25 Years of Hale Aina
HONOLULU Magazine’s Restaurant Awards have grown—along with the restaurants themselves.
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The 2009 list contains 92 winners (gold, silver, bronze and finalists) in 26 categories. That’s considerably up from the 14 winners we had 25 years ago—but in that generation, the number of noteworthy Island restaurants has increased exponentially.
I’m ready for an Island restaurant scene so large and exciting that we have 200 awards in 2034.
Or am I?
To me, the point of the Hale Ainas was the list in the magazine, which, as the years went on, would be picked up and reprinted extensively, especially in Japan. Once an entire Japanese video crew trailed me as I visited Alan Wong’s, that year’s, no surprise, Restaurant of the Year.
I sat there smiling, fork in hand, while Alan explained to me that I didn’t understand the sauce under his onaga at all. Then I went “Ummmm,” for the camera, a sentiment that apparently bypasses translation.
But flashback to January 1985, when new to the whole process, it occurred to us that awards needed an awards ceremony. We invited the restaurants to a Monday pau hana reception in our office lobby. We handed out certificates and served inexpensive Spanish cava in plastic cups, plus some little sandwiches.
We hadn’t counted on Sylvia Shimabukuro of Ono Hawaiian Foods, who arrived with platters of pipikaula and laulau.
The next year, we asked if each of the restaurants could bring a plate of food. They didn’t bring plates, they brought platters, with some of the best looking food that ever graced an oversize conference table.
One of the local TV stations had promised to come and shoot the party. We wanted them to shoot the table of food—intact. Which meant we had to keep the hungry guests away while we waited and waited, no easy task.
From there, things had to go uphill. In 1990, the magazine’s promotions director, Ed Cassidy, decided we were thinking too small. We needed to do the Hale Aina Awards as a fundraising gala. That first year, with Charo as emcee, was held in the scene shop of Hawaii Theatre for Youth.
It was not a successful venue—not air conditioned, and all the restaurants had grills and burners going. People wilted.
But you know that fundraising gala where you go from one food station to the next, gathering one small plate after another? It’s now much imitated, but the Hale Aina Awards was the first in Hawaii.
It was a huge hit, especially when we moved it to the parking lot of Diamond Head Theatre. We did the party in those years by ourselves. We’d sweat all day, erecting tents, carrying tables, setting up bars, then we’d clean up and don our tuxes. Or, one memorable year, white tails.
The tails were necessary because the awards ceremony became more and more elaborate. At Diamond Head, we staged them, complete with a chorus line in chef’s coats and tights, called the Chefettes.
Perhaps the entertainment reached its height the year we staged the Hale Ainas as a benefit for the Honolulu Symphony. There was the entire Symphony Pops orchestra, with special guest, the Tonight Show’s Doc Severinsen. A successful evening—musically. But, much as the magazine supported the arts in Honolulu, we realized there was one element missing.
The awards were meant to celebrate Hawaii’s unique culinary tradition. If there was one cause around which the restaurants would rally, it was the community college culinary schools where many of the chefs had gotten their start.
To give the awards a larger purpose, the magazine helped found the Hale Aina Ohana, a separate non profit run by an advisory board that reads like a Who’s Who of Hawaii’s food professionals.
The Ohana has raised more than $100,000 for culinary education across the state. (For more details on its good works, see “How to Make a Chef”.
The Hale Aina Awards gala is now thoroughly professional, with event planners working overtime to create a memorable evening. But the best part is that it now not only celebrates the restaurants that give us so much pleasure, but also assures that the profession will continue to grow and develop.
After all, in 1985, the awards were started to spotlight the contributions restaurants make to Hawaii, as a visitor destination, of course, but also an enjoyable place to live.
They’ve succeeded, on a scale that 25 years ago would have surprised all of us who made the small first steps.
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