, rewarding thing that I can think of being able to do for somebody. I want our staff to understand this, know this, and breathe this.
We just had our Hawaiian blessing, known as an invocation, at the restaurant two days ago. We can start the restaurant in a good way like this, on a clear, fresh note. When you are Hawaiian, you have this interconnection with organic life forces around you, whether it is with nature or the food that you are cooking. When you are cooking for other people, you need to be in tune with all of this.
Restaurants tend to forget that it is a privilege to put nourishment into people, and that is a bummer.
I'm trying to help retell the story of Hawaii and educate people about our history—not because it is my job to do that, but because I want to. When people tell me, "Oh, I like Hawaiian food!" The first things they talk about are pineapple and Hawaiian pizza. You know, you can joke about this and it is totally fine to think these things, but after a while, it made me think: Do I really want my heritage and my culture to be known for just pineapple? The thing is, Hawaii is more than that. It is one of the best places in the world because of its culture and its food. This philosophy to better the understanding is what drives us.
For the past five years, I was an executive chef at a restaurant at Google, and then cooked at Airbnb. And just because I was at a cafeteria in a tech company didn't mean I had to serve that kind of food. I served what I liked to call "Michelin-style plating"—but family-style. I was able to do a lot of amazing lunches and dinners when thinking about food this way. I've been lucky enough to cook lunch for Gary Danko, David Kinch, and Daniel Boulud, to name a few. We made everything from scratch, did whole-animal butchery, and worked with local farmers. In hindsight, working at a tech company might have been a gutsy choice if you are a chef, but working at both places gave me a different perspective on running a restaurant. It was also while I was working in tech that I started my soul-searching, which ended up in me opening up my own restaurant.
I grew up in Waiakea, and my mom moved me to Boston when I was 12 years old for a better education. I was part of a generation that had a mass exodus, a group that left the islands to get exposed to different things. As amazing as the Hawaiian lifestyle is, you become oblivious to all of the beautiful things around you. I grew up eating fresh fish every night because my uncle was a fisherman. Now I would kill for this lifestyle, but it is only because I don't have it anymore.
When I first moved to the mainland, I remember going to to Asian markets. I remember looking for Hawaiian candies, but it was always hard to find Hawaiian ingredients—period. This is a challenge that stands to this day as I try to find reliable sources for things like taro roots and taro leaves for the restaurant. The way that Hawaii is set up right now, even though it is part of the US, anything that gets shipped out of Hawaii still has to go through US Customs and agriculture inspection. So if you want to ship flowers, hearts of palm, lychees, whatever, it has to go through the airport and get inspected.
This is a big reason why a lot of fruits like papayas and mangos now come from South America. A lot of the plantations that used to be in Hawaii and grow things like sugarcane and pineapple—and also that made Hawaii the diverse place that it is for produce—moved to South America around 25 years ago because it was cheaper. But this made all of the products change in flavor. Remember, Hawaiians were seven feet tall, warriors, and huge people at one time.
It is still possible to recreate authentic Hawaiian flavors using non-Hawaiian ingredients, but it's a lot of work and requires you to look at everything under a microscope. Right now, I import fresh hearts of palm from Hawaii only because a family friend who grows them is willing to send me a package once a week. If you were to order hearts of palm from any restaurant supplier, they would come from Costa Rica and the hearts would be slimy. Mine are so fresh that they taste like an apple. I'm trying to find a way to get Hawaiian beef now, because Hawaii's rainfall allows all the cows to be finished on grass, not grain.
This is how I'm trying to bridge this Hawaiian ingredient gap. I'm still doing more soul-searching and learning more about the heritage of my own family. I just want my service and my food to represent Hawaii in its truest form. This is the best part of what food allows you to do.
As told to Javier Cabral