Culinary professor's mission-driven food project makes a splash
Every year, Brian Hirata, a Culinary Arts professor at Hawai‘i Community College, gives his students a pop quiz on identifying local fish.
“Every single student in the last three years has failed miserably, and these are all common fish that are part of Hawai‘i’s food culture and Native Hawaiian food culture, and it leads me to believe a lot of our food culture is not being passed down now through our society,” Hirata said. “About 40 percent of the student body is Hawaiian or part Native Hawaiian, and I’ve realized a majority of all students don’t have local food knowledge.”
This insight, and the fear of losing local food traditions so unique to Hawai‘i, has sent Hirata on a mission, and prompted him in 2019 to establish a series of pop-up dinners aimed at “preserving Hawai'i's food culture while progressing the local cuisine.”
As the pop-ups have gained popularity, Hirata is working on next steps to train a new generation of chefs to deeply understand local food and cultural resources, and to take that knowledge with them into their careers.
“The two-year Culinary Arts curriculum doesn’t currently leave room for this type of subject matter, given all the other basic skills students need to learn before graduation,” said Hirata.
His idea is to take graduate students who have completed the program and have them continue with “a thoughtful cultural food education.” In addition to perpetuating the cultural food knowledge, it could give them an advantage when they enter the workforce.
“That’s my long-term goal for this - is having these graduate students come in and filter through Na‘au and learn cultural food knowledge and how to cook with these ingredients at a high level,” Hirata said. “And they don’t have to apply the same ingredients [to their careers], but at least it’s being passed down rather than forgotten and lost, and could potentially keep this food culture here alive.”
Links to Media on Na’au:
- July 2020 Hana Hou! The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines: Going with the Gut
- May 2020 InRed: Local Town - Big Island
- Feb. 2020 At Home Living with Style on Hawaii Island: Soulful Hawaiian Cooking
- Jan. 2020 Jeffsetter Travel: Na`au Hilo + PAI Honolulu Collab Dinner
- Jan. 2020 Hawai`i Magazine: Lessons in Local Cuisine
- Dec. 2019 Forbes: The Ultimate Guide To The Hawaiian Islands
- Dec. 2019 Frolic Hawaii: Best New Hawaii Restaurants of 2019 (as seen on Hawaii News Now)
- Dec. 2019 Lonely Planet: How Hawaiians are using traditional practices to promote sustainability
- Dec. 2019 HI Luxury Magazine: Green Giants
- Oct. 2019 Hawaii Tribune Herald: Let’s Talk Food: Na‘au, defining Hawaii’s culinary scene
- Oct. 2019 Star Advertiser: Hawaii’s Backyard: Taste of Hilo supports Big Isle culinary arts program (subscription required)
- Sep. 2019 Star Advertiser: The Weekly Eater: Na’au aims to preserve Hawaii’s food culture (subscription required)
- Sep. 2019 Frolic Hawaii - Upscale pop up in Hilo is here and Na'au
- Mar. 2020 West Hawaii Today: We Only Have One Home - Earth