In a restaurant, the kitchen isn’t the only place where craftsmanship happens. Meet some of the artisans who are integral to the experience, including one whose pieces don’t blend into the woodwork and another who is part of the literal fabric of Hawaii’s restaurants.
Nick Hunsinger, carpenter
Hawai’i is not kind to wood. Intense sunlight cracked a sign for Senia in three months. Moisture warped another piece in just three days, leaving gaps where once “you couldn’t even fit a sheet of paper between all the lines,” says carpenter Nick Hunsinger. But if woodworking was easy, where would the fun be?
Hunsinger runs the carpentry shop at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and moonlights as the fabricator of some of the finest and most intricate wooden parts in the restoration industry. Honolulu. They include a seven-compartment box, aka septagon, made of three different woods – sapele, walnut and African blackwood – that unfolds to reveal Senia’s sweet treats, all the way to Podmore’s glass, brass and wood tower. for its gin and tonic. “Woodworking is one of those things where you have to start with a plan, then you go through your prototype phase, and then problems arise,” says Hunsinger. “So you start finding little solutions for them.” It’s those “small solutions” that he likes to find, he says. For a mobile cart housing Suntory’s whiskey soda faucet, he designed a system that could be taken apart quickly and easily, even creating custom crates that the disassembled parts clipped into for easy transportation to Suntory events. For Senia’s panel hanging in the window, after discovering that the daily expansion and contraction caused by exposure to the sun caused it to crack (“you’d be surprised how much wood moves,” he says) , he sandwiched layers of wood, alternating the grain, so that “all the stresses are contained by the wood underneath”.
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After Hunsinger worked on Senia’s furniture, chef-owner Anthony Rush approached him with “little paper models he had been carrying around for years and couldn’t find anyone to do what he had in mind”, Hunsinger said. “I took a look, and it was definitely something I thought I could handle.” In addition to the aforementioned septagon, Hunsinger’s less complex pieces for Senia include an onion ring and a tray with an inset for a glass cloche to cover the smoked salmon. For many of Senia’s pieces, he uses monkeypod which he comes across, as in “I’m just going to drive to work and see a bunch of guys chopping down a tree, and I’ll ask to take the pieces.” He cuts them into 2-inch slabs and lets them air dry in his carport. “It’s not a quick process,” he says – it dries out at a rate of about an inch a year from the outside, but he likes knowing that a tree growing in Mānoa and saved from the chipper will now live. In a restaurant.
Growing up on construction sites – his father was a master electrician – coupled with an artistic bent gave him useful versatility in everything from installing lights in the Suntory whiskey soda cart to blowing glass and his incorporation into a kiosk made of used bourbon barrels for Jim Beam. “Having a random skill set,” he says, “is useful when people want weird, offbeat things.”
Aung Thaitae, upholsterer
IIt was the fifth staple. I fired it. And I had this deep feeling in me. I said, ‘That’s it. That’s what I want.’ Aung Thaitae remembers exactly the turning point in her career. Prior to that, the Thailand native had worked in ragtag jobs — hostess at House Without a Key, sales at the NYK shipping line, retailing at duty-free stores — then, one day 10 years ago, “I was watching just this old chair and I thought, maybe I’m just changing the color or something. Just buy a book or watch YouTube. Sounds so easy, right? My dad, he’s a carpenter, and I’ve watched him since I was young. Because of that, she says, she instinctively knew which tools to use.
But, twist! If only it were that simple. When she started working in upholstery, “I was unhappy,” she says. “Oh, my God, you have no idea.” She couldn’t straighten the corners. She couldn’t put the fabric flat. Her husband, a photographer, put her in touch with a client, Brian Mikami, also an upholsterer. “I said to Brian, ‘I want to learn. Can you teach me?’ And he said, yes. And at first I thought he was just being polite. And why would he teach me for free anyway, right? And then I met a job, and I can’t seem to do it right. I call Brian. Brian says bring the chair. He asked me to show him. And he’s like, ‘Oh, you have bad techniques.’ He was the one who refined my work and my training, everything. He was so passionate, he told me everything. I listened carefully. I remember every word he said. When I work, I always hear his voice in my head.
Mikami had reupholstered most of the furniture in the Blue Room of Iolani Palace. “And I watch and I study, every piece in there, it was just pristine, so perfect. So, I thought to myself, this is what I want. I want to be like Brian, I want to do good work, perfect work, doing things that last.
Thaitae started her upholstery business in 2012 and soon after, through a family friend, she connected with Zippy’s. She became the company’s seamstress and consultant upholsterer for all her locations. Whenever there’s a tear in a seat or someone cuts the vinyl (by accident or on purpose), Zippy’s calls them. Apart from these emergencies, she estimates that cabin seats should be reupholstered approximately every two to three years, depending on traffic. For high-traffic restaurant seating, she looks at vinyl quality, thickness, stretch, and what’s underneath. She upholstered the banquettes and chairs in the MW restaurant, changing “the box spring…because I want it to be comfortable,” which involved installing high-density foam.
“Some people ask me, ‘Oh, can you skip that? And that?’ No, I don’t do that kind of work. It’s there for a reason. Just like a doctor. You open up, and if it needs to be fixed, it needs to be. You don’t tell me, ‘don’t not repair.’ No can’t!”
She recalls that in the beginning, “for the first three years, I slept with tears because, oh, my arm. I was a little woman. When I went to bed, it was just throbbing. You take painkillers. Just don’t go away. But now, now I have Popeye’s arms!
In the story of his journey, there is clearly a time before and a time after. “At one point, I try to find something I want to do. I search, search, search. Many years. Until the day I removed this chair. If I had never removed this chair, I would never know! That’s why when I look back, I think it was all planned out for me one way or another.
Mark Kuhn, ceramist
Mark Kuhn’s hand-turned and hand-carved bowls, plates, cups and candy boxes are so coveted by Hawaiian restaurants that he left the islands in late March in search of more space. “My biggest customer is ‘Ulu [Ocean Grill] at the Four Seasons Hualālai, hands down. I worked in a 300 square foot garage and it’s really, really hard to keep track of how many parts, over 200, they order at one time. It’s overwhelming. They really are the reason I’m leaving. So he bought a house in Wyoming, where he will have more space to continue supplying restaurants in Hawaii with his finely crafted ceramics.
Its customers include some of Hawaii’s rarest restaurants — Pai, Sooper’s Secret Izakaya, Sushi Sho, and Cane & Canoe at Montage Kapalua Bay — as well as the daily, like Chadlou’s Coffee Roasters and Highway Inn. “Unfortunately, [Highway Inn] had an employee who really liked my plates. And they disappeared. So he made three to anchor them securely to the wall near the restaurant’s main entrance.
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It’s easy to see why his pieces inspire flight. They are striking and distinctive: a smooth white porcelain plate dripping with golden luster; ramen bowls with grooves to rest your chopsticks; “wave bowls,” shallow and with a folded edge like the lip of a curling wave (or, since we have food in mind, a burrito-folded tortilla).
When making pieces for restaurants, he considers practicalities like stacking and how the food looks on the plate, aiming for contrast. But also, says Kuhn, “I like to know the color, the mood of the restaurant.” For Pai, chef Kevin Lee gave Kuhn only one parameter: the size of the dish. Kuhn returned with a curved plate that matched the curve of the uniquely shaped restaurant. “It fits so well I had to do it,” Kuhn says.
When Kuhn creates new pieces, he thinks of different glazes and types of clay, from smooth porcelain to rougher stoneware, “and then once I get into fashion, I don’t really think about anything anymore. I relax and I work, that’s what I was created for. He worked in a box factory, in a fast food restaurant and taught art from kindergarten to college. when he moved from Pennsylvania to Hawai’i in 2013, he worked at Home Depot in Pearl City. But he had been throwing clay since 1989. In 2017, he and his wife chaired the Empty Bowl Hawai’i fundraiser, which invited potters to create bowls and restaurants to fill them, to raise money for Aloha Harvest. It was there that Monica Toguchi Ryan of Highway Inn and Andrew Le of The Pig & The Lady discovered his work, and they commissioned his first restaurant pieces. He quickly became the go-to local ceramist for restaurants.
Right after graduating from college, Kuhn worked for a production potter, casting more than 12,000 pieces a year. He got burned and took a break from ceramics for a few years. “At one point, my wife looked at me and said, ‘Why are you so angry?’ So the next day I got up in the morning and ordered some clay and picked it up and started making pots again. I haven’t stopped since.”