Story by Mari Taketa
Photo by Elyse Butler
“8:50 a.m.! Sutaato!—Hurry, please!” yells Shuzo Abe, too busy to notice the morning sunlight shining through the wisps of steam rising from open vats. Abe has been up since midnight on this Honolulu Marathon day, running a marathon of his own: He’s making breakfast for six thousand runners from Japan.
“Two more minutes!” 2013 marks Abe’s fifteenth year making udon, a homey Japanese noodle that’s at the opposite end of the culinary spectrum from his usual specialty: kaiseki, or gourmet Japanese cuisine. It’s ironic that a chef of Abe’s rarefied skill— one that elevates the finest ingredients to the level of edible art—will be slinging noodles nonstop for seven hours at one of Honolulu’s largest sporting events.
Abe starts his vats of broth early, adding shavings of dried bonito to the stock for depth and a touch of sugar for sweetness. The noodles have met his standards for taste, firmness and durability; they need to steep in soup for fifteen minutes without breaking down. He supervises an army of thirty-five volunteers—many of them high school students from the Mid-Pacific Institute girls choir—as they slip the noodles into boiling water and then into Styrofoam bowls. The noodles are topped with rounds of tempura-fried vegetables and green onion, doused with broth and handed to the grateful runners after they struggle across the finish line at Kapi‘olani Park. Abe isn’t bothered that today his clients aren’t visiting Japanese royalty or master sensei. His first customers—sweaty, heaving, doubled over —are already in line. Japan’s largest travel agency, JTB, has included a carb-replenishing post-race breakfast in its marathon travel package, and the runners are staggering up to collect.
Under a nearby tent, mats are strewn on the grass, but after pounding 26.2 miles of pavement, many runners can’t sit. They eat standing or collapse awkwardly before draining their bowls. For Abe that’s reward enough. “Nobody comes here after the marathon thinking they’ll eat something delicious, but when they do they’re so happy,” he says. “That’s what I want to give them.” A moment later Abe’s off to another tent across the park overseeing breakfast for a different travel agency. For those thousand runners it’s curry rice. And for Abe the day has really just begun.