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Spicy Menpachi Ulu Miso Soup was served during one of Na'au's pop-up dinners. (Photos by Andrew Richard Hara)

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.”

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Mission Video.
Named Na‘au, this project has sparked major interest in worldwide media during the past year, demonstrating the uniqueness of the concept and the appetite for celebrating often-overlooked foods that can be raised, foraged, fished, and hunted right here in Hawai‘i.
Hirata’s vision, combined with his culinary talent honed working for the renowned chef Alan Wong, leads to culinary creations as unique as Hawai‘i Island itself.
Hawai‘i Magazine wrote: “The menu for this dinner is littered with wild and oft-neglected local ingredients: cold-smoked mū (bigeye emperor fish) with limu ‘ele‘ele (edible seaweed), pastrami made from Maui-grown venison heart, fresh ehu (short-tail red snapper) paired with sea cucumber harvested by Hirata the night before. He even serves the swim bladder of an ‘ahi—something that’s almost always discarded—grilled and plated with a tomato-based tinono sauce.” 

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: