After cutting is teeth at some of the most highly acclaimed dining establishments around the world, chef de cuisine Ryo Takatsuka bucks trends and keeps it “simple” at the Four Seasons Oahu restaurant.
Noe chef Ryo Takatsuka has a movie star smile that jumps out at you. His boyish grin and eagerness might explain how as an 18-year-old, he made his way from Toyama, Japan to Italy. Just out of high school, not speaking a word of Italian, Takatsuka dived into a foreign culture and ended up working in the kitchens of several lofty Michelin-starred restaurants there. “We communicate on the plate,” says Four Seasons Oahu executive chef Martin Knaubert, Takatsuka’s boss and the person responsible for bringing him to Hawai’i as the chef de cuisine of Noe.
Noe is the southern Italian restaurant at Four Seasons Oahu. For diners making the trek from Honolulu, the indoor-outdoor dining at Noe is a soothing retreat from H-1 traffic. Lanterns dangle from trees casting a happy glow, plush chairs, and the soft murmur of water puts you in must-have-martini melt mode. Indoors, the vibe is lush but less soothing. Bright blues and large pieces of art that resemble the inside of an abalone shell or maybe the wavy patterns of sun-dappled water dominate the room.
But a chef shouldn’t be outdone by his dining room decor. “Simple is the hardest thing to do right” says Knaubert. This approach must have been top of mind in hiring chef Takatsuka. The food at Noe doesn’t hide behind trends – be it the overused “farm to table” or Japanese-chef-trained-in-Italy mantra. Chef Takatsuka’s cuisine balances Michelin-level skill and training with a disciplined simplicity. At Noe, warm, crisp focaccia is served with airy whipped ricotta, a sliver of honeycomb and sprinkling of almonds. A pasta with bottarga, clams and broccolini tastes as it should, delicate and briny – a chewy pop of ocean on the tongue. The crudo (raw) section of the menu offers opportunities to indulge in our love of raw fish presentations not found in other local restaurants: swordfish with cauliflower, almond, parsley and lemon, yellowtail with nectarine and cremini mushroom, and an ‘ahi tartare with horseradish and avocado cream. A traditional beef carpaccio with arugula is also available.
The lack of pretension at Noe fits the personality of the hotel’s Leeward coast surroundings. The roasted branzino is simple, moist and tender. Chef Ryo says he likes taking a humble fish and adding “a little more.” The “little more” is a soft, light celery sauce, olives and crisp asparagus. Local onaga is prepared with watercress, zucchini and orange bottarga – salted, cured fish roe. The softer orange citrus pairs nicely with the subtle, delicate fish.
You know you have serious chops when an Italian chef recommends you to their former boss. Takatsuka came to Noe by way of Italian chef Marco Calenzo, who worked under Knaubert at the Four Seasons Beijing. Knaubert was looking for a chef to execute on his vision of a southern Italian-inspired restaurant, and it was Calenzo who suggested Takatsuka, who he cites as one of his mentors.
Spaghetti and pizza seem too ordinary to be the spark that sent Takatsuka to Italy right after high school graduation, but the chef says it was his mother’s spaghetti and pizza that started him on a culinary career. For the next decade, the chef trained and studied in Verona and Rome. Stints include time in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants Il Pagliacci and La Spezia in Rome. In 2008, Takatsuka returned to Japan as chef de cuisine for the acclaimed Yamazaki restaurant in Tokyo.
“The stars aligned to bring Ryo here” says Knaubert, when asked how he found his chef. Speaking only Japanese and Italian, Takatsuka moved to O’ahu. During our conversation, the restaurant’s assistant manager, Emanuele Accame, translates English to Japanese for Ryo-san who chooses to answer in English. We’re about five minutes into a conversation when the chef says he started learning English six months ago. “I love it here,” he says excitedly. The 29-year-old chef quickly dispels the serious stereotype of European-trained chefs. He lives in Waikiki, and the camaraderie of the Japanese in the neighborhood is comforting to him.
Lucky for us, the stars aligned or maybe it’s the wisdom of Four Seasons executive chef Martin Knaubert who is deftly guiding the hotel’s team of young, enthusiastic chefs that brought Chef Ryo to Hawai’i. Long time Wai’anae resident, Mark Suiso, owner of Makaha Mangoes and a purveyor to the hotel says of Knaubert, “Chef Martin gets it, he asked us what we’re growing, about the seasonality of the products and uses the products on the menu or special events that work for the product. He doesn’t try to force the product to be a commodity.” This holistic approach quietly shines on the menu at Noe, where crafting good food is first on the plate.
By Melanie Kosaka
Food Photography By LEAH FRIEL