Mother, Chef & Restaurateur: Pono Burger’s Makani Carzino

Motherhood is tough, but being a mom and running a restaurant? Makani Carzino—owner and chef of Pono Burger, Pono Kitchen + Barthe newly opened Makani in Los Angeles, and Ultimate Burger in Hawaii—knows this life well. Carzino is the proud mama to Phoenix, her equestrian-loving, chicken-owning, chef-aspiring, soon-to-be 11-year-old daughter. We caught up with Carzino on the cusp of Mother’s Day, between a morning meeting with Phoenix’s math tutor and the evening opening of her new restaurant, to find our more about her experience as a mother, chef, and restaurateur.

What does motherhood mean to you?

Motherhood is the biggest blessing that I’ve ever been gifted. I take it very seriously. Before Phoenix was born, I remember my mama saying, “Nothing can prepare you, there’s nothing I can say to you that is going to prepare you.” And she was right, it’s not something you can learn from a book or from other people’s experiences. That’s why I named my daughter Phoenix, because being a mama is like being burned to ashes and then realizing—this is what it means to rise and be reborn and constantly learn. Phoenix is my greatest teacher. She teaches me so much more than I’m bringing to the table.

Chef Makiani Carzino Pono Burger Mothers Day
Chef Makani Carzino and her daughter Phoenix

(Photo provided by Makani Carzino)

How do you balance being a chef and a mother?

I keep it small and simple. We all come from good intentions and always want to give our best, especially to our children, but after a while, planning elaborate meals or celebrations just becomes work. Our restaurant and family motto is “keep it fun, keep it yummy, and keep it super simple”. Yes, I’m a restaurateur and a chef, but I’m also a mom, so finding that balance means not doing six-course dinners, at home or at the restaurant. Phoenix loves making cream cheese wontons, which are just two or three ingredients (if you count the water you dip your finger in to make them), with some steamed broccoli and a pot of emerald jade rice. It’s not complicated, just fun and yummy.

Has your outlook on food or being a chef changed since you became a mother?

When you’re in culinary school or working in restaurants, there’s a lot of food waste, but you don’t really see it at the time. As a mom, I’ve become more aware of it, especially living in Los Angeles, where one in four kids go to school hungry. Now, I use beeswax to wrap the bell peppers and cucumbers for Phoenix’s lunches and reusable canvas pouches for the soap in the dishwasher. If there’s a piece of leftover fruit or vegetable when we’re cooking, it goes into the chicken bowl—nothing is wasted. We’re the only animals on the planet that take more than what we need. Phoenix and I have given up meat, because we don’t need it—we’re happy with our chia pudding in the morning and going out into garden and picking fresh lemons, herbs, and eggs for dinner.

Chef Makani Carzino Pono Burger
Phoenix and Makani

(Photo provided by Makani Carzino)

Do you have any advice for working mothers?

I like to remember to practice gratitude. The hardest part of being a mama is that it’s everyday, not just when you feel like it. My husband sometimes asks, “Why do you push so much, why do you hold yourself at this caliber that’s so high?” Yes, I’m tired, trying to juggle the laundry, feed the chickens, make Phoenix’s breakfast and school lunches every day, but I don’t think about those things until the question comes up, because that’s just what I do for her and what my mom did for me. But we learn what we’re shown and try to do a little bit better than what our parents did. For example, one day recently when I got home, I was wiped out, but Phoenix made me a quesadilla and crudité and asked me how my day went. She sees me cook for her every day and now she’s ten and did that for me, because she recognized I was so tired. What a gift, to be so blessed and so loved.

Do you and your daughter have a Mother’s Day Tradition?

Our tradition is to hang out with my mama (Phoenix’s Grandmother). We always go back and forth deciding what to do on Mother’s Day, from going to the spa to making dinner reservations, but we usually end up gathering at the table, feeding each other, and laughing. We sit outside and eat fruit and laugh and jump in the pool, surrounded by fluffy bunnies and chickens in the backyard.

The best thing in the whole world is watching my mom, who is 4’9 and going to be 70 this May, wrestling with my daughter or doing cannonballs with her in the pool. It’s the simplest, silliest thing, but that’s my happy place. It’s my dog and my mama and my kid. It’s the art of doing nothing–no time constraints, just being relaxed and happy. And then at about 4 o’clock, my mom says, “Can I make you a Manhattan?” And I always say, “Yes”. My mama is my favorite mixologist because anything made by someone who loves you will always be the best.

Looking for a restaurant that will impress your friends and won’t break the bank? Check out this post about 7 of the best James Beard recognized chefs and their budget-friendly restaurants in L.A. Discover other delicious eats in your area, ready to be ordered online.