Meet 3 Craftspeople Enhancing the Dining Experience in Honolulu Restaurants
Woodworker Nick Hunsinger, upholsterer Aung Thaitae and ceramicist Mark Kuhn have helped elevate the dining scene.
In a restaurant, the kitchen isn’t the only place where craft happens. Meet some of the craftspeople integral to the experience, including one whose pieces don’t blend into the woodwork and another who is part of the literal fabric of Hawai‘i’s restaurants.
Nick Hunsinger, Woodworker
Hawai‘i is not kind to wood. Intense sunlight caused a sign for Senia to crack within three months. Humidity warped another piece in just three days, leaving gaps where once “you couldn’t even fit a sheet of paper between all the lines,” woodworker Nick Hunsinger says. But if working with wood were easy, where would the fun be?
Hunsinger runs the wood shop at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and moonlights as the maker of some of the Honolulu restaurant industry’s most intricate and complex wood pieces. They include a seven-compartment box, aka septagon, made of three different woods—sapele, walnut and African blackwood—that unfurls to reveal Senia’s mignardises, to Podmore’s glass, brass and wood tower for its gin and tonic. “Woodworking is one of those things where it’s got to start with a plan, and then you go through your prototype phase, and then problems come your way,” Hunsinger says. “So you start to find little solutions for them.” It’s those “little solutions” that he loves figuring out, he says. For a mobile cart housing Suntory’s whisky soda tap, he designed a system that could be taken apart easily and quickly, even making custom crates that the disassembled parts clipped into for easy transport to Suntory’s events. For Senia’s sign that hangs in the window, after discovering that the daily expansion and contraction caused by sunlight exposure caused it to crack (“you’d be surprised how much wood moves,” he says), he sandwiched layers of wood, alternating the grain, so that “all the stresses get contained by the wood underneath.”
After Hunsinger worked on Senia’s furniture, chef-owner Anthony Rush approached him with “little paper models that he had been carrying for years and just couldn’t find anybody to make what he had in mind,” Hunsinger says. “I took a look, and it was definitely something I thought I could handle.” In addition to the aforementioned septagon, Hunsinger’s less-complex pieces for Senia include an onion ring tree and tray with an inset for a glass cloche to cover smoked salmon. For many of Senia’s pieces, he uses monkeypod that he finds by serendipity, as in “I’ll just be driving to work and see a bunch of guys cutting a tree down, and I’ll ask to take the chunks.” He cuts them into 2-inch slabs and lets them air dry in his carport. “It’s not a fast process,” he says—it dries at a rate of about an inch a year from the outside, but he likes knowing that a tree growing in Mānoa and rescued from the chipper will now live on in a restaurant.
Growing up on construction job sites—his father was a master electrician—coupled with an artistic bent has given him a versatility useful in everything from installing lighting into the Suntory whisky soda cart to blowing glass and incorporating it into a kiosk made of used bourbon barrels for Jim Beam. “Having a random skill set,” he says, “comes in handy when people want off-kilter, weird things.”
Aung Thaitae, Upholsterer
It was the fifth staple. I pulled it. And I had this profound feeling inside me. I said, ‘This is it. This is what I want.’” Aung Thaitae remembers exactly the turning point in her career. Before then, the Thailand native had taken motley jobs—hostess at House Without a Key, sales at NYK shipping company, retail at duty-free stores—and then, one day 10 years ago, “I was just looking at this old chair and I thought, maybe I just change the color or something. Just buy a book or watch YouTube. It looks so easy, right? My dad, he’s a carpenter, and I watched him since I was young.” Because of that, she says, she knew instinctively which tools to use.
But, plot twist! If only it were that easy. When she started getting upholstery jobs, “I was miserable,” she says. “Oh, my God, you have no clue.” She couldn’t get corners straight. She couldn’t get the fabric to lie flat. Her husband, a photographer, put her in touch with a client, Brian Mikami, who was also an upholsterer. “I told Brian, ‘I want to learn. Can you teach me?’ And he said, yes. And at first I thought he was just being polite. And why would he teach me for free anyway, right? And then I ran into a job, and I cannot get it right. I call Brian. Brian says bring the chair over. He asked me to show him. And he’s like, ‘Oh, you have bad techniques.’ He’s the one that refined my work and training, everything. He was so passionate, he told me everything. I listened carefully. I remember every word he said. When I work, I always hear his voice in my head.”
Mikami had reupholstered most of the furniture in ‘Iolani Palace’s Blue Room. “And I look and I study, every piece in there, it was just immaculate, just so perfect. So, I told myself that this is what I want. I want to be like Brian, I want to do a good job, a perfect job, make things that last.”
Thaitae started her upholstery business in 2012, and soon after, through a family friend, connected with Zippy’s. She became the company’s seamstress and consulting upholsterer for all of its locations. Anytime there’s a tear in a seat, or someone’s cut the vinyl (by accident or deliberately), Zippy’s calls her. Aside from those emergencies, she estimates that the booth seats have to be reupholstered about every two to three years, depending on traffic. For high-traffic restaurant seats, she looks at the quality of vinyl, the thickness, the stretch—as well as what’s underneath. She’s upholstered MW Restaurant’s banquettes and chairs, changing “the foundation … because I want it to be comfortable,” which meant installing a high-density foam.
“Some people ask me, ‘Oh, can you skip this? And that?’ No, I don’t do that kind of work. That is there for a reason. Just like a doctor. You open up, and if it needs to be fixed, it has to be fixed. You don’t tell me, ‘don’t fix.’ No, cannot!”
She remembers that in the beginning, “for the first three years, I sleep with tears because, oh, my arm. I was a small woman. When I lie down, it was just throbbing. You take painkillers. Just doesn’t go away. But now, now I have Popeye arms!”
In the telling of her path, there is a clear Before Time and After Time. “At one time, I try to look for something that I want to do. I search, search, search. Many years. Until that day when I stripped that chair. If I never stripped that chair, I would never know! So that’s why when I look back, I think that everything is planned out for me somehow.”
Mark Kuhn, Ceramicist
Mark Kuhn’s hand-thrown and sculpted bowls, plates, cups and sugar packet caddies are so coveted by Hawai‘i’s restaurants that he left the Islands at the end of March in search of more space. “My biggest customer is ‘Ulu [Ocean Grill] at the Four Seasons Hualālai, hands down. I was working out of a 300-square-foot garage, and it’s really, really difficult to keep up with the amount of pieces, more than 200, that they order at a time. It’s overwhelming. They’re really the reason I’m leaving.” So, he bought a house in Wyoming, where he’ll have more space to continue supplying Hawai‘i’s restaurants with his intricately crafted ceramics.
His clients include some of Hawai‘i’s most rarefied restaurants—Pai, Sooper Secret Izakaya, Sushi Sho, and Cane & Canoe at the Montage Kapalua Bay—as well as the everyday, like Chadlou’s Coffee Roasters and Highway Inn. “Unfortunately, [Highway Inn] had an employee who really liked my plates. And they disappeared.” So, he made three to be firmly anchored to the wall near the restaurant’s front entrance.
It’s easy to see why his pieces inspire theft. They’re striking and distinctive: a smooth white porcelain plate dripped with gold luster; ramen bowls with grooves for resting your chopsticks; “wave bowls,” shallow and with one edge folded like the lip of a curling wave (or, since we’ve got food on our minds, a tortilla being folded into a burrito).
When he’s making pieces for restaurants, he considers practicalities like stacking and how the food will look on the plate, aiming for contrast. But also, Kuhn says, “I like to know the color, the mood of the restaurant.” For Pai, chef Kevin Lee gave Kuhn only one parameter: the plating size. Kuhn returned with a curved plate that matched the curve of the uniquely shaped restaurant. “It just fits so much I had to do it,” Kuhn says.
When Kuhn makes new pieces, he thinks about different glazes and types of clay, from smooth porcelain to rougher stoneware, “and then once I get into the mode, I don’t really think about anything. I relax and work—this is what I was made to do.” He’s worked in a box factory, in fast food, and taught art from kindergarten to middle school; when he moved from Pennsylvania to Hawai‘i in 2013, he worked at Home Depot in Pearl City. But he had been throwing clay since 1989. In 2017, he and his wife chaired the Empty Bowl Hawai‘i fundraiser, which invited potters to create bowls and restaurants to fill them, to raise money for Aloha Harvest. That’s where Monica Toguchi Ryan of Highway Inn and Andrew Le of The Pig & The Lady discovered his work, and they commissioned his first restaurant pieces. He soon became the go-to local ceramicist for restaurants.
Right after Kuhn graduated from college, he worked for a production potter, throwing more than 12,000 pieces a year. He burned out and took a few years’ break from ceramics. “At one point, my wife looked at me and she’s like, ‘Why are you so angry?’ So the next day, I got up in the morning and I ordered clay and picked it up and started making pots again. I have not stopped since.”