Chefs Discuss Serving Communities During a Crisis

On June 23, the U.S.-Japan Council held a webinar titled “Culinary Exchange & Serving Communities During a Crisis,” which featured two world-class chefs who offered their perspectives on the ways that sharing a meal can be an act of culinary diplomacy that brings people, communities and cultures together. They also discussed the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on restaurants, and how they have been able to continue serving food during this crisis.

Both featured chefs represent an intersection between the United States and Japan. Mark “Gooch” Noguchi, Co-Founder & Executive Chef of Pili, is a Japanese American chef based in Hawaii, who cooks under the philosophy of connecting food to its source to build community. Ivan Orkin, owner of the Ivan Ramen restaurants, is a New Yorker who moved to Japan and lived there for years operating a ramen restaurant in Tokyo. Both chefs tie their multicultural backgrounds into their food in order to bring people together. USJC Associate Nicole Velasco (ELP ’15) joined the chefs to moderate the discussion.

After Chef Noguchi and Chef Orkin shared how people-to-people relationships ignite their passion for cooking and serving food, and personal anecdotes about culinary authenticity and the most unusual food they had ever eaten (guinea pig and a pancreas sandwich, respectively!), they delved into a more serious discussion about how the restaurant industry has been affected by the pandemic. Like other small businesses, many local restaurants have been hit especially hard – sometimes irreparably. 

Restaurants, especially in areas with high rent, are struggling to keep employees paid and doors open. After months of shut-down, even extra savings are quickly depleted.

“Now all of a sudden we’re doing delivery, which is a horror show,” commented Chef Orkin. He mentioned that decades ago, the process was simple with restaurant staff themselves delivering food. “Now all these big companies take anywhere from 15-40% from the money off the top, and seeing as we usually only make 10% – you can do the math. So most of us are not making money.”

Chef Noguchi shared recent experiences doing volunteer work to feed local communities through Pili Group’s Chef Hui and a collaboration with the nonprofit Aloha Harvest. Citing that 1 in 5 children rely on school lunches for meals, the group has donated ingredients, along with recipes, which are given to community leaders for distribution.

“Hands make it work… and food brings people together,” said Chef Noguchi, remembering the number of volunteers who showed up to help during a food drive.

Thank you to our sponsors for this webinar, Gondo Company, Inc., ITO EN (North America) Inc., King’s Hawaiian and Sun Noodle.

Click here to watch the webinar.