Mark Noguchi is packing his knives and going to class he takes a stab at creating a curriculum for Punahou School.
His kitchen is now the classroom. Earlier this year, Mark Noguchi returned to his alma mater, Punahou School, to work full- time teaching classes on sustainability and food. This change in direction from a chef who led a hard-charging life as the owner of several restaurants and a catering business had his peers and the restaurant community asking, “What’s going on with Gooch?” Gooch is what his friends call him.
“My definition of what it means to be a chef has evolved. I used to think it was owning a lot of restaurants, I now realize being a chef is about teaching and connecting people to food. I know a lot of chefs work on food education, but doing it in a school setting that’s tied to a curriculum is new and exciting” says Noguchi.
Sitting in his Manoa home, directly across the street from his parent’s home, on the street where he was born and raised, the chef reflects back on a hard two years. He was stressed, his staff wasn’t happy, he wasn’t happy juggling Mission Social Hall & Cafe and Lunch Box, the Hawaiian Airlines employee café, along with his cater- ing company Pili Group Catering. His purpose, what first attracted him to cooking, back when he was dancing hula with Halau o Kekuhi under Nalani Kanakaole in Hilo was getting lost in the daily grind. The satisfaction— what he loved about being part of the esteemed halau and the tight bonds forged from learning, working and playing together, the thing that makes feeding folks for a living rewarding— seemed to be slipping away.
His path to the kitchens of Mavro and Town, and eventually his own restaurants wasn’t a direct one. In the mid-’90s, following a girl who broke up with him soon after he arrived, Noguchi moved to Hilo from Honolulu. He eventually found his way to Halau o Kekuhi which helped him find a focus and purpose. Naturally gregarious, his purpose turned out to be a passion for feeding and connecting with people. He attended Kapi‘olani Community College and the Culinary Institute of America.
Chris Kajioka, his good friend and the co-owner and co-chef of Senia, says Noguchi has foresight. “Mark is a true visionary. He has that rare ability to combine family, community, respect and an appreciation for where we come from in each moment. He understands where we need to go as a community to grow, with humility and love being at the core. I look to him as a leader who is able to transcend any industry.”
After numerous heartfelt conversations with Dr. Emily McCarren, the Academy Principal at Punahou, the timing seemed right to make a bold move and with the start of the 2018 school year, Noguchi returned to what he loved, albeit in a different for- mat. Instead of nurturing customers through his cooking, Noguchi is nurturing the next generation of eaters (and maybe a few chefs) and if all goes as planned, thoughtful consumers who understand the impact of their every-day decisions.
For a chef who is more comfortable writing menus than writing curricula, Noguchi is finding there are few templates to follow when it comes to his new job. “When I started, I was intimidated, working with all these amazing teachers with advanced degrees. Who was I?” he asks. His mother is a re- tired teacher and after spending many nights working and reworking his thoughts, found his groove. “This opportunity, to have a platform to teach, is a privilege.”
After a two-hour conversation in his home kitchen, and well-fed with grilled bread (from friend Chris Sy’s Bread Shop) that’s topped with a fried egg and