story by Catharine Lo
photo by Ann Cecil
Owen O’Callaghan was a kid in Ireland when he first heard of Hawai‘i. His introduction came the way it did for many in the world in the early ’70s: via Steve McGarrett and Hawaii Five-O. O’Callaghan’s favorite on the show was detective Danny “Danno” Williams—but in truth, even with a television hero, the Hawaiian Isles seemed very far from the Emerald Isle. “I didn’t even know what the heck a coconut tree was!” the Irishman laughs.
These days he’s well aware. O’Callaghan now spends his days on the same streets made famous by Five-O’s police chases—but his life is not about booking bad guys; it’s about baking. Eight years ago O’Callaghan left a bond-trading career in London, hightailed it to Hawai‘i and took over the operation of Happy Cakes.
If you remember Hawaii Five-O, you probably remember Happy Cakes. The cake was the signature dessert at Kemo‘o Farm, a rural O‘ahu restaurant so famed it even starred in From Here to Eternity. The dessert was invented by a Kemo‘o Farm baker in 1967: a dense, moist distant cousin of the fruitcake called, in homage to an emotion that the Islands often evoke, Happy Cake. It quickly gained a loyal following. Frank Sinatra was a fan. Ava Gardner enjoyed topping hers with macadamia nut ice cream. Lana Turner served it with macadamia nut liqueur.
Today the recipe for the 2-pound original Happy Cake remains the same: pineapple chunks, fresh coconut, half a pound of Big Island macadamia nuts, “and there’s no sort of what-the-hell-are-these-green-things,” O’Callaghan declares. “So many people know Happy Cakes,” he continues, proudly citing orders, including one from a certain fictional detective. That came when O’Callaghan returned a call to James MacArthur’s— Danno’s—home. His childhood hero answered the phone and placed an order, and in that moment, everything came full circle: O’Callaghan had gone from not even knowing what a coconut tree was to baking coconut into his own cakes—and for Danno, no less. It was, he remembers, a truly happy moment. HH