30th Anniversary of Hale Aina Awards
For three decades now, our readers have been naming the best restaurants in Hawaii. This year, for the 30th anniversary, we take a look at the two winningest chefs in the history of the awards, who continue to influence Hawaii dining today. Plus, a roundup of the restaurants you should eat at now, and a look back at 30 years of the Hale Aina Awards.
This year, HONOLULU Magazine introduced a new honor in the name of John Heckathorn, who began as HONOLULU’s dining editor in the late 1980s and was an integral part of Hawaii’s burgeoning dining scene. He chronicled the rise of Hawaii Regional Cuisine and served as a champion and critic, but, most importantly, a fan and friend of the chefs who were bringing Hawaii cuisine to the table across the globe.
The John Heckathorn Dining Excellence Award is HONOLULU’s Hall of Fame award, honoring those who have truly earned a place in the history of Hawaii dining. In deciding the first-ever recipients of this honor, we took a look back through the years and found two names who have won more than 150 Hale Aina Awards between them: Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong.
The two have influenced Hawaii dining more than any others. In the years since Alan Wong’s restaurant opened, Yamaguchi and Wong have been dueling for the Restaurant of the Year award. But instead of an intense rivalry, we discovered a deep mutual respect and shared philosophy. Wong says, “When the word ‘competition’ comes up, I say no, it’s not about that. We’re brothers, we’re great friends. I think over all these years, not only do we enjoy the camaraderie and friendship, in the end, we make each other better.” Yamaguchi’s response? “I love you to death, brother.”
Total number of Hale Aina awards won: 109
The first restaurant he closed: 385 North, in Los Angeles, in 1987.
What he says on closing a restaurant: We lost a lot of money. I went into debt. It was very, very rough—it was unbearable at times. But it was no big deal. It’s part of life. There are ups and downs and obstacles and how you are able to overcome them makes you who you are.
Why he thinks it didn’t work: I didn’t know enough about business. I knew how to cook, but I didn’t really know how to manage people. There was a division between the kitchen and service staff. There was always fighting.
Heaping praise: David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times wrote, in 2003, of Yamaguchi and his empire: “He’s the closest thing to a king that Hawaii has had since Kamehameha.”
Single most important attribute for his success: You surround yourself with good people. You surround yourself with people who have passion, who care—people who are determined, people who live your dream. That’s really it.
How he stays involved in his restaurants: When I’m not traveling, I’m at the restaurant seven days a week. I’ll cook for special dinners, but more of what I do is teach our staff what Roy’s is about. What’s important to me is that our culture—which we created 25 years ago—lives on. I want to teach humility. I want to teach how to cook. How to enjoy life. What makes a great chef to me is a great individual who has a balance of life itself. Not someone that’s really honed in and all they do is cook, cook, cook, but someone who really enjoys life and can bring that enjoyment of life to his food.
Whether he still cooks on the line: Yes. But, sometimes, when I’m there, [the chefs] say,“We got you, Chef, we got you.” What does that mean? It means, “Step aside.”
On Hawaii’s culinary scene: Hawaii doesn’t have to be a New York or a Los Angeles or a San Francisco or a New Orleans or whatever it may be. Hawaii is just great at being Hawaii. I’m living and cooking for the moment—for the people who are here today and the people who have been with us for the past 25 years. People say that Hawaii Regional Cuisine is over. But if you really want to get philosophical about it, it’s what made Hawaii what it is today. It really sparked a lot of things. And now, we’re able to really enjoy the fruits of labor of the movement.
Total number of Hale Aina awards won: 56
The first concept he closed: Hawaii Regional Cuisine Marketplace (on the fourth floor of Liberty House), in 2001.
What he says on closing a business: This thing was tanking. It was a nightmare. That failure was the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned that, as the leader, you gotta keep going, be optimistic. You still have to lead your people.
Why he thinks it didn’t work: Maybe it was the wrong time, the wrong place. But a great concept. We were selling local beef, local vegetables, local fruits and making home replacement meals. [Pastry chef] Mark Okumura was making artisanal breads. We were selling ice creams and sorbets that we made. We were selling candies and chocolate truffles and featuring local chocolates. We had a little snack shop where you could order a sandwich, like a deli. We had all of that.
Single most important attribute for his success: I’ve always been surrounded by great people. I’ve never been afraid to hire somebody who was smarter than I or could do something I couldn’t do.
How he stays involved in his restaurants: I’m in continuous menu development in the kitchen with the cooks and chefs. I love being in the kitchen teaching. I love creating.
Whether he still cooks on the line: That I don’t do anymore. Getting old.
Some of the differences between today and when he opened his first restaurant: The cooks and chefs today have far more local product to cook with than ever before. When you think about the workforce, we have to deal with the changes in generations. Today, they’re talking about the quality of life and balance of life at 18 years old. It was a little different when I grew up, in my time.
On Hawaii’s culinary scene: I think the culinary landscape in Hawaii is the most diverse it’s ever been. I hope people cook with a sense of place, that there’s some soul to their food. And I hope they take chances. Because, in the end, it’s really just about cooking. And that’s how you can make Hawaii better. Not because of marketing. Not because of social media. Not because of any strange new concept or exploiting something that’s been done already. We wanna help make Hawaii a better place than when we first got into it. Do our part as old dogs. We might be old, but we’re not dead.
Where to Eat Now
The hottest Hale Aina winners of the moment—from new favorites to well-known haunts:
For a full listing of this year’s Hale Aina winners, click here.