Dining: Nobu Doesn't Panic, Goes Organic

A visit with Nobu Matsuhisa, and a considerable entourage, at Waianae’s Mao Farm.


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Nobu Matsuhisa and Nobu Waikiki general manager Wanloe Konyak harvest baby kale at Mao Farms.

Photo: Matt Mallams

From the back of the van, Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa asks, “Where we are?”

Nanakuli, Farrington Highway, on our way to Lualualei Valley, Waianae.

“Nanakuli,” says Nobu. “Maybe I should put restaurant here. Good name—Nobu Nanakuli.”

“I’d have to make Spam musubi all day,” says Nobu’s head sushi chef, Yoshio Ono.

Nobu peers out at the Waianae Range. “The mountains remind me of Cape Town,” he says.

He should know. Nobu has a restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa. He has a restaurant almost everywhere, from Moscow to Melbourne to Mykonos.

“How many do you have now?” someone asks.

He starts to count them. “18 Nobu,” he says, “and three Matsuhisas.”

At any given location, it’s a big deal when the master himself is in residence. This week he’s at Nobu Waikiki—for sushi classes, cocktail parties, book signings, guests wanting their pictures with him and dinners prepared with his celebrated touch.

A Mao Farm student intern harvests small, spicy Hakurei turnips, which will end up served with Wagyu beef in Nobu's Mao Farms dinner.

Photo: Matt Mallams

For a man whose word is law in kitchens on five continents, Nobu is reasonably modest and easy to talk to. Still, he can’t help exuding an aura everywhere he goes—in this case, on a pilgrimage to Waianae’s Mao Farm.

Mao is a social action/sustainable ag outfit that has managed to produce a considerable aura of its own, selling $300,000 a year in organic produce and attracting a number of government and private grants.

A glut of vehicles packs the farm’s unpaved parking lot. In addition to Nobu, sushi chef Ono, Waikiki executive chef Lindsey Ozawa and general manager Wanloe Konyak, there’s Team Nobu, as they call themselves, a dozen or so sous chefs and servers, all here on their own time. They are a diverse bunch, with looks that range from East Coast punk to Texas cowgirl.

Add to that a translator (for Nobu, who doesn’t really need one), four reporters and five photographers, a videographer and a public relations director, who hops on a tractor to get her picture snapped.

That’s not all. Also visiting Mao are two program specialists, young women who usually sit in Washington, D.C., cubicles, monitoring grants from the Administration for Native Americans—a federal agency that has funded Mao Farm to the tune of $2 million.

Even that’s not all. The Mao Farms staff is out in full force, wearing “No Panic, Go Organic” T-shirts. This includes its married directors, Kukui and Gary Maunakea-Forth, and its education specialist, Kamuela Enos, whose job it is, he says, to help us “contextualize” what we are going to see.

Nobu's mizuna and cilantro salad, which turned out much better than you'd expect.

Photo: Matt Mallams

Which is not just bright fields, organic cilantro and basil, red and yellow rainbow chard, feathery fennel, with white butterflies winging around the leafy, deep-green kale.

At its heart, Mao is a cultural activity, the whole organic farming thing fraught with spiritual and educational overtones. Mao’s major crop is college students. It recruits two-year student interns from Waianae, which traditionally doesn’t send many kids to college.

The farm pays them $500 to $600 a month and puts them through Leeward Community College—as long as they pass their courses. If they don’t pass, they have to pay the tuition back. The interns don’t have to become farmers; the hope is they’ll become leaders.


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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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