Photo: Ethann Oki
“Educate and Inspire.”
Those were the words that Nālani Kanaka‘ole, kumu hula (hula teacher) of Hālau O Kekuhi, rooted within Mark Noguchi nearly 20 years ago. “The hālau gave me life,” says Mark, chef and co-founder of Pili Group, a culinary catering company focused on inspiring the community through education and food. He paused and looked down trying to find the words to describe his enduring gratitude. Tears began rolling down his face. “I don’t know where I would be right now if I didn’t have hula in my life. I owe everything to Aunty Nālani.”
It is difficult to capture the essence of being part of a hālau hula (hula school) family if you have never been part of one. Training is rigorous and turnover is high. Words such as rigid, tradition, legacy, respect, and loyalty are commonly used when describing a hālau hula. “I quickly discovered that it wasn’t about me. It’s always about the larger cause. Every activity we did, like making a hau skirt or lei, contributed to something bigger. Every action had protocol. Each movement was meaningful. This was discipline,” Mark explains. “I strive for excellence in everything I do.”
Mark, or “Gooch”, as family and friends call him, was born and raised on the island of Oahu and grew up in a musical family. Every family member played an instrument except for him. Instead, he wanted to dance hula but his Father didn’t support this interest. Mark’s passion for the beautiful art form and culturally significant practice eventually led him to find his purpose. During his early 20’s, Mark was living in Hilo and enjoying the slower pace of Hawaiʻi Island. While attending college, his Hawaiian studies professor encouraged him to join Hālau O Kekuhi. “They were taking new students and so I checked them out,” says the former chef and partner of Heʻeia Kea Pier, General Store and Deli. The next six years were significant. He was traveling the world with his hālau telling stories of tradition and beliefs through hula. Most importantly, he was gaining core values and guiding principles that will forever shape his life. “What I say, believe in, and how I view food stems from hula.”
Respect, especially for our land is another value he acquired. Mark learned to give more of himself. “When you are preparing food and gathering lāʻau (products of the earth) with your hālau, you take only what is necessary. Gossip and swearing are not tolerated during this process. Every person that works for me must practice this unfailingly,” he says. Coincidently, a prior employee of Pili Group joined us during this part of the interview and he was unaware of Mark’s tie to hula. “Mark taught me to become more aware of my surroundings,” says Adam Locke, the former General Manager of Taste Table, a restaurant incubator project co-launched by Pili Group that ended in December 2013. “This helped me become more responsible in caring for our land.”
When dancing with Hālau O Kekuhi ended, it was difficult for Mark to identify his next steps. He didn’t think he could be passionate about anything else. A chance meeting with a friend during a college conference lead him to enroll at the Kapiolani Community College culinary arts program. The rest is history! He continued on to become a graduate of the Culinary Institute of the Pacific and the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Along side his wife, Amanda Corby, he launched Pili Group in 2012. This became a vessel in leading Hawaiʻi’s sustainable food movement.
Mark’s other notable business ventures include Lunchbox, a partnership with Hawaiian Airlines providing its employees with healthy and locally sourced meals at its corporate office. His second restaurant, Mission Social Hall and Café, is a tucked away gem located in the historic Hawaiian Mission Houses Museum. It features healthy grab-n-go choices such as sandwiches, salads, and soups along with contemporary Hawaiian food inspired by dishes of the 19th-century missionary era.
I have been a faithful supporter of Mark and Amanda’s work. I appreciate their efforts in making every detail meaningful. It is this thoughtfulness for our local culture, needs, and community that gains such a loyal following.
Mark is the proud father of one year old daughter Eleanor and considers himself blessed to be surrounded with people that hold similar values as him. He strives to be a good husband, a good father, and a contributing community member. How does he want to leave a legacy? Mark wants the people he touches to practice the values he learned from hula. “I’ve been tapped to continue Aunty Nālani’s family legacy. I’m honored to pass this on.”