Power tools buzz behind the brown papered-windows of 'Ono Poke Co. Though passers-by on Edmonton's busy 104th Street cannot see, the geometric light fixtures have been hung. A shave-ice station is taking shape. Menu boards will soon proclaim house specialties.
The paper will come down in a few weeks, the doors will be thrown open, and chef Lawrence Hui will welcome northern Albertans to a little slice of Maui nestled right in the heart of downtown Edmonton. All these factors dangle on the giddy precipice of reality, but for now, Chef Lawrence is digesting the many lessons of a recent trip to the tight-knit beach community of Ka'anapali, on the western edge of verdant Maui.
Edmonton born-and-raised, Mr. Hui travelled to Ka'anapali to work with a handful of Hawaiian poke (pronounced "poh-kay") masters. The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology-trained chef confesses, "I love cooking seafood, but I wanted to do something different." He adds, "I need to be true to the tradition of poke. I need to know its roots."
Although Mr. Hui worked his way through a number of Edmonton hotels, golf courses and restaurants after culinary school, 'Ono (and, just to be clear, it means "delicious" in Hawaiian – it's not a reference to Yoko Ono) will be Mr. Hui's first restaurant. His poignant quest for authenticity is thus rendered more crucial.
This quest finds Mr. Hui 5,000 kilometres away in the vast kitchen of chef Tom Muromoto at the venerable Ka'anapali Beach Hotel. It's only 10 a.m. and the temperature has risen to 30C. The air is cloaked with humidity. Mr. Muromoto's kitchen is, mercifully, far cooler than outside, where rolling waves slosh intermittently over a vast beach. Coconut palms sigh in the heat. Flocks of mynas, whose querulous and impish behaviour is reminiscent of magpies', strut about with impunity. Out across the gleaming surf, past the looming giants of Moloka'i and Lana'i, the next nearest land mass is Asia. Back inside the kitchen, Mr. Muromoto, a professional surfer-turned-chef, schools Mr. Hui in the art of poke.
"Be as natural as possible," Mr. Muromoto explains. He's a tall, avuncular man with vast knowledge and a generous laugh. He gestures to a row of colourful ingredients that include Hawaiian sea salt, scallions, garlic, seaweed and luscious cubes of fresh Ahi tuna. He dresses the tuna cubes with these simple ingredients. "Don't overmix," he cautions, "or it'll get mushy." Then he presents the finished poke for inspection. The fish shines with its humble dressings.
Then the chef mixes up a more complex version that is dressed with sriracha, tobiko and mayo. "Hawaiians do love mayo. It's true!" he chuckles. This interpretation is robust and spicy, and the tobiko adds a delightful pop. Chef Tom's poke embodies his personality: fun-loving but grounded in noble tradition.
Indeed, all interpretations of poke bear the stamp of their makers. Just down the road from Ka'anapali Beach Hotel at Whalers Village, Chef Charlie Owen breaks down a gargantuan tuna. Its girth could rival that of a school-aged child. Chef Charlie, though a transplant from Kentucky, breaks down this antediluvian beast with ease in the kitchen of the Hula Grill. "Poke is the first fish you catch of the day. You cut it up with a pocket knife and enjoy it right on the boat," he explains before adding, "With fish this fresh, it's a no-brainer." The tuna flesh is dark, like beef tenderloin. The chef dresses the glistening cubes of fish with soya sauce, mild Maui onion, and slivers of vibrant orange Hawaiian chilies.
Across the street at Roy's Ka'anapali, chef Jesse Anacleto is Mr. Hui's guide through a whirlwind of poke that range from traditional to octopus to mussels. "Anyone can make poke with their own flavours," insists Mr. Anacleto, the sous-chef to the godfather of Hawaiian chefs, Roy Yamaguchi. "Just use the flavours of your background," he recommends. It's an analogy for Maui itself, which is a melting pot of cultures that lend their essence to poke. Native Hawaiians used volcanic salts. Korean immigrants brought kimchee. Southeast Asians brought citrus and chilies. Mainland Americans brought mayonnaise. Mr. Hui reflects on this kaleidoscope of influences. "It really inspires me to know that the roots of this dish are so humble, but then all these cultures came together and influenced this one single dish."
How will Mr. Hui make poke his own? "These chefs welcomed me into their home. They know so much about their ingredients. They respect the ocean. They are so generous with their knowledge," he explains. "I can play with all these flavours and, being from an Asian background myself, can put my own twist on it without offending anyone," he adds.
Poke has indeed gained traction on the mainland, with poke joints popping up in many major cities. But major aberrations from the tradition of poke include ingredients such as cherry tomatoes or mandarin orange slices sharing quarters with previously frozen fish. Poke is trendy now, and this designation is a double-edged sword that can beget crass products and corner-cutting.
Chef Lawrence isn't concerned about trends, though. "I'm here to bring a feeling home. Hawaiians are relaxed. They don't stress themselves out the way people do on the mainland. Instead, they welcome people into their homes," he states.
And they make the best poke, which is precisely what Mr. Hui intends to do at 'Ono Poke Co.
The restaurant's soft open is scheduled for June 3 at 10142 104 St. in Edmonton.