35th Hale ‘Aina Awards: A Culinary Legend’s Legacy
The culinary community mourns Conrad Nonaka’s death with a heavy heart and a steady eye to the future.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF UH FOUNDATION
Before chef Alan Wong opened his award-winning restaurant, he questioned whether he was making the right decision. He remembers one night when he and his best friend, Conrad Nonaka, were sitting on the lānai of the restaurant surrounded by ladders, tools and all kinds of building materials (it was still under construction at the time). He looked at Nonaka and asked for advice and words of encouragement.
“That moment with him taught me that sometimes we all just need the right push. I will never forget that,” says Wong, who met Nonaka 32 years ago. “I learned that you never do things by yourself. You always surround yourself with good people. He was one of them.”
Nonaka, then-director of UH’s Culinary Institute of the Pacific, located next to Kapi‘olani Community College, died in June at 68. Fellow restaurateurs, friends, students and many others mourned the loss of a great chef and a great person. KCC Chancellor Louise Pagotto says they will honor Nonaka’s legacy by continuing to grow and steward the culinary institute in the ways that Nonaka envisioned. That means completing the second phase of the institute, slated to break ground in January, hiring a new director and creating endowments that will keep it running in the future.
“Conrad filled people’s lives with joy,” Pagotto says. “He knew how to communicate and connect with people. It was always about the education, the learning … and making sure the students had opportunities to work with renowned chefs.”
Born and raised on Kaua‘i, Nonaka earned a bachelor’s degree in education from UH Mānoa and an associate degree in food service at KCC. He started out running his family’s restaurant in Hanapēpē and worked as an executive chef at several luxury hotels. He was instrumental in developing the popular KCC Farmers Market and establishing the culinary institute, where he served as director for nearly two decades. Nonaka’s many accomplishments also include helping to launch the first Restaurant Week Hawai‘i 11 years ago and ensuring that all UH programs were accredited by the American Culinary Federation.
“Someone said to me recently that when we lost Conrad, we lost a great one,” says Wong, who serves on the culinary institute’s board. “And more so we need to make the CIP come to fruition for him.”