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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On Maui, show-business caterer Bev Gannon had renovated a deteriorating 1926 general store, in a virtually unpopulated former plantation village, Haliimaile. Gannon intended to turn the place into a catering kitchen, but her customers insisted on treating it like a restaurant, so she gave in and created one.
The rest of the chefs worked for hotels. Amy Ferguson was executive chef at the remote Hotel Hana-Maui. Philippe Padovani was at the Ritz-Carlton Mauna Lani (now the Fairmont Orchid).
Alan Wong—who wasn’t quite ALAN WONG yet—was chef de cuisine at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel’s Le Soleil and CanoeHouse. There, he fired the first salvo of the culinary revolution by putting shoyu and chili pepper water on the tables instead of salt and pepper.
George Mavrothalassitis had a free hand at the Halekulani’s La Mer, although he was also encumbered by being the hotel’s executive chef. His general manager once tracked him down in La Mer’s kitchen, where he was trimming artichokes, and told him, “I’m not paying you to cook.”
“We almost fought,” says Mavro. “I have to cook.” He was already scouring the fish auction and Chinatown for local ingredients.
Roger Dikon and Gary Strehl had cooked together at the Kapalua Bay Hotel and the Maui Prince, though Strehl was soon dispatched to open the then-new Hawaii Prince in Honolulu, leaving Dikon to helm the Maui kitchen.
The Maui-based chefs also had a secret ingredient, as they say on Iron Chef. His name was Shep Gordon, a music and film producer who had a home only a mile away from the Maui Prince.
Gordon was a foodie. Ellman, Dikon and Strehl would come cook with him in his kitchen. Bev Gannon’s husband, Joe, had been his technical director on numerous rock ’n’ roll tours, and Gordon had in vested in Bev’s restaurant (which is why the Hawaiian Cooking Symposium chef jackets at that early meeting also said Haliimaile General Store on the sleeve).
Gordon had gotten his start in the ’60s when, late one night, Janice Joplin punched him in the mouth at the Hollywood Landmark Hotel. Apologetic, she introduced him to Jimi Hendrix, who introduced him to Alice Cooper, whose manager he became.
In the late ’80s, Gordon decided chefs should be celebrities. Gordon repped Michelin-rated French chef Roger Vergé, Wolfgang Puck and Southwestern Cuisine chefs such as Dean Fearing and Robert Del Grande.
“I thought the Hawaii chefs were great, but it’s hard to promote an individual chef in as remote a location as Hawaii,” says Gordon. “What I told them was, You guys need a movement.”