The Great Equalizer: Chef Gooch on the Power of Good Food
“I think food is the great equalizer,” says Chef Mark Noguchi, aka "Chef Gooch". Though first connecting with his Hawaiian culture from his time spent practicing hula, Chef Gooch—born and raised in Mānoa Valley, O‘ahu—switched gears from the art of dance to the art of cuisine, and has since become a nationally-recognized chef. Graduating from the Culinary Institute of the Pacific and the Culinary Institute of America, Mark made a name for himself at Chef Mavro Restaurant and his very own He‘eia Kea Pier Deli & General Store before forming his culturally-aware catering company, Pili Group. We caught up with Chef Gooch and picked his brain about his own unlikely path towards cooking and the sense of sharing that food brings.
What got you into cooking?
Well, my mother raised me, and she’s a great cook. You’ll probably hear that from a lot of chefs—how our mothers were a big influence on our lives. I think it was just by chance though that I ended up cooking professionally. A friend asked me casually if I’d ever thought about being a chef, and how KCC [Kapi‘olani Community College] had this culinary school. I was like, “Bro, cooking school’s for dorks.” [Chef Gooch laughs] But it just so happened that I ended up meeting a counselor and taking an application home back to Hilo—and that’s where I first ended up. But if I think about it, maybe hula is the reason why I’m a chef. Hula was the first thing that I really dedicated myself to other than my own wants. Prior to hula, I was pretty self-centered. I mean, I was young, but I remember that when we traveled, it was amazing how people would come out of the woodwork to see us, and they always brought food. Wherever you’d go with hula, people would come out and they’d feed us. So I think when you grow up around that type of thing in Hawai‘i, it’s easy to take it for granted; everyone’s always trying to feed you. And when I’d travel, I’d realize that different people—not just Hawaiians, but different indigenous people, community people, and just people in general—they all want to show their own way of aloha through food.
That’s really interesting. Tell us about that sense of sharing or collaboration food brings.
I think food is the great equalizer. Food has the ability to transcend, and has the ability to make us comfortable enough to breakdown walls. Once I started to realize that, and how powerful food was as a way to engage—whether it be through social activism or community engagement—I wanted to try and figure out a way to build my whole life around that, rather than just keeping everything in a restaurant.
Do you remember the first dish you made where you realized that cooking would become your life’s work?
Hmmm, it might have been a beurre blanc recipe. It was some kind of butter sauce that I thought was pretty cool. Honestly, I think it was when I got my report card after the first semester at KCC and I saw a C. I had never seen a C in my life, and I remember calling my mom and dad and going, “I got a C!” That was the first time that I realized I might be okay at this. Then, when I started working in kitchens, I picked things up naturally—I just loved it. I loved the pressure and I loved the stress of it. I loved the physicality of cooking and I started to realize how cool it was to be a chef.
For a chef, what’s the importance of knowing where your ingredients come from?
I think when we know where our ingredients come from, we have a stronger appreciation for it. I love farmers’ markets, but even more than that, I’m talking about investing time and energy into developing the relationships within your community. For chefs, it’s important to understand how much work it takes for farmers to grow that carrot, or to raise those chickens. And when you understand that, I feel that we honor those farmers better. It’s easy for chefs to be like, “I needed that ingredient yesterday!”, but we all know that a carrot doesn’t grow in eight hours, right? So I always love to use the term “cook what get.” For example, Mikala from Mahele Farm asked me what I wanted at the Hāna Ku event, and I’m like, “Ah, whatever you pull in.” I’m more than happy to take the other stuff that people might not want and do something with that, because when I do a dish, I want to honor the people that it’s for. It shouldn’t be about me.