Conrad Nonaka, a chef, restaurateur and longtime supporter of the local culinary industry, died the morning of June 2 at Straub Medical Center in Honolulu. He was 68.
Nonaka, director of the Culinary Institute of the Pacific, is credited with overseeing construction of the new Diamond Head campus, developing culinary education across all the community colleges in Hawaii and helping to launch the popular Kapiolani Community College Saturday Farmer’s Market.
“He was just passionate about culinary education, passionate about what we were trying to do with the new facility at Diamond Head and instrumental in making all of that happen,” said John Morton, vice president for community colleges at the University of Hawaii. “We’ll miss him, and students will benefit for years to come.”
Morton said Nonaka was instrumental in building relationships among the different components of the food industry, including the chefs and the restaurant association, purveyors and farmers.
“He brought them all together to benefit our culinary programs,” he said.
Nonaka also made sure the programs at every UH campus were fully accredited by the American Culinary Federation, according to Morton. Everything he touched, including the idea to start a “little farmers market” at KCC, which has since exploded in popularity, seemed to work.
Born July 9, 1949, in Lihue, Kauai, Nonaka grew up with a family-owned restaurant. His parents owned a restaurant in Hanapepe that Nonaka eventually ran from the ’80s to the mid-’90s as Conrad’s Restaurant, Wong’s Chinese Restaurant and Omoide Deli and Bakery, famous for its lilikoi chiffon pie.
While waiting to get into airplane mechanics school, his dad suggested he take a few culinary courses. He did and the rest is history.
Nonaka was a proud graduate of the culinary program at KCC who also went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in education from UH Manoa.
For more than 20 years, he worked for various luxury hotel properties, including as executive chef for the Princess Kaiulani and the former Hanohano Room at the Sheraton Waikiki, and food and beverage director for the Royal Hawaiian hotel. His career took him to Boston and Taiwan before he returned to Hawaii.
He helped launch Restaurant Week Hawaii, a week of special promotions by local restaurants that donate a portion of proceeds to the culinary institute.
Wife Susan Nonaka said he was the one who took care of everyone in the family, including extended family. He cooked for everyone in the family, including the pet dogs, who got special, home-cooked meals. His signature at family gatherings was a tempura that everyone loved.
“He was always very generous and kind,” said Susan Nonaka, “and he took really good care of the family.”
When he cooked for an at-home Mother’s Day celebration, she said, it was an outpouring of love, with numerous special dishes and too much food.
Kelvin Ro, owner of Diamond Head Market &Grill, said Nonaka never gave up his vision for the culinary institute and always kept him focused on the larger picture during fundraising efforts.
Chef Alan Wong, a friend of Nonaka’s for more than 35 years, described him as someone who had a special knack for connecting people. He remembers their travels around the world, including the Mediterranean, the Baltic Sea and Southeast Asia. They shared many great memories and meals on those trips.
Nonaka was also a restaurant consultant who served on Wong’s board, and his advice was always cherished.
He remembers sitting with Nonaka outside of his King Street restaurant when it was still under construction, wondering whether it was the right decision. Nonaka encouraged him to give it a try and do his best. His famous phrase was “Das how.”
“I lost a best friend,” said Wong. “We lost a great person and I will miss him.”
Nonaka served on numerous boards, including Alan Wong’s Restaurants, the Hawaii Restaurant Association and the Hawaii Culinary Education Foundation.
He is survived by wife Susan; sons Jayme and Corey, and siblings Russell Nonaka, Clinton Nonaka, Grace Hall and Nancy Kurokawa.
Services are scheduled for 4:30 p.m. July 13 at Nuuanu Memorial Park &Mortuary, 2233 Nuuanu Ave. The family requests no flowers. In lieu of monetary donations, contributions can be made to UH Foundation — Culinary Institute of the Pacific, which can also be made online at uhfoundation.org/CI forConrad.