This year marks 14 years since Ed Kenney took a leap-of-faith and opened Town Restaurant in Kaimuki. Back in 2005, Kaimuki wasn’t the hip neighborhood of artisanal coffee shops and cafes that it is now and the dining expectations of most customers revolved around Asian fusion cuisine.
Town was different. No soy sauce or miso in the pantry, and at a time when Italian food often meant a variation of shrimp scampi or pasta with marinara sauce, Kenney opened his restaurant with a menu that offered simple, rustic, Italian-influenced cuisine. The focus was on local ingredients and farmers, before “eat local” was a marketing mantra. No white tablecloths, instead recycled paper cut into squares served as drink coasters. The menu was printed in Courier font before it was retro, when the typewriter-style font seemed more of a commitment to handcrafted than hip.
Some guests left scratching their heads, but enough came back and by 2008 when sustainability, eating local and social impact where trendy buzz words and as the U.S. economy tanked, Town was thriving.
Fourteen years later, Kenney and his business partner and Town chef Dave Caldiero are still thriving. “What, you want to talk us old guys,” says Kenney, as he and Caldiero both in T-shirts and jeans sit down in the soft afternoon sunlight that fills the dining room of Mud Hen Water the restaurant they opened across the street from Town in 2015. Unlike Town, if you peered into the pantry at Mud Hen Water, miso and soy sauce will be found. Named by Eater as one of America’s 38 Essential Restaurants in 2017 and 2018, Kenney says it was the hardest menu he had to write because it’s a tribute to the farmers and food he loves and the food he grew up eating in Hawai‘i.
Much like the Kaimuki neighborhood their restaurants inhabit, Kenney and Caldiero take an approach to food that’s void of any pretense. While Caldiero grew up on the opposite end of the U.S. in New York City, and Kenney in Hawai‘i, their commitment to simple, honest cooking and the power of a restaurant to positively impact community is simpatico. Neither can recall an argument after working together for more than 14 years. “We probably spend more time with each other than with our families. Maybe we might disagree on a detail, but no, I can’t think of time we got into a fight,” says Caldiero.
“I’m on a tractor at the moment, call you when I get a break” is the text from Gary Maunakea-Forth, who with his wife, Kukui Maunakea-Forth, founded MA‘O Organic Farms, a non-profit farm and social enterprise organization that educates youth in Wai‘anae. MA‘O was founded in the early 2000s. The non-profit organization and Town grew up together. Maunakea-Forth can recall sitting at table number 10 during Town’s pre-opening practice runs. Today MA‘O is Hawai‘i’s largest organic farm and Kenney’s vision for a triple bottom line business focused on people, planet and profits has grown to three restaurants, a catering business and hotel restaurant consulting.
Maunakea-Forth and Kenney met through mutual friends and their bond was sealed over a love of punk rock, family and the ocean. Similarly, Caldiero and Kenney where also introduced through mutual friends and played ultimate Frisbee together. When Kenney was getting ready to open Town he reached out to his Frisbee cohort and found in Caldiero a kindred soul—they had the same cookbooks, shared a similar view of food and community—values that continue to be at the core of their restaurants Town, Kaimuki Superette and Mud Hen Water.
Maunakea-Forth thinks their love of community and family is because of the women in their lives. “All of us come from families with strong women, our mothers, grandmothers and wives are a big influence” says Maunakea-Forth.
Perhaps the most significant impact of the mission-driven neighborhood restaurant that started in 2005 is the “pay it forward” passion of the Town Tribe (as current and former employees proudly call themselves). Chris Sy, the owner of Breadshop, said of his time at Town “Working at Town really allowed me to come in to my own as a cook. Ed and Dave not only gave me the freedom to explore but also to fail. There was a sense of community and common purpose in what we were doing. Breadshop simply would not exist without the relationships made working there; that was the most valuable thing. If you want to look at the impact of Ed and Dave, you just need to look at the people now who are trying to make a difference.”