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Hawaiian Tongan Chef Aims to Bring Indigenous Polynesian Foods to Oakland Museum’s Town Fare

Chef Puaokalani Barquis has stepped in to oversee the museum cafe following Tonya Holland’s departure last month

The main entry of the Oakland Museum of California.
Oakland Museum of California
© Matthew Millman
Lauren Saria is the editor of Eater SF and has been writing about food, drinks, and restaurants for more than a decade.

Just weeks after celebrity chef Tanya Holland stepped away from running Town Fare at the Oakland Museum of California, there’s officially a new face in charge of the cafe’s kitchen. Chef Puaokalani Barquis, who was born in Oakland, raised in the East Bay, and worked under Holland at Town Fare is now overseeing the museum dining outlet.

Puaokalani Barquis wears a red hat and holds up the shaka sign. Puaokalani Barquis

Barquis, a native Hawaiian and Tongan, has already started putting their own touches on the menu. They say they hope to help broaden the understanding of Hawaiian food in the Bay Area and beyond its borders. “I think it’s super important because I think Hawaiian food has really lost its way,” Barquis says. “People often don't know the difference between local food and native food.”

Barquis hopes that by cooking with ingredients indigenous to the Hawaiian islands, they can help more people appreciate the impact colonization has had on the islands and the diet of its indigenous peoples. For example, Barquis is making a barbecue sauce with lilikoi, a sweet-tart variety of passion fruit that’s grown throughout Hawaii. There’s also a new salad dressed with a vinaigrette made with papaya, which has been growing in the islands since the 1820s.

Down the line, Barquis hopes to put things like luau stew, a traditional Hawaiian dish made with luau leaves and squid, on the menu. Some such dishes will likely appear on Friday nights when Barquis plans to start offering more dinner specials. Anyone wanting to stay in the loop should keep an eye on the Town Fare Instagram where Barquis will post updates as they continue introducing more dishes to the menu.

Barquis uses the phrase “rekalonization” — a portmanteau of “recolonize” and “kalo,” the Hawaiian word for taro — to describe the work of reintroducing indigenous ingredients to native Hawaiians throughout the diaspora. Taro, Barquis explains, is more than just a commonly cultivated plant for native Hawaiians; the peoples’ creation myth holds the plant is actually the stillborn elder brother to the first Hawaiian.

Prior moving back to Oakland during the pandemic, Barquis worked at Kawaiha’o Church Museum on O’ahu. They returned to the mainland to help care and cook for their mother, who was fighting cancer. Barquis, who has been trained in the Hawaiian practice of using plants to heal called lāʻau lapaʻau, says they believe the process of healing from the damage done by colonization starts with changing how Hawaiians eat. “I want to recolonize our na’au,” they say. “Hawaiians believe all our intuition comes from [our] stomach.”