Pono Burger's Hawaiian-Born Chef Sees Burgers as a Canvas for Food Culture
Piku fig burger at Pono Burger
Burgers made completely from scratch with specifically sourced, organic ingredients sounds like a simple enough idea, but few have the stamina, like Pono Burger’s Chef Makani Gerardi, to see this concept through so completely — especially when the concept is spread across two restaurants with an ocean between them.
With one foot planted firmly in Hawaii, where Gerardi owns Ultimate Burger, and the other in Santa Monica with Pono, Gerardi is a Big Island native who keeps it 100 percent real, from ketchup to buns. Gerardi first came to appreciate food and diversity at an early age.
“Cooking was survival,” she says. “My father is Hawaiian-Basque and my mother Japanese. The pantry wasn’t normal American or normal Hawaiian either.”
With no intention of ever living in Los Angeles (“I don’t do L.A.," she says she thought), Gerardi surprised herself by falling in love with the city. “I found my tribe here. I spend most of my time on my paddle board with the dolphins and seals.”
Chef Makani Gerardi of Pono Burger
The aloha spirit has translated into a sort of business model for Gerardi. When she first opened Pono, she explained her vision to her staff this way: “Close your eyes and imagine everyone who walks through the door is someone you love. That is the 'aloha' spirit. This is what it means to be Pono.”
While "aloha" often gets translated to "hello" and "goodbye," the word also holds a deeper spiritual meaning — an integrity and respect for the inner self and the outer world, which includes taking care of the Earth.
This Hawaiian way of life directly impacts all decisions at Pono Burger. From the emphasis on grass-fed, organic, hormone-free beef from Eel River in Humboldt, to organic, minimally processed dairy products from Straus Family Creamery in Marin, every detail of Gerardi's vision carries the imprint of care generally reserved for high-end dining experiences. This specificity continues in every single aspect of the restaurant, from the tomato (Gloria's Fruits & Veggies) to the cheese (Andrew's Cheese Shop) to the house-made, organic russet potato chips (Cal Ore Produce).
Paniolo burger at Pono Burger
With the Westside location doing well, Gerardi plans to open a second Pono Burger in West Hollywood this summer. While the first Pono only serves beer and wine, the new place will have a full bar, and the cocktails will be based around seasonal, organic, farmers market ingredients.
So just why did Gerardi pick a life of burgers?
"I chose burgers because I love them the most," she says. "I love the versatility of a cheeseburger when I feel like a particular cuisine or I'm in a certain mood. Maybe it's a Japanese twist with the Sassy Wahine — pickled ginger, avocado, pea sprouts, ponzu dressing, and crispy wonton chips. Or if I'm feeling spicy, a habanero guava rum sauce, creamy coleslaw, aged cheddar, Niman ranch bacon and Russet potato chips. The possibilities are endless. The cheeseburger is my favorite canvas to build upon."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.