Support Kupu. Eat Veggie Lau Lau and Short Rib Lau Lau
Kupu, the nonprofit that runs youth programs in conservation and sustainability, now offers Hawaiian food and breathtaking venue.
Have you missed ‘Ono Hawaiian Food’s ginormous lau lau (aka the Mauna Lau Lau, as HONOLULU’s late dining editor John Heckathorn once called it)? Well it’s back, in an unexpected way—and in many ways, better than ever.
Kupu, the nonprofit that runs youth programs in conservation and sustainability, is unexpectedly carrying on ‘Ono’s lau lau tradition. Last November, it began selling Hawaiian food at the Saturday morning Kaka‘ako farmers market, and an auntie who worked at ‘Ono’s Hawaiian Food passed on the restaurant’s techniques to Kupu’s youth. The result: a traditional pork and butterfish lau lau ($8) to bring back memories, but also a nouveau short rib lau lau ($10) with a generous hunk of beef cushioned in kabocha, breadfruit and mushrooms, swaddled in lū‘au leaves. There’s even a veggie lau lau ($8) stuffed with seven different vegetables and mushrooms, which might be my new favorite lau lau, especially with a side of fresh-pounded pa‘i‘ai and Kupu’s spicy pickled green papaya—providing a welcome punch of crunch and heat.
But these lau lau deliver more than a tasty package. It’s through them I learned of Kupu’s culinary program developed in the past few years along the lines of LA’s Homeboy Industries, which offers former gang members job training and work through a bakery, cafe and other primarily food businesses.
In 2017, Kupu acquired a 35-year lease on a site at the Kewalo Basin parking lot—the structure there was originally built to dry fishing nets, but with the collapse of the aku fishing industry, it lay abandoned for years. Kupu raised $6 million to transform what was once known as the “crack shack” into the Ho‘okupu Center: a welcoming, open-air facility with straight-on views of Kewalo’s surf break. At Ho‘okupu, Kupu offers a GED program for youth from under-resourced backgrounds, as well as free breakfast and lunch for the participants—for some, these are their only meals. Ho‘okupu’s renovation included a full commercial kitchen (and the only one I know of with ocean views), for in addition to feeding the youth, “we also saw there was a lot of interest in our program participants to get in the culinary area,” says John Leong, CEO and one of the founders of Kupu. “It also created a great workforce opportunity. Our commitment to our youth is not just getting them through training but also helping them transform their lives, a pathway upward.”
And so Kupu’s culinary program was born. Eddie Mafnas, who used to run Firehouse Food Truck, serving Chamorro food that drew on his roots in Guam, and Frank Gonzales, previously in charge of KCC’s continuing education culinary programs, train the youth in the kitchen. Today, three graduates of the program work there full-time. During the pandemic, they served almost 100,000 meals to communities in need. “Our kids were the ones that in the past needed a lot of aid and now they were the ones providing aid, which was very empowering for them,” says Leong.
In addition to the farmers market offerings, Kupu caters events held in Ho‘okupu Center, an indoor/outdoor space so open that even the agoraphobic could love it—it’s especially lovely around sunset, when surfers take their last waves and the tiki torches bordering the ocean cast their glow. Catering menus include a Hawaiian lū‘au that takes advantage of the venue’s on-site imu, one of the few commercial imu on the island. Other options include a sushi bar and a whole roast pig. Before pandemic times, Kupu hosted and catered corporate events to concerts to baby’s first lū‘au. As we jumpstart our social lives, weekends are booking up, helping to achieve Kupu’s vision of the space—bringing a forgotten space, and in many ways, youth, back to life.
Find Kupu Culinary at the Saturday Kaka‘ako Farmers Market.
For more information on events, catering and venue rental at Ho‘okupu, visit kupuhawaii.org