What Does It Take to Win a Hale Aina?
There are more than 5,000 eateries in the state. What does it take to stand out from the crowd and win a Hale Aina Award? Here are a few inside stories.
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The 14-Year Overnight Success
During the midafternoon lull between lunch and dinner, Sean Priester finally gets a chance to eat, a Carolina-style pulled pork sandwich with buttermilk cilantro cole slaw.
“What a wild year,” says Priester. In the past 12 months, he quit his job, started a lunch wagon, then a restaurant. On top of that, he and his wife had a baby.
“Suddenly, I have a Hale Aina Award,” he says, shaking his head. “Unbelievable.”
Priester’s overnight success took 14 years. After college in North Carolina, he came to Hawaii on a whim, living with a college buddy in Sunset Beach and cooking at Sunset Grill, then one of the trendiest restaurants in town.
Cooking in those days was just a job, one at which he wasn’t the most reliable. “Then in 1996 I got sober, and I got serious,” he says. Since then he’s put together an unusual career.
First, he gained a kind of underground prominence at a restaurant in the downtown YWCA, the Wild Mushroom, where he threw memorable Sunday jazz brunches. There he met his wife, Lisa Marie, who sang with the band. “We were introduced by Azure McCall,” says Priester. “How cool is that?”
After the Y, he took over the Kau Kau Café at the Hawaii State Hospital in Kaneohe. He ran the restaurant not simply as an eatery, but as vocational training for the patients.
“That was one of the best jobs I ever had,” he says. He got his crew to such a high level, he took them to Taste of Honolulu, where they held their heads high, competing effectively with professional restaurants.
“After that, I still had some things to prove,” he says. Like whether he could run a high-profile, professional kitchen. He stepped in as executive chef at Top of Waikiki, the rotating restaurant which, until his arrival, had a well-earned reputation as a tourist trap.
“I told them I was going to be a revolution, that we were going to respect our guests and ourselves.” He managed to turn the restaurant around.
I ate there both before and after. Before his arrival, it was dismal. By the time he was done, you could take anyone to dinner there, the food enlivened from time to time by Priester’s command of Southern flavors.
Having transformed Top of Waikiki and increased his profile—he decided he didn’t have much more to prove. He went back to his roots in a lunch wagon called Soul Patrol.
Soul Patrol gained a quick underground reputation for its food, its hipness solidified by its Twitter following.
“There’s romance with lunch trucks,” says Priester. “But really, they’re a lot of hard work and an uncertain result. Some days were horrendous.” The Soul Patrol may never roll again.
Priester was offered his current small location at the foot of St. Louis Drive. Its size seemed perfect. After 14 years in the business, Priester had the reputation, skills, organizational talent and soul-food chops to attract an immediate following. People came looking for his fried chicken, cornbread and seafood gumbo.
“It’s my version of Southern food. It’s food you feel right here,” says Priester, slapping his hand over his heart.
Then he pauses a minute: “But, Best New Restaurant—that’s still hard to believe. I knew this little place wasn’t going to make me rich. I just wanted to do a good job.”
Only in Kailua
Whenever I drive to Kailua from town, I feel stressed and overdressed. “Relax, let’s get a bottle of dry rose, have lunch,” says Don Dymond. Dymond isn’t exactly laid back; he’s a smart, focused entrepreneur. But he’s like Kailua itself—friendly, open, unpretentious, yet somehow full of dynamism.
In 1992, Dymond bought a moribund little market near the beach, with a hard-to-pronounce name, Kalapawai. He kept the name, because he wanted a place that was an integral part of the neighborhood.
Kalapawai Market became a community gathering place. You could buy staples, and also flowers and a bottle of excellent wine. Soon, though, food service became increasingly important. Commuters grabbed coffee in the morning; beachgoers got sandwiches at lunch. It’s now hard to imagine Kailua without the market.
Enter opportunity, in the shape of a slight sliver of land on Kailua Road, right as you enter town. It’s a highly visible, yet tiny lot; Dymond built a long, narrow restaurant with only 60 seats, deliberately replicating the green-and-white country-store look of Kalapawai Market.
At the end of 2006, Kalapawai Café opened. At first it was like the market—a coffee shop in the morning and a deli at lunch. But Dymond had hired not one, but two talented chefs, John Memering and Jason Iwane. Memering had worked at Alan Wong’s and taught at Kapiolani Community College.
Six months after opening, Kalapawai Café did something few restaurants can pull off. At 5 p.m., it stops being an order-at-the-counter deli and becomes a sit-down, full service dinner house.
“We had to educate the customers that, no, you couldn’t have a turkey-cranberry sandwich at dinner,” says Dymond. Instead, Memering’s small kitchen pumped out items such as house-cured venison salami, gnocchi with Hauula tomatoes, fresh fish with Meyer lemon risotto and Big Island sirloin with grilled asparagus. All paired with a reasonably priced but adventurous wine list. Here you could get a bottle of Vouvray or Brunello. It was just casual enough, just upscale enough for the town.
“When we won the gold Hale Aina Award for Neighborhood Restaurant, that was perfect,” says Dymond. “That’s exactly what we want to be. I’m not sure this restaurant would work many places besides Kailua.”
Kalapawai also picked up a bronze award for Best Gourmet Comfort Food. “The other winners for that were Ed Kenney, of Town, and Kevin Hanney, of 12th Avenue Grill,” says Dymond. “I knew at that moment we were on the right track.”
“Oh, that’s good company, the kind we want to be in,” says chef Memering.