How a Shared Love of Hawaiian Food is Making Vancouver Taste a Little Better

Photo by Sean Dalin

Tess and Thomas are Hanai Family Table. The partners in life and business debuted their homemade Hawaiian snacks at this past summer’s Mural Festival and have been growing their fanbase ever since. We spoke with the couple over Thanksgiving amidst a flurry of Haupia Ube Macadamia Nut pie-making. Despite the festive chaos, they were more than excited to share their unique food culture, plans for the future and graciousness with us.

Describe the Hanai Family Table’s food philosophy in ten words or less.

Tess + Thomas: To represent the islands authentically and grow our YVR ‘ohana.

What is your first food memory?

Tess: My earliest memories are cooking with my mom in the kitchen. I remember specifically given the very important task of plucking the leaves off of parsley.

Why did you to move from Hawaii to Vancouver?

Tess: In 2015 I quit my job in Public Relations and was looking for a culinary school to fulfill my childhood dream of being in the food industry. I found a gem of a school called Northwest Culinary Academy in Mount Pleasant and I fell in love with their philosophy and the neighbourhood. Once I graduated, Thomas and I thought, why not move to Vancouver? Try something new? Next thing we knew, we sold everything we had and packed up two suitcases and moved here. We hardly had a plan, but we made it work.

What inspired you to take the leap to start the Hanai Family Table?

Tess: It feels like Thomas and I have been talking about this forever. Moving to Vancouver we weren’t 100% sure what it would be, but the longer we were away from home, the more time we were spending making food from home. We started hosting long table dinners in our home with other industry people – cooking the food we grew up with and telling stories of the multi-cultural island background that produced the mixed plates we grew up with.

Thomas: We kept getting asked questions like your last question of “why did you leave Hawaii?” and we found out many folks here have a great connection with Hawaii because that’s where they went on vacation or they have family that live there and bring food back to Vancouver. They say I can’t get proper plate lunch-style HI food here and I feel their pain. Sometimes I just want a mixed plate, two scoops rice, one scoop mac salad.

What flavour and aroma are most distinctly “O’ahu” to you?

Tess: Puakinikini and the smell when the little salt crystals start to build up on your skin after a long day in the ocean. Flavour would have to be kalua pig dipped in poi.

Thomas: Flavour would be liliko’i (passion fruit) butter. Aroma: when you’re hiking, the smell of fallen guava.

The best meal you’ve had in Vancouver, so far?

Tess: Aleph. I might be biased because we are friends with Haitham and Fiona, but their food has often brought me back to life after a long week and somehow their positive vibes are very clearly transferred through their food.

Thomas: The Acorn. It really opened up my mind to how amazing a vegetarian meal can be.

The Vancouver restaurant that you can’t wait to try?

Tess: We’ve really been wanting to try Masayoshi, but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Thomas: Mak N Ming.

What has been the biggest adjustment since moving to Vancouver?

Tess: Realizing that vitamin D deficiency is a REAL thing. We never experienced seasons or long periods without the sun. Oh, and snow. Driving in the snow – I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I googled what black ice was, only to realize that…you can’t see it. Clever, black ice, clever.

Thomas: The importance of waterproof footwear…waterproof everything! And everything is expensive so big mahalos to everyone for supporting us and other local small businesses!

What has been the biggest learning curve since starting up your business?

Tess: Um, everything. It’s been a two person show and we are learning as we go. When it comes to cooking and delivering, it’s just me so that in itself it presents learning experiences on the daily.

Thomas: Making pies is tough stuff! Whoever created the phrase “easy as pie” was one sarcastic bastard. Really, making anything on a large scale is a big job for two people. We baked late into the evening for the Thanksgiving ube-haupia pie special. Even with how much energy it takes, it’s all a lot of fun.

Chicken Laulau – “This is also a traditional dish. Normally cooked with luau leaves (taro leaves) and ti leaves, but I make it work with banana leaves and collards. This is a slow steamed dish that simply gets a little alaea salt (hawaiian sea salt with volcanic clay). The flavours that the leaves and salt lend are beautiful.”

What has been the most rewarding experience since starting up your business?

Tess: Meeting people that have as much love for Hawaii as we do. The meaning of Hanai is to adopt and nourish people into your family and I really feel like that’s happening with all the people we meet. The love that we’ve gotten from Vancouver has also made us feel so warm and fuzzy – it still seems surreal.

Thomas: Really discovering that a lot of people have a special connection with Hawaii and love the food we grew up with as much as we do!

What is the best thing about working with your partner? The worst?

Tess: This is our first time working together and it’s been really great so far. Sounds cheesy, but we compliment each other really well and it seems to be coming through in our business. Maybe the bad part is that the business is now all we talk about. We’re like two little kids that are excited to show their new toy at show n’ tell.

Thomas: I get really excited about new ideas or asking Tess how her orders went that day. Tess likes to decompress and stop talking business at the end of the day, which is good. I need to take a page out of her book on that.

What does each of you bring to the (Hanai Family) table that the other doesn’t?

Tess: Thomas definitely brings the organization and brains to this operation. He is amazing with numbers, which I am not. But at the same time, he has an amazing creative side as well. Vancouver has him to thank for the Haupia Ube Macadamia Nut pie special idea.

Thomas: Tess is a fantastic people person, very kind and caring. She’s also a PR wiz! She runs the Instagrams and Facebooks. Oh, and her cooking is SO ONO!

The thing you miss most about your hometown?

Tess + Thomas: The beach.

Three things about O’ahu that you would like to transplant to Vancouver?

Tess: The sun, the aloha kiss (a way to greet each other) and the Hanai-ed family culture.

Tom: Apple bananas, calling sandals “slippers”, ling hing mui on everything (fruits, shave ice, cocktails, etc).

Tell me about a family tradition?

Tess: Every Christmas we pack a picnic and spend the whole day at the beach.

How about a personal ritual?

Tess: Facemasks. It’s a weekly ritual to make a facemask, put a bathrobe on and breathe.

Your favourite Vancouver discovery, so far?

Tess: We’ve fallen in love with a lot of things, but we really love the small coffee shops/cafes that are in the middle of a neighbourhood. Oh, and all the amazing breweries.

Thomas: Pizza Carano is the business. Their crispy crust is the truth.

What are you up to when you’re not in the kitchen?

Tess: If we aren’t working we really love having people over for dinner or grab a beer with friends. Most of our friends are in the food industry so it’s nice to have that support system and share battle stories with each other.

Thomas: As fall has settled in, watching basketball! I’m a lifelong Lakers fan and this year is looking better than recent years.

What are you listening to when you are in the kitchen?

Tess: It varies on my mood. In the past month of starting the business, I’ve experienced anxiety and doubt – so for that I put on some Beyonce and tap into my fierceness. Sounds silly, but it really helps. If I’m missing home, some Three Plus, The Green or Iz (Israel Kamakawiwo’ole). Other times everything from Talib Kweli to Billie Holiday.

Lilikoi Malasadas – “Back in Hawai’i these are such a treat! Malasadas are originally from Portugal but, when the Portuguese came over to Hawai’i during the plantation times . There was a family that came over in 1882 and in 1952 their grandson Leonard opened up a bakery called Leonard’s. He brought the Malasada to Hawai’i, but with its own local twist. This is definitely one of our favourite sweets to eat back home.”
Favourite way to spend a rainy day?

Tess + Thomas: Brewery hopping – responsibly, of course.

What is the biggest misconception about “island life”?

Tess + Tom: That all people from Hawaii are Hawaiian. There’s a very distinct ethnic difference and the native Hawaiian people should be recognized and respected. We ourselves are not ethnically Hawaiian, but growing up in Hawaii it’s our kuleana (responsibility) to help others better understand Hawaii and share its beauty.

What is your favourite “Vancouverism”? Tess: Probably “eh?” And “100 percent.” I like that Canadians say “eh” after everything, back home we say, “ya?” So it’s very similar.

Tom: I don’t really know any. Besides, Vancouver’s got nothing on Hawaii pidgin English when it comes to “isms.”

Do you consider yourselves “Vancouverites” yet? If so, tell me about the moment that cemented that feeling in you.

Tess: I’m not sure we are Vancouverites just yet. We do, however, go out without an umbrella when it rains, which is an accomplishment in itself. Also, I’ve noticed that our wardrobe has become a lot more monochromatic, which I’m not mad at.

Tom: Not yet. I still rely on Google Maps to get around. Also, I am eyeing a pair Blundstones and I recycle everything, so it’s just a matter of time.

Your favourite topic of conversation around the dinner table?

Tess: I love learning about peoples’ cultures and history. There always seems to be similarities in food and how it ties back to something that brings up childhood memories or fond moments – it creates such a unique and special way to bond with someone.

Thomas: What’s for dinner tomorrow. We’re pretty food-focused.

Your guilty pleasure food?

Tess: Kettle Sea Salt chips or Maui Onion chips (if I’m back home). Preferably in the bathtub with a beer.

Thomas: Fried rice. But different than the version you get at an Asian restaurant here. I guess it’s a Hawaii thing: old rice, salty sweet sticky shoyu sauce, kimchee, chunks of spam or char siu, scrambled egg, anything in the fridge that needs to get used soon.

Your late night (maybe drunken) snack?

Tess + Thomas: A grilled Kim-Cheese. This came to life one drunken night long ago in Hawaii and has forever been a go-to for us. It’s exactly as it sounds, a grilled cheese sandwich with a bunch of kimchee inside. We’re throwing this idea around as a pop-up item soon!

Drink of choice?

Tess: A good bourbon, neat. Sazaerac or Four Winds Nectarous. (Shout out to Four Winds family. My first job in Canada!)

Tom: Good local beer; anything from Brassneck (any variety Changeling) or Dageraad, Strange Fellows Jongleur, and a Blue Buck any old Tuesday.

For someone who is a newbie to Hawaiian food, what one dish would you suggest that they try first?

Tess: Probably kalua pig. Traditionally cooked underground in an imu and has been made that way for centuries. It is best eaten with classic accompaniments like poi, chili pepper water and rice.

Thomas: Loco moco! If it’s your first time, might as well go all in. Loco moco is a burger patty atop a mound of white rice, topped with a fried egg and gravy all over. It’s a monster of a meal so prepare to share.

An acquired taste that you refuse to acquire?

Tess: I don’t think there is anything I wouldn’t try. I really love the moment you get to try something you have no idea what it’s going to taste like.

Thomas: I continue to struggle with pickles. Though Tess has me on a ten year plan to conquer my pickle issues. Cornichons are now acceptable.

An underrated ingredient?

Tess: Alaea sea salt (Hawaiian sea salt). The flavour is incomparable to other salts.

Who taught you to cook?

Tess: My mom and uncle taught me how to cook; both from France, very Southern French. I also grew up always curiously peeking into my friends’ kitchens, bothering their moms or dads, asking probably an annoying amount of questions – they probably thought, who’s this little haole girl wanting to learn how to make Kimchi?

Thomas: Tess.

What is your most invaluable tool in the kitchen?

Tess: A good sharp knife, chopsticks and a spatula.

Thomas: The potato ricer has changed my life.

What are your hidden talents?

Tess: I can move my ears and sew – unfortunately, not simultaneously.

Your favourite Vancouver beach?

Tess: I think the only beach we’ve been to was when it was snowing. We did swim in our first lake last month and that was pretty magical.

Thomas: It’s funny how we’ve transitioned to barbecuing in our local park like we’d do at the beach back home. So I guess our favourite “beach” is Robson Park from June to September.

“Plate Lunch – Featuring Kalua Pig – a traditional slow smoked pork; homemade kimchi, pickled daikon, okinawan sweet potato, rice with furkiake and shiso. There will be many versions of this, its basically a great way to pack a bunch of Hawaii’s flavours into one portable container.”

What’s coming up next on the Hanai Family Table menu?

Tess: There are so many items we want to launch. Next up will probably be our version of our favourite plate-lunch , something like a bento box filled with Hawaiian food. Also, we just locked down our first pop-up happening at Strange Fellows Brewing on November 24!

Tom: We’re brainstorming new products: maybe something really autumn-y. Possibly pumpkin-y. But also focusing on event catering, pop-ups and getting “plate lunches” into the “Vancouverisms.”

Where do you see the Hanai Family Table in one year? Five years? Ten?

Tess: As we continue to grow we’d love to open a brick and mortar. Something small so we can keep our authenticity and continue to tell the story of our upbringing and Hawaii. I love the idea of us creating a new age mom-and-pop shop; we don’t have kids but Hanai is currently our baby.

Thomas: What Tess said. I have no idea how long that takes. We’ve just been riding the wave of support since our debut at the Mural Festival.

What ingredient are you most looking forward to utilizing this season?

Tess: Everything in the squash family and the wild variety of radishes that come out this time of year. I’m excited to adapt some of the recipes I grew up making with the incredible produce BC has to offer.

Your favourite fall/winter comfort food?

Tess: Beef stew; a classic go-to stew back home that is made with very little ingredients, yet very soulful.

Thomas: Pumpkin pie and hot cocktails.

An elusive ingredient that you can’t track down?

Tess: Luau leaves and fresh taro; both big parts of Hawaiian cuisine and hard to find anywhere here.

The first thing you’d do when visiting O’ahu?

Tess: Jump in the ocean and then grab a plate lunch from Yama’s.

Tom: Grab ½ pound of poke, a bag of boiled peanuts and go to the beach. Next stop Zippy’s, a local restaurant chain where half of my family have worked at one time or another.

Lastly: why should I (or anyone) give Spam a chance?

Tom: It’s just a terrine. The people’s paté, if you will. We made a “fancy” version with BC organic pork shoulder, ham and salt, and it tasted exactly the same…ok, maybe a bit better.

Tess: What Thomas said.

  • Spam Musubi
  • Chicken Laulau
  • Vegan Musubi
  • Fried Mochi 2
  • Plate Lunch 2
  • unnamed-1
  • Boxes
  • Fried Mochi Without Sugar
  • Lilikoi Malasada
  • image_6483441
  • IMG_1415
  • Mochi

There is 1 comment

  1. Dying for a Teri chicken plate with extra sauce on the rice, a side of Kim chi and a spam musabi. (Not at the same time) I grew up in HNL and have been here since 1982 and wondered when and where I would find a bit of Hawaii in Vancouver. Add a porn star martini to that and I’ll have found nirvana. It’s been a long wait.

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