2019 Hale ‘Aina Award Winners: Ed Kenney of Mud Hen Water is Hawai‘i’s Restaurateur of the Year
The rebel with a cause is the chef and owner of Mud Hen Water, Kaimukī Superette, Town and Mahina & Sun’s.
ed kenney at mud hen water in kaimukī.
Ed Kenney wants me to make this article light. I’ve caught him in a pensive mood, he says. So even though he’s just told me that, “As a chef, I’m let down” and “I don’t think we made much of a difference,” he says he’s not regretful nor bitter.
“Maybe I overthink,” he says. “That’s why I don’t smoke pot.”
But he’s always been pensive in that he’s always trying to figure out what matters to him and how he will convey it through his cooking and restaurants: Town, Kaimukī Superette, Mud Hen Water and Mahina & Sun’s.
Take the dish he served for an episode of the Australian TV show United Plates of America. He left the tops on a MA‘O Organic Farms turnip and served it with pickled mustard seeds and inamona. He basically handed the host a turnip, a fancyish one called Hakurei, but still, a turnip, and told this story: “When you’re eating something from MA‘O you’re not just eating the terroir from Lualualei Valley, which in itself is very unique, you’re also tasting the hope that this nonprofit farm provides underserved youth and community.”
YAKI PA‘I‘AI FROM MUD HEN WATER.
At a recent dinner for a visiting food health and sustainability advocate (Kenney’s restaurants attract a lot of these types, including Michelle Obama and Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters), Kenney served akule with soda crackers and limu butter. He said it was inspired by his childhood: When his single mother didn’t have time to cook, there were always soda crackers in the freezer, sardines in the cupboard and butter in the fridge. He said he started his first restaurant, Town, almost 15 years ago in Kaimukī, a neighborhood that felt like home when he was growing up and is actually home now (he lives just up the hill). Oh, and he doesn’t serve any seafood on Monterey Bay Aquarium’s red (avoid) list. He said when he realized the impact he could make with one restaurant, he thought, “What could I do with more?” So he opened Kaimukī Superette and Mud Hen Water kitty-corner to Town, and then Mahina & Sun’s in Waikīkī. (He also opened Downtown at the HiSAM in 2007 and closed it five years later when the rent was raised.)
Light and goodness draw us to Kenney’s restaurants: goodness in the form of beet poke at Mud Hen Water; warmth in a whole fish feast at Mahina & Sun’s; literal lightness in the gnocchi at Town; and playfulness in a he‘e roll at Kaimukī Superette. But it is light against darkness, a fight against forces that keep a Wai‘anae community impoverished or threaten to destroy our oceans. Restaurants have always been havens—the word itself comes from the French word “to restore”—and Kenney’s restaurants are exuberant and joyful and warmly lit bubbles, though you can still see, beyond the iridescent edge, that it’s dark outside.
gnocchi from Town.
Kenney is the son of two Waikīkī legends, Beverly Noa and Ed Kenney, she a renowned hula dancer, he a star in the original Gene Kelly-directed production of Flower Drum Song on Broadway. Together they performed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, back before it became a sprawling resort, and at the Halekūlani when bungalows still edged the beach. But “my mother had terrible taste in men,” Kenney says. “He was a playa. She divorced him before I was even born.” She raised her sons, Kenney and his half-brother (son of roller derby star Fred Lee Noa), without their fathers, in an ‘ohana unit in Kāhala. Taking the bus home from Punahou, he and his brother would stop in Kaimukī at Ali‘i Stamp and Coin and splash around in his best friend’s grandma’s pool, just two houses down from where he lives now. As he grew into his rebellious years, he’d hang out at Soda Pops, a punk rock club that’s now the site of the Surfjack and Mahina & Sun’s.
He studied business at the University of Colorado Boulder and worked in commercial real estate development, then backpacked across the world before deciding he really wanted to feed people at his own restaurant. He gave himself 10 years to learn to cook, attending the Kapi‘olani Community College culinary school and working in spots around Honolulu, including Indigo. At the time, Asian fusion was popular, but “it hadn’t evolved much,” Kenney says. “It was still wasabi beurre blanc and ginger-crusted this and that, big umami rich sauces where it didn’t matter what you put it on.” He found himself more aligned with the culinary scene in San Francisco, where he would often visit his wife’s family. There, the restaurants “were simple, unfussy, ingredient-driven,” he says. So he opened Town in 2005 as a reaction to what he saw in Honolulu: “People gotta be exposed to the true essence of food.” He served pork cheeks on polenta and a roast chicken with grapes à la Zuni Café, a quintessential San Francisco restaurant.
Akule, soda crackers and limu butter from mud hen water.
He didn’t know if people were going to get it. They didn’t. John Heckathorn, in his review of Town for this magazine, said, “I hated it” (a quote that Kenney later emblazoned on one of the few ads he’s ever bought).
In the beginning it was inconsistent and a bit uncomfortable, all hard surfaces that amplified sound, but Town found a rhythm, smoothed out the edges and noise, and gained a devoted community that “got it.” There’s still no other restaurant like it: California-Italian in style with Hawaiian ingredients.
If you were to plot Kenney’s rise on a graph along with other Hawai‘i chefs, it would be the blip statisticians would have to decide whether to discard as an outlier or leave in and let it shift the trend line. He opened Town 14 years after the launch of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine and eight years before the rise of the new cohort of chefs including Chris Kajioka, Andrew Le and Mark Noguchi.
Kenney likes being out there on his own. And he likes to provoke. “I was always this skate-punk rebel kid,” he says. You can still see it in him—wearing a T-shirt with “Aloha” in the style of the Metallica logo, a tattoo sleeve on one arm and his wife as a pinup surfer girl on the other. (He says he’s not doing the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival this year, because “we’re rebels.”)
His outlier status became a bridge. When Heather Haunani Giugni, the creator of PBS Hawai‘i’s Family Ingredients, was searching for a host to trace Hawai‘i’s food memories around the globe, she selected Kenney. “He has a foot in both worlds. He was mentored by the HRC group, but is not necessarily of the HRC group,” she said when the show first began.
kunoa cattle rib eye from mud hen water.
Kenney, too, began seeing himself as a connector. In 2014, he started a Hawai‘i chapter of the Chef Action Network, educating chefs to become active politically on food issues. Around the same time, he played mediator, gathering chefs from the old guard and new over crispy split pig heads and warm tortillas at his restaurant. “At that point the young guys were still bashing HRC, saying, ‘Fuck Hawai‘i, we gotta make a change.’ I said, ‘You’re right.’ But there’s no reason we should bash daikon and carrot curls. They’re of the times. Chuck [Furuya] and Alan [Wong] said, ‘You gotta bridge this gap in this culinary world.’”
Ultimately, he couldn’t unite the chefs on any single cause. But if he couldn’t build harmony on issues like genetically modified organisms or between chefs of different generations, at least he could at Mud Hen Water, which he opened in 2015. The chef once banned shoyu in Town’s kitchen; now he used it to glaze pa‘i‘ai. He roasted ‘ulu with Chinese fermented black beans, paired biscuits with mapo tofu, set fish on stewed lū‘au leaves and topped it all with sunny-side-up eggs. He baked bananas like potatoes, stuffing them with curry butter and bacon bits. Like Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi had before him, he took all of Hawai‘i’s comfort foods, with a particular emphasis on native Hawaiian staples, and updated them in fresh, contemporary ways that no one else in Hawai‘i had done—and still hasn’t.
buttered ‘Ulu from mud hen water.
When Kenney opened Town, “it was about making my mark.” Now, at 51, he says, “There are a lot of things that are more important than making a mark.”
Like what, I ask.
Like family. He says he hadn’t been prepared for the death of both his parents in the past few years. He also couldn’t have prepared for his son’s diagnosis of an autoimmune disease that attacks the muscles that allow him to speak, swallow and breathe. So Kenney says that at this stage of his career, he’s just trying to maintain his four restaurants.
After a two-year hiatus, he’s trying to get Family Ingredients back up. Because even though he’s still uncomfortable in front of the camera, he likes telling stories and he realizes he could reach so many more people through TV. Town was his first public story, told through the simple preparation of ingredients. But the story of a carrot’s flavor fighting against wasabi beurre blanc has given way to more complex ideas. “Now, I believe that the biggest issue humanity faces is climate change,” he says. And he believes that restaurants and the food industry can help by sourcing locally and by educating the people they feed. Which goes back to why he feels let down.
“People would always say that farm-to-table is a trend, and I said, no, it’s the way things are going. But I’m beginning to think farm-to-table was a trend. I’m looking at Instagram feeds of restaurants in Hawai‘i, all these hot restaurants now, and there’s all these scallops, Maine lobster, Wagyu beef.”
But even this is only second in importance in his mind. Climate change affects our future, while he’s worried about his workers’ present. Restaurant employees earn the lowest wages out of any major occupational group—an average of $22,165 a year. “The food and beverage industry is positioned to make a huge impact in the community and the economy and in climate change. But all that shit is pointless if you can’t even pay [employees] a decent living wage. … To be an employer that does not provide a living wage because we can only charge so much for a sandwich, it really takes its toll.”
These are the questions that keep him up at night. They are questions that riddle the industry. They are not solved by a radish, no matter how good the story. They are not solved by one person. “It takes a town,” as Kenney likes to say. And there will always be a new battle, or maybe the same one, with different faces. And that’s why we go to Kenney’s restaurants. In an increasingly secular and solitary society, they make us feel part of a tribe and a cause. They bring us together and they feed us so that we can face our own battles and tell our own stories.