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Present at the Food Revolution in Hawaii

20 years ago, a dozen chefs changed how Hawaii ate—and how the world viewed us.


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One August weekend 20 years ago, a dozen young chefs gathered around a U-shaped conference table, in a spare banquet room at the Maui Prince Hotel. And changed Hawaii. They didn’t know exactly what they were about. They didn’t even have a name yet. The chefs’ jackets ordered for the occasion said, “Hawaiian Cooking Symposium.” It would be several days—and Sam Choy’s continued insistence that their name have the word Hawaii in it—before they decided to call their organization Hawaii Regional Cuisine, HRC for short.

“We were all excited, excited to help each other,” says Roy Yamaguchi. “You have to remember that at the time HRC was no big thing. It’s not like it was popular.”

So many of the chefs in that room have become superstars that it’s easy to forget that at the time, perhaps only Yamaguchi was well known. He was newly famous, having opened his first Roy’s in Hawaii Kai barely three years before. His celebrity status would be confirmed later that year when he won Hawaii’s first James Beard Award.

The rest of the 12 chefs were far from famous. Half didn’t even have their own restaurants, and those who did owned small restaurants in out-of-the-way, Neighbor Island locations.

Sam Choy, for instance, was doing the food in a Kona bowling alley. He was about to open a restaurant in a Big Island warehouse, amid lumberyards and motorcycle repair shops. Thirteen years later, that little Hawaii comfort-food restaurant would win a James Beard American Classic Award. At the time, though, Choy was best known for a series of print ads from his years at the Kona Hilton, and a HECO commercial that had him dancing around a kitchen, a big chef who was light on his feet.

“We all knew Roy Yamaguchi would become famous, but I had no idea that Sam would,” says Peter Merriman.

Merriman at least had his own restaurant. Three years before, Merriman had left an executive chef job at the Mauna Lani to start a 104-seat restaurant in the Big Island ranching town of Waimea, hardly, at the time, a culinary hotbed.

Merriman was a locavore before the trend had a name, searching out local farmers and ranchers, telling them he was willing to pay more for locally grown ingredients. “People thought I was crazy,” he says.

Merriman’s Waimea restaurant, for those who found it, was making a stir. San Francisco Magazine was enthralled with his wok-charred ahi. The New York Times applauded his fresh ingredients and imaginative preparations.

Mark Ellman had Avalon on Front Street in Lahaina. Started in 1987, Avalon was in many ways the first contemporary Hawaii restaurant. Casual and relaxed, it offered Hawaii-style, multicultural cuisine. It was rare in those days to find on the same menu, stir-fried edamame, Chinese crispy whole fish, Vietnamese spring rolls, not to mention Ellman’s now much-imitated, signature dessert, Caramel Miranda, with its profusion of tropical fruits.

Equally obscure, in the sense that it was in a Kapaa shopping center, was Jean-Marie Josselin’s A Pacific Café. Josselin, who, like Merriman, had fled a hotel job to do his own thing, was a French chef who’d fallen in love with Hawaii ingredients. He’d won the 1989 National Seafood Challenge with a Hawaii-inspired charred mahimahi with a sesame crust topped with lime-ginger beurre blanc. By 1990, he had revived the Kauai dining scene. Bon Appetit promptly named A Pacific Café one of the best restaurants in the country.

Related links:
HRC Profiles: Meet the chefs who created Hawaii Regional Cuisine.

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