Taste Test




Mark Noguchi does a cooking demonstration at Macy's. ©Taste

Pop-up finds permanent home

By Simplicio Paragas

Gregarious and frank, Mark Noguchi says he’s not trying to be anti-establishment; he just wants a place where other chefs can come in and try out their concept before heavily investing in their own brick-and-mortar restaurant. The opening of Taste in Kakaako last October represented a new concept on the dining landscape: a permanent pop-up eatery where one day you might find burritos and the next day savory crêpes. 

“Everybody says Taste was the brainchild of Mark Noguchi, but it really wasn’t,” admits Noguchi or “Gooch,” as he is affectionately known among family and friends. “The concept came from Amanda (Corby) and Poni (Askew co-founder of of Street Grindz), who pitched the idea to me and asked me to look at a space in Kakaako, which I didn’t like at all.”

But the always-visionary Corby, who also partners with Noguchi in the catering company Pili Hawaii, sold the talented chef on the bigger picture. She wanted a so-called “community food space” where chefs could collaborate and guests could get variety.

“The concept of Taste still takes a little bit of time to understand,” Corby says. “People still ask us why we have to change so often. But if they want the same food all the time, that’s not us. We have a quarterly rotating group of chefs who get to execute their concept without the steep overhead costs.”

The pop-up restaurant trend was inspired by supper clubs, and first sprouted in London in the mid-2000s as “happenings.” The concept eventually made its way across the pond in places like New York and San Francisco. It finally arrived on our sunny shores when former Chef Mavro up-and-comer Andrew Le introduced Spork, followed by The Pig and the Lady with Martha Cheng.

“Andy really set the bar for pop-ups,” Noguchi says. “He’s a great cook and has an incredible culinary vision.”

Noguchi focuses on local ingredients when preparing his dishes.

At 25 years old, Noguchi was a late starter in the culinary industry. It wasn’t until after returning from a two-year tour with his hula halau did he realize his love for food. A chance meeting with an old friend, Kinohi Gomes, at a conference at Kapiolani Community College would change the direction of his life.

“He asked, ‘Did you ever think of being a chef?’” Noguchi recalls. “No way. But I went anyways to see the culinary arts program’s counselor, Lori Maehara, who told me it sounded like it might be a good fit and to think about it.”

After returning to Hilo where he was living at the time, Noguchi decided to enroll in the two-year culinary arts associate’s program, eventually earning his degree then continuing his training at the prestigious Culinary Insititute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

“I started cooking late so I knew I better focus,” Noguchi says with a grin.” I got my first- ever B; I was always a D student when I attended Punahou.”

His sojourn on the mainland led to an internship at the historic The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. However, like many ex-Hawaii pats, Noguchi wanted to come home. He landed his first job as a cook at the Kona Village Resort in 2005, eventually moving to Oahu in 2007 to work at Chef Mavro and Town. In 2011, he partnered with Russ Inouye and Ricky Goings to open Heeia Pier General Store & Deli, only to leave in 2012 to form Pili Hawaii with Corby.

“Hula provided me with discipline and a desire to want more,” Noguchi asserts. “And traveling got me into eating.”

When asked how he conceives his dishes, Noguchi simply answers: “What would I be hungry for,” while rubbing his stomach. And if you’re wondering if he sources his ingredients locally, his response is “Duh! You should already be doing this. It’s a way of life.”

Noguchi and friends participate in the monthly "workday" in a taro field.

The concept of Taste is as much about community as it is about sustainability, which is reflected in the studio-like space. A red-and-white checkered plastic tablecloth is draped over a communal table with seating for eight, while reclaimed lumber serves as a stand-up wraparound bar. Most of the materials come from Re-use Hawaii where Corby also found the room’s chandelier, which is festooned with Noguchi’s ladles, sieves and beaters.

“What we’re doing feels good and meaningful,” Corby says. “It’s run like a family business and our entire staff feels like their part of something bigger.”

For Noguchi, Taste allows him to “fight the fight for social change.” It’s also a place where he can continue to cook and develop what he jokingly refers to at times as “ADD” dishes.

“Successful cooking is based on reference,” the Manoa native says. “The more different types of food you eat, the more you become a better cook.”

Noguchi, Corby and Askew plan to hold their next “event” sometime in mid-February and it might even be themed “Out in the Alley,” a reference to the newly built lanai area sandwiched in between buildings.

Taste

Open Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Brunch soon to begin on weekends
Kokua Lunch Club: Network with nonprofit leaders and eat a house-made brown bag lunch; noon to 1:30 p.m. first Monday of the month
Special Events and Guest Chefs announced at tastetable.com

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