HIFF Spring Showcase: ‘Midnight Diner’

midnight dinerEven if you haven’t seen the Japanese television series upon which “Midnight Diner” is based, there is a strange familiarity that draws you into this film, currently screening at the Hawaii International Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Halfway through, I realized that the familiarity I was sensing was “Cheers,” a character-centric show that revolves around a favorite venue. In the movie’s case it’s a back alley hole-in-the-wall that opens from midnight until 7 in the morning. That is where any similarities to “Cheers” ends, but it is fun trying to discern who the Norm figure is.

Many of the actors from the original series, which got its start as a Japanese manga by Yaro Abe titled “Shinya Shokudo,” make appearances in the film.

midnight diner 2Present throughout is the enigmatic restaurant owner known only as “the Master,” played by Kaoru Kobayashi. Although he is the central figure, Kobayashi serves more as a unifying thread who strings together vignettes about the characters who frequent his late-night eatery. The characters are flawed, which makes them relatable, and it becomes apparent very early that “Midnight Diner” does not refer to the venue, but to the characters. 

Like American movies that ground themselves in reality by referencing 9/11, so too does this film when two characters, Kenzo and Akemi, deal with the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region.

Keeping with the theme of the film, each chapter has a food-related title like “Grated squash on rice” and “Neapolitan.” In each, characters seek advice from the Master, who comforts them with dishes like Italian pasta served on scrambled eggs or curry stew. The Master never tells them what to do. Each character unwittingly finds his or her own solution, usually through the comfort of the food and the relationships they have created with other midnight diners.

“Midnight Diner” will have one final showing at HIFF on Sunday, April 19 at 4:15 p.m. at Dole Cannery.

Are we Mauna Kea?

We Are Mauna KeaSince yesterday, my social media feeds have been inundated with “We Are Mauna Kea” posts, which have left me conflicted. First of all, any movement that identifies itself with a catchphrase has a limited digital shelf life and is forgotten about once the next buzz-worthy hashtag comes along.

I am all for science and technology. I use it in some form or another every day, and if you are reading this now, you probably do, too.

At the same time, I am Hawaiian. I am proud of my island heritage and very much enjoy unplugging from my digital leash to connect with my native culture. I have yet to find anything more reinvigorating than spending a day knee-deep in a lo‘i.

There is a fair bit of irony in how people are using technology to protest the advancement of science in the name of cultural identity. As a result, several prominent celebrities have entered the fray including Jason Momoa, Nichole Scherzinger, and Ian Somerhalder.

What they are doing has proven to be very effective. It has raised awareness of the issue, and has given a local story a worldwide audience. I can’t help but wonder if this may prove to be counterproductive and turn an issue that raises valid concerns into an internet meme. Part of me even questions if the words “We Are Mauna Kea” written across Nichole Scherzinger’s chest is culturally insensitive.

PrimeIt is interesting that the protests involve the building of a new observatory. I came across a thought-provoking opinion piece by Bronson Kaahui yesterday. I don’t agree with everything he wrote, however, he makes a good point in reminding us that it was our Polynesian ancestors’ application of astronomy that enabled them to explore the Pacific Ocean and brought them to Hawaii. As Hawaiians, the study of the stars is part of our island heritage, and for humanity as a whole, looking to the skies reminds us that more is possible.

As of this post, I’m leaning in the direction that the Thirty Meter Telescope planned for Mauna Kea could be a good thing in the long term, so long as measures are taken to be culturally respectful to Mauna Kea, Hawaii and the Hawaiian people. Right now, the goal of the protests is to stop the TMT from being built in the name of protecting the ‘aina, but when does protecting the ‘aina cross the line into stifling the advancement of science? By not building the TMT, what discoveries will we lose out on?

I definitely agree that Hawaii does not need any more golf courses. The purpose of the TMT, on the other hand, is the pursuit of knowledge, and I believe that that puts it in alignment with the explorational spirit of our seafaring ancestors.

It’s good that people are passionate. But an all-or-nothing stance is and will always be counterproductive. When it comes to all or nothing, we all lose.

Cookbook: Mushroom Soup

383245_10150507656308554_659775386_nI’ve been a longtime connoisseur of cookbooks.

Given my chosen field, it’s pretty much a necessity to know what other chefs are doing and to keep up to date with current food trends.

Based on what I have seen in the countless cookbooks I have read, there are two possible directions one can take when writing a cookbook. You can either go really technical, which would target fellow industry workers and foodies, or cater to the home cook.

As much as I love to geek out on the technical aspects of food, I’ve found that books for home cooks tend to be more fun, which is the direction we’ve decided to go with Off The Wall Craft’s first cookbook. Mushroom Soup

We wanted to make sure that there was no ambiguity as to what kind of cookbook people were about to buy, which is why we are calling it, “…Then Add Cream Of Mushroom Soup.”

As the title suggests, every recipe centers around the ubiquitous soup that virtually everyone has had at some point during their childhood.

The first entry in the book is obviously Off The Wall’s mushroom soup recipe. This is then used as the base of every recipe that follows. Should you choose not to make and store several gallons of cream of mushroom soup like we do, you can easily use your favorite store-bought soup in a can in any of the recipes, including Chef Andy Mitani’s Lazy Luau Dip or Curried Hummus, and yes, it is the secret ingredient in my malasada recipe.

Some of my favorite cookbooks are thick volumes that consist of mostly of amazing food photography. I knew I wanted this book to have great food porn, so I brought in former Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival photographer Darryl Watanabe to shoot the amazing photos that make up more than half the book. Food Logo This cookbook would not have been possible without the help of Watermark Publishing’s Dawn Sakamoto Paiva, who also served as the book’s editor. Off The Wall’s Mushroom Soup will join Watermark’s growing collection of cookbooks that focus on single ingredients like riceMaui lavender, beer, and coffee to name a few.

All of us at Off The Wall Craft are really excited about this project and Paiva is confident that this new cookbook will be the “biggest seller of the year.”

You would be able to pre-order your copy now if this entire story were not made up.

Happy April Fools Day!

 

You can read and share more of my April Fools Day shennanigans below:

Who Wants A POG Fruit?

Kitchen Tips: Avoid Unwhisking

Hawaii Food and Wine Heads To The Target Isle

What Bakers Don’t Want You To Know

You can’t buy Hawaiian Shochu … but you’ll taste it at Something New

Something New is a food fest with a twist: Nine of Honolulu’s craziest chefs were paired with local ingredients and challenged to create something new. Savory chefs got sweet ingredients. Pastry chefs got savory. One got a whole cow. Another got awa. Ed Morita, the Off the Wall Craft pastry chef who wrote the blog below, got Hawaiian Shochu.

Our only request? Go crazy, and keep it delicious. Join us to taste the results next Wednesday from 6-8:30 p.m. at M Nightclub at Restaurant Row. Tickets are at frolicsomethingnew.eventbrite.com.

Photo by Ed MoritaI admit to being a little envious when I heard what ingredients the other chefs at Frolic’s Something New event were paired with. I have no idea what I would do with an entire steer, but I still want one.

Still, shochu gives me myriad possible directions for my dish, which is why I leaped at the opportunity to visit Ken Hirata’s Hawaiian Shochu distillery in Haleiwa. I had one major question: “How far can I take this ingredient?”

Photo by Ed Morita  Photo by Ed MoritaWhatever I created, I wanted to be respectful of Hirata’s craft, which it is very evident he loves.

Hirata makes two runs of shochu a year – one in the spring and one in the fall. Each yields approximately 600 bottles, and while most distillers cut their shochu to 25 to 28 percent alcohol, Hirata bottles at 30 percent.

Add to this the locally grown sweet potatoes that he uses, and it is easy to see why Hirata doesn’t need retailers to sell his shochu. Even though he sells to only a few restaurants and aficionados who hear about him and stop by, every batch of Hawaiian Shochu has sold out. In fact, a group of tourists arrived while I was there to pick up bottles that they had ordered months prior.

Photo by Ed Morita  Photo by Ed MoritaTo say that making shochu is a labor of love is an understatement. The ingredient that makes shochu distinct from other clear distilled spirits is koji, a mold that Hirata and his wife cultivate. The koji is sprinkled on steamed rice that must be tended to every three to four hours for three days.

Photo by Ed Morita  Photo by Ed MoritaThe koji rice is added to large pots with a mash of Okinawan sweet potatoes, water and yeast. During fermentation, starches in the rice and sweet potato turn into sugars, which the yeast feeds on to create alcohol. Hirata distills the shochu and ages it in a tank, yielding the clear liquor that remarkably retains much of the aroma and flavor of the sweet potato.

Photo by Ed Morita  Photo by Ed Morita

After seeing how much work goes into making Hawaiian Shochu, I asked Hirata how much liberty I could take with it. I explained that I wanted to push the limits of his shochu while highlighting the flavor and keeping true to what comes out of the still.

Photo by Ed Morita  Photo by Ed Morita

The shochu that my Off The Wall Craft co-workers and I tasted was cask strength, straight from the vat with an alcohol content of 40 percent. It had an earthy aroma of sweet potato skin that gave way to caramel notes. The flavor mirrored the nose, starting with sweet potatoes, giving way to alcohol and finishing again with sweet potato. Hirata’s shochu is unfiltered, so sipped over ice, it has a creamy mouth feel that makes it even smoother.

I explained to Hirata that to really take my dish “off the wall,” I was going to make a cocktail with his shochu and then pair my dessert(s) to the cocktail. Hirata looked dumbfounded when I said that I planned to barrel-age some of his shochu to turn it into a whiskey, and flavor some with strawberries, limoncello style.

Photo by Ed Morita

From left to right: my strawberry-cello, original Hawaiian Shochu, barrel-aged shochu.

After weeks of tinkering, the question now is what dessert(s) am I going to make to go with the shochu cocktails?

Sticky Buns web

To highlight the flavor and aroma of sweet potatoes, I’m creating a variation of my bacon sticky bun with Okinawan sweet potato instead of kabocha squash, topped with a spiked honey syrup made with the barrel-aged shochu. As for what I have in store for the strawberry-cello? That will be a surprise.

See you at the M on March 25!

Something New
Wednesday, March 25 from 6 to 8:30p
M Nightclub @ Restaurant Row
Tickets: $75 online including all food and two drinks

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The Bank of Hawaii MyBankoh Rewards card is the official card of the Something New event. To learn more about the card visit boh.com/mybankohrewards. At the event, show your Bank of Hawaii MyBankoh Rewards Credit card at the door to receive special access to the MyBankoh Rewards Lounge and an exclusive tasting, featuring Hawaiian Shochu Company shochu and an appetizer pairing.

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A chef’s view: Soft openings

busy-restaurantDisclaimer: The following represents my views only and should in no way reflect upon or be interpreted as the opinion of any past, present or future employers.

As unbelievable as it is to me, I have gone through two restaurant soft openings in 16 months — Highway Inn Kakaako, and now Off The Wall Craft.

During many conversations over the past few days, it has become clear to me that the soft opening is a restaurant practice that many diners do not understand.

A soft opening occurs before the official opening and serves two purposes, both of which involve receiving feedback.

Menu development

Although a soft opening does offer a preview of the restaurant’s menu, chefs are really looking for feedback on the food. For the most part, this is the first time they are presenting a menu concept to people outside the restaurant. As such, they are attempting to gauge how dishes will be received by the public.

At Off The Wall Craft, we spread out our soft opening over several events, the first being a media day. The test group consisted of magazine editors, food writers, bloggers, social media influencers, public relations professionals, photographers and chefs.

Aside from the buzz this created, we asked for and received a great amount of feedback on the menu. Overall, the feedback was positive, but there were a few items that we completely scrapped and re-conceptualized from the bottom up.

After tweaking the menu slightly, we next invited family and friends to taste the food. The media group predominantly represented the foodie demographic. The people we invited for Friends & Family night represented a wider cross-section of the local food culture.

Stress test

The second part of a soft opening that many people often don’t grasp is the stress test. This is a training tool to evaluate employees and see where service procedures, both in the kitchen and the dining room, need to be adjusted.

Put simply and honestly, if you are looking for good service, DO NOT go to a soft opening, because the restaurant is deliberately set up to fail.

Photo by Ed MoritaIt may sound cruel, but employees are often sent out with minimal instruction to see how they react in a stressful situation. This reveals their strengths and weaknesses, and determines in what areas they need to be trained.

I have often seen reviews from people who attended a soft opening saying that the restaurant ran out of food. Once again, this is intentional. Because the menu is completely new, chefs do not have the benefit of past data. Personal experience can help them guess what could be popular, but this still speculation.

Without past services to rely on for forecasting, the best option from a food cost standpoint is to prep conservatively, knowing that if you run out, then you run out. After being open for a few weeks, the chef will have a firmer grasp of what the popular items are and can adjust accordingly.

Thank you, come again

You may view this post as me making excuses for the shortcomings of restaurants. My intention is merely to inform and ask for understanding. If you are fortunate enough to attend a soft opening, then that means the restaurant wants your feedback, so please do not hesitate to share your experience with them. However, writing premature public reviews about any business while they are still getting organized ends up hurting the business more than helping it, so remember to review responsibly, after a business has officially opened.

There are a lot of moving parts involved in opening a restaurant, and no one wants to provide bad service. Remember that, especially during a soft opening, employees are still new. Systems are still being learned and in many cases, still being implemented.

It is easy to pass judgment of the failures of others. Instead, bet on them to succeed. Give a brand-new business the benefit of the doubt and enable them to give you the best food and service possible.

— Ed Morita is the pastry chef at Off The Wall Craft Desserts & Kitchen — which officially opens Feb. 14