Chef Brian Hirata

Here and Na`au: Passing on Hawaiian Tradition through Food

Chef Brian Hirata, a James Beard Foundation semifinalist, uses tasting menus to pass on endangered culinary traditions in Hawaiʻi

Chef Brian Hirata

Andrew Richard Hara

Words by Naomi Tomky

Fishermen in Hawai’i sell ono, mahi mahi, and ahi to big-name restaurants and fancy resorts serving guests looking to savor the state’s famous fish. Then they bring home the best fish for their family. They fry nabeta, a wily wrass that hides in the sand; savor the shimmery blue goatfish called moana kali; and seek out the islands’ “seven snappers,” few of which ever see a restaurant menu.

Neither supply nor demand for a commercial reef fishery exists. The fishermen keep the catch because big commercial buyers need fish caught in vast quantities to feed Hawai’i’s 1.5 million residents and 10 million annual visitors and smaller ones struggle to sell it to diners wary of unfamiliar fish. It presents a catch-22, or perhaps, a catch-808, to use Hawaii’s area code: People don’t order fish they don’t know, they don’t know it because they never see it on menus, but restaurants don’t put it on menus because people don’t order it. From there, it trickles down: fishermen don’t bother with a commercial catch, so local cooks don’t learn to work with the state’s best-tasting fish.

Chef Brian Hirata of Hilo-based Na`au hopes to break that cycle and bring Hawai’i’s lesser-known seafood to menus, along with the islands’ foraged berries and wild meat. The currently nomadic concept serves eight-course pop-ups and private dinners filled with ingredients such as pickled hāpuʻu fern, briny limpets called `opihi, and `ākala berriesthe long-lost cousin of blackberries.

Chef Brian Hirata

Andrew Richard Hara

They weave into witty dishes like an allusion to peanut butter and jelly, made from burnt miso and chicken liver toast dotted with `ākala berry gel, and a local spin on a the illustrious 20th century French chef Paul Bocuse’s potato-crusted fish, using uku (a snapper), and “dragon scales” made from dehydrated congee.

For many locals, the dinners bring back taste-memories of childhood, and food-savvy visitors relish the opportunity to taste ingredients endemic to Hawai’i, leading nearly every meal to sell out. But founder and chef Hirata, the former director of culinary programs at Hilo Community College, considers them his secondary audience: Na`au’s primary mission is passing on the knowledge of traditional Hawaiian ingredients and foodways to other cooks.

Forty percent of his students identify as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and yet they lacked knowledge of both common species such as yellowfin tuna, and those integral to Hawaiian culture, like `ōpelu, a type of mackerel.

When Hirata’s students repeatedly turned in blank answer sheets, it cemented a problem: if his advanced culinary students couldn’t identify local fish, he feared soon nobody would be able to. Forty percent of his students identify as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and yet they lacked knowledge of both common species such as yellowfin tuna, and those integral to Hawaiian culture, like `ōpelu, a type of mackerel.

The two-year curriculum, designed to prepare students for jobs in professional hotel and restaurant kitchens, left Hirata no space to squeeze in the vast swaths of culinary heritage he saw disappearing. The informal PowerPoint presentations he made of the indigenous flora he grew up foraging for on O’ahu and the endemic seafood he spent his childhood catching with family on Hawai’i Island proved ineffective. After 12 years, he stepped down from his tenured position to find other ways to teach the lessons he saw as most important.

A fourth-generation Hawai‘i resident, the great-grandchild of early Japanese immigrants to the state, Hirata founded Na`au in large part to hire those same students for a de facto fellowship: a job where they can learn the traditional foodways squeezed out by knife skills and mother sauces.

Limu ’ele’ele tapioca chips

Andrew Richard Hara

He takes them to semi-brackish, lava rock and sand shorelines to harvest limu ’ele’ele, rare algae that grows only in that specific environment. Its fine threads tangle like matted hair, necessitating a tedious cleaning process of picking it apart with tweezers. They dry and grind it, then fry the seaweed into tapioca chips. Inside, they nestle the scraped meat of lomi 'ō'io: bonefish prepared using the classic Hawai’ian cold-water massage technique. “They get to see it from the forest to the kitchen, preparing, cooking, and then plating it,” Hirata says. “They see the full circle of that ingredient.”

Na`au turns the hearts of invasive axis deer from Maui into pastrami and sources sustainably farmed shrimp raised in former sugar cane fields on Kaua`i. Their octopus comes from one of the only fishermen still using traditional leho lures, made of tiger cowry shell, to free dive for the cephalopod.

Since the arrival of Westerners to the islands, people have been fighting for the survival of these types of traditions. Pre-contact, Kānaka Maoli, Native Hawai’ians, ate reef fish, endemic flora and fauna, and canoe plants, brought by Polynesian boats, such as taro, breadfruit, wild ginger, and kukui nutwhat is now called “Hawai’ian food.” But the arrival of settlers, missionaries, traders, and various other colonizing forces of the 18th and 19th centuries brought cattle, coffee, pineapples, and, significantly, monocropping and unsustainable agricultural policies. Through informally enforced codes of decorum and laws explicitly banning them, traditional farming, hunting, and aquaculture practices faded. Workers arriving in the 19th and 20th centuries from around the world brought their culinary traditions, and over time they meshed with colonial imported goods into what’s now called “local food:” saimin, manapua, mochiko chicken, plate lunches, and Spam musubi.

In 1991, a group of 12 chefs around Hawai’i created the Hawai’i Regional Cuisine (HRC) movement, an unprecedented, purposeful push to grow more ingredients on the islands and get them into menus at top restaurants. The flavors of local food joined the classic European kitchens that dominated the era, and local tomatoes replaced the sorry specimens that spent a week sailing from California. A precursor to today’s farm-to-table movement, it succeeded wildly, cementing the fame of already prominent chefs like Roy Yamaguchi and catapulting others toward it, such as Alan Wong—for whom Hirata worked before teaching .

`ākala berry goat cheesecake

Andrew Richard Hara

Last year, Robynne Maii, of Honolulu’s Fête, became the first woman from Hawai’i to win a James Beard Foundation Award and the first person from the state to win since HRC co-founders George Mavrothalassitis in 2003 and Sam Choy in 2004. Hirata earned a semifinalist nomination in the nationwide emerging chef category, and this year he hopes to follow in Maii’s footsteps, getting a semifinalist nod in the Best Chef: Northwest and Pacific category.

“We stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us,” Hirata says of HRC, which he considers a springboard for his own work. “We’re something new, and different, but still grounded in the same foundations.” 

But while HRC used familiar luxury ingredients to help ease diners into their movement, Hirata holds a hard line on importing delicacies. He worries they overshadow the local ones he focuses on. “No foie gras, no caviar, no scallops from Hokkaido, no uni from Santa Barbara,” he lists.

Four way quail loco moco.

Andrew Richard Hara

“They’re delicious, but luxury can also be defined as something hard to find, that you can’t eat all the time.” Something like the ʻōhelo berries he and his team hike up volcanoes to forage for. A compote of the tart fruit, which splits the difference between blueberries and cranberries, decorates cheesecake garnished with wild sheep sorrel in Na`au’s signature dessert. The ʻōhelo berries grow on only a few islands in Hawaiʻi, not even all of them, and nowhere else. “It has a season; it takes effort to forage. That, in itself, is a luxury.”

That scarcity leads to another place Hirata diverges from the culinary revolution of his mentor: that he hesitates to call it a movement “What we’re doing can’t be done in high volume.” Rather than multiply or even encourage copycat concepts, the only thing Hirata hopes to spread from Na`au are skills. He hires his former students with the expectation that they worked for him for a few years, then move on. “The hope is that they take that knowledge and carry it with them, so they can, in return, present it to the next generation of culinarians out there.” To diners, Na`au serves its version of luxury through rare ingredients. To his staff, Hirata serves the luxury of their culinary heritage, with the goal that it ceases to be a rare ingredient on menus around Hawaii.

Published on February 16, 2023

Words by Naomi Tomky

Award-winning Seattle-based writer Naomi Tomky explores the world with a hungry eye, digging into the intersections of food, culture, and travel. Her first cookbook, The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook, was declared one of 2019’s best by the San Francisco Chronicle. Follow her culinary travels and hunger-inducing ramblings on Twitter @Gastrognome and Instagram @the_gastrognome.