You can hear him over the crowd at food and wine events and clear across Punahou’s Middle Field – Mark Noguchi ’93, joyous and irrepressible, makes it known when he’s in the house. Hawai‘i’s loudest chef would have graduated with the Class of ’93 had he stayed through high school. Now he’s back – this time as one of Punahou’s most forward-thinking resources.
You wouldn’t have seen this coming when Noguchi – or “Gooch,” as most know him by – ended up on a circuitous path that took him from Punahou to Waipi‘o Valley, where a period of self-reflection taught him the importance of ‘āina and a responsibility to something bigger than himself, to upstate New York and the nation’s most storied culinary academy, and then to the kitchens of Chef Mavro and Ed Kenney’s ’86 Town restaurant. And that was just the beginning. When he branched out on his own, it was in typical Gooch style – a two-picnic-table concession stand at the end of a fishing pier just past Kāne‘ohe.
Gooch’s He‘eia Kea Pier General Store & Deli was an immediate hit. Foodies drove from town for his guava chicken, a Hawai‘i Island lū‘au stew that evoked pure comfort and a daily i‘a dish made with whatever fresh catch a fisherman motored up with. Local and national press followed, and Gooch emerged a culinary star.
He opened a dining incubator in Kaka‘ako; then Lunchbox, a locally sourced, upmarket counter at Hawaiian Airlines headquarters; Mission Social Hall & Café at the Mission Houses Museum; and a catering arm called Pili Group. He worked all the time. He had at home a toddler and a 6-month-old. And his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “2016 was the year of learning my weaknesses,” he says. “I was being pulled in so many directions. And I was going to lose my mother way earlier than I thought. I ended up really stressed out and bitter.”
The best thing that happened didn’t occur to him until the following year. One night, after a talk for Punahou’s entrepreneurial accelerator program, Academy Principal Emily McCarren had an observation. You really connect with our students, she told him. Have you ever thought about teaching?
He had no time to think. But life has a way of telling you when you’re paddling the wrong way, even if it means capsizing. That year, 80% of his staff quit. “It’s one of those moments you blink and you wake up,” he recalls. “It was like I have been cooking 17 years. I have put cooking before everything else. My relationship with the people I love the most is driving them insane. What if there’s another way?”
His wife, Amanda, said it first: Why don’t you go to Punahou?
That’s the story behind why you can hear him across Middle Field today. In the same way life tells you when you’re wrong, it can bring things together like a following sea. Gooch, who now serves as Punahou’s food curriculum specialist for all grade levels, was probably always a teacher without knowing it. It’s what his mother had been. Only now, instead of working with his own cooks and managers, he teaches students lessons rooted in local culture and ‘aina, the way he learned back in Waipi‘o Valley. For him it’s about more than how to grow your own food and how to cook a fish. Cooking rice, for example.
“Punahou is a private school with a public purpose,” he says. “If we invite outside students in, that’s one way. But what if we turn our hands outward and bring our resources and students out into the world? My thought is why don’t we get together with Kamehameha Schools, Moanalua (High School), Waipahu (High School)? We can form teams and study what’s the actual volume of water in everybody’s finger (the way we measure water for rice)? Now we have 24 groups of kids using math and science, trying to figure out the variables, how much water is absorbed by the rice, we can share that and aggregate the info. It’s also teaching our children how to cook rice. And why not host one evening where we invite students, tie in social and cultural studies, cook a rice dish that their families share? And in one evening we engage 200 people.”
That’s a really big following sea. “A lot of people took a chance on me. They gave me an open slate. I want to honor them,” he says. “And I really want to prove that happiness for us as chefs lies in a greater field than a restaurant.”