Chefs Ed Kenney and David Caldiero drive town restaurant in Kaimuki
Sometimes a restaurant is about more than just the food. At town, chefs Ed Kenney and David Caldiero have created a place that’s not only in the neighborhood, but part of the neighborhood; where supporting local farmers means buying whatever comes in from the field that day, where family commitment means closing on Sundays so staff can spend time at home, and where the menu reflects food cooked with love.
With its distinct burnt orange canopy, slightly un-tamed herb garden and chairs set to face the street (so people-watching is mandatory), town is part European bistro, part enoteca, part coffee shop and part village green. It fits so perfectly into the charming chaos of Kaimuki, where liquor marts and video shops sit next to bakeries and discount shoe stores, that almost no one can remember what was there before. And that is exactly what Kenney and Caldiero want.
“We always wanted a neighborhood place,” says Kenney. “We wanted to be able to say hi to everyone, to get to know our customers, and we wanted to form relationships with people.”
“And we wanted a place where the food was given a chance to speak for itself,” adds Caldiero.
The two often finish the others’ thoughts or sentences, and they share so many likes and dislikes, it seems pre-destined they would work together. When they go out to eat, they both order the same thing on the menu – “very frustrating” says Kenney with a grin – and they have a mutual loathing of certain foods too.
“You won’t ever find bell peppers or tripe on a town menu,” says Caldiero.
But what they also share is a vision of a neighborhood restaurant where food is as important as family, and where fresh ingredients and daily visits from farmers inspire the cooks. “We do think in a similar way, ” says Caldiero, “it’s uncanny really.”
They met several years ago, introduced by their wives, and when Kenney decided to branch out on his own after working for years in local restaurants, it was to Caldiero that he turned.
“We started to talk about food and found we had the same vision and the same dreams,” he says. That vision included a place where people could sit outside – “That was hugely important,” says Kenney – along with a menu where local and organic produce ruled.
So the food is wholesome, hearty and rustic (slowly braised short ribs, pork cheeks with polenta, rib eye with Roquefort butter and signature herbed fries), and there are no prima donnas in the kitchen dictating wine pairings or side dishes. At town, no one’s trying to upstage the tomatoes. Here, the chefs just want the food to tell the story.
“Mostly when we’re done with a dish,” says Ed, “we look at it and ask if there’s anything we can take away. We’re going for the opposite effect of lots of ingredients or a menu that confuses people.”
Despite being brought up in different cultures – Kenney was born and raised in Hawaii, the son of celebrated singer Ed Kenney and revered hula dancer Beverly Noa, while New York-born Caldiero comes from a large Italian family – the two share the same values and ideals.
“My family was all about food,” says Kenney. “My mother insisted on table manners, on using napkins, and we ate good, local food.” Kenney laughs, recalling the effect that often had on his dates. “Girls would come eat with my family and then say ‘you guys are so weird – all you talk about is food.'”
Caldiero grew up in New York in a large Italian family that he describes as “extremely food driven.” So it’s no surprise that the mission at town is local-first, organic where possible and with Aloha always.
“There might be better cooks out there,” says Kenney of the simple, American/Mediterranean-inspired menu that changes daily, “but no one cooks with more love.” He says this so sincerely and with such emotion that it’s impossible not to believe him.
And that’s the reason people who love food love town. The slowly braised ribs and roasted meats beg for glasses of robust red wine and friends to share them with, and fresh pasta and cured meats speak of the enthusiasm the chefs have for their profession. And there’s comforting consistency in the format the menu takes. There are always salads, several appetizers, five or six entrees and sides of vegetables that might include roasted Hamakua mushrooms, bitter greens with raisins and pine nuts or eggplant from MA’o Farms. There’s always pasta (a passion of Caldiero’s), gnocchi or risotto, and soup. The rest is up to the farmers. Ingredients change, and the chefs go right along with what they’re offered.
“We might have pumpkin and Tokyo negi all month long,” says Kenney, “or we might have cauliflower for just a couple of days. We take what the farmers have, and our customers understand that.”
Customers understand too, that prices rise and fall along with crop value and seasons. “our customers know that if the risotto is a dollar more, then we had to pay more for an ingredient,” says Caldiero.
“There’s kind of an understanding of that now,” adds Kenney, “in that people know we won’t compromise the ingredients.”
Truthfully, the food has its moments. Some days the hand cut pasta with Hamakua pepeiau and soft herbs is divine, other days the chicken breast with gorgonzola and truffle honey is just oK. The pork and bitter greens are always gorgeous, with fat and flavor oozing onto wilted greens and polenta, but some days the soup is easily something an average cook could whip up at home. But here’s why town (and downtown, their sister restaurant at the Hawaii State Art Museum) work so incredibly well: Kenney and Caldiero are not out to change the face of food or invent new, kitchen-lab foams and fancy sauces. They want to change the way people eat. Sharing food, eating as a family, supporting the community, rejoicing in ingredients and earning the respect of customers and staff are all topics that come up over and over again in conversation with these two inspiring chefs.
And as you’d imagine, they have lots of future plans. Kenney’s dream is to have a restaurant farm, an educational center for children, an agri-business where people would come to learn to cook, and a restaurant that was self-sustaining. “But that would be in a perfect world if money was no problem,” he says.
In the meantime, town and downtown give people who care about the environment, their community and their food an alternative to arrogant chefs, Styrofoam containers, corporate-driven food buyers and overpriced meals.
“Hey, anyone can cook,” says Kenney, quoting his favorite line from the movie Ratatouille.
But not everyone can do it with love.