Present at the Food Revolution in Hawaii
20 years ago, a dozen chefs changed how Hawaii ate—and how the world viewed us.
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.
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.”
One movement coming up. Dikon persuaded the Maui Prince to put the chefs up for a weekend. Peter Merriman got on the phone and issued the invitations.
“I’m not sure we had an agenda,” recalls Merriman, who became the group’s president. “The only rules were no knives, no press. We weren’t going to cook, and we weren’t doing it for the PR.”
Not yet, anyway, though with Gordon in the wings, the advent of Hawaii Regional Cuisine was just waiting to become a nationwide PR coup.
There was just one thing on the chef’s minds in 1991: ingredients. Or rather the lack of locally grown, fresh ingredients.
“Twenty years ago, we got produce shipped from California that was incredibly dead or half dead,” says Josselin.
“You’d go to farmers on Maui, and all they were growing was onions and cabbages,” recalls Gannon. “You’d say, Please, I heard you grew some herbs, could I get some?”
Dikon so wanted fresh produce he was growing it in his Kula backyard.
It was hard to envision a regional cuisine without regional ingredients. Hawaii was arriving late to the regional cuisine party. Ferguson had helped open Baby Routh in Dallas and set off Southwestern Regional Cuisine, using local ranch meats, locally grown chilies, tomatoes and avocados.
Yamaguchi had worked in Los Angeles as California cuisine had reached its heyday. “I was used to cooking with farm-to-table ingredients in California,” he says. “Why wouldn’t you want fresh ingredients? It was a total no-brainer.”
Obvious, perhaps, but not easy. The things the chefs wanted—herbs, greens, tomatoes, vegetables—were difficult to find. During the second HRC meeting a month later, Merriman organized a bus tour of local farms.
These were not big, established farms. Recalls Tane Datta, whose Adaptations on the Big Island is now a major source of fruits and produce for restaurants across the state: “I wasn’t even really a farmer in 1991. It was more like we had a big home garden.”
Recalls Merriman with a laugh, “We were talking agriculture on the edge. One of the farms we visited, I didn’t tell the chefs that the farmer’d been busted the week before for growing marijuana.”
Wong still keeps a copy of the thin booklet the chefs produced from those early expeditions, phone and fax numbers for the few sources of local foodstuffs.
It wasn’t just a question of finding ingredients. The chefs literally had to pull the products out of the ground. “We took seeds to the farmers to get them to grow what we needed,” says Josselin.
Yamaguchi convinced herb farmer Dean Okimoto to produce salad greens, by promising to buy all he grew.
Merriman convinced another herb farmer, Erin Lee, to grow him tomatoes.
“We wanted to create a local ag network,” says Wong. “We had to establish relationships with the farmers, build trust.”
Trust was an issue. “In the past, a chef would go to a farmer and ask him to grow, say, arugula,” recalls Gordon. “When the crop was ready six or nine months later, the chef would be gone, or wouldn’t want it anymore.” The chefs worked out a deal with the state Department of Agriculture that would guarantee that if the farmers grew what they were asked to, they would be paid.
Photo: Courtesy of Sam Choy
It worked, not overnight, but it worked.
“Think of the change,” says Wong. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t have hearts of palm, mushrooms, grass-fed beef, local veal, sea asparagus, Waialua chocolate, moi, kampachi. We didn’t have much organic produce, or farmers’ markets, or local produce in supermarkets.”
The greatest thing to come out of HRC may be simply this: What was just a dream of 12 chefs 20 years ago—no more week-old Central Valley lettuces, no more cardboard tomatoes—has gone mainstream.
Restaurant menus now read like lists of farms and ranches. Farmers are honored guests at restaurant galas. We are all locavores now.
“Sure, that might have happened sooner or later without the 12 of us,” says Ellman, “but we were certainly the catalyst. And what happened? Now, the food here tastes fresh, different, unlike any other food in the world.”
Let us pause to consider a case in point.
Every month the Royal Hawaiian Hotel holds a 220 Brunch, that is, a brunch that uses as many ingredients as possible from within 220 miles of the hotel (about the distance to Hilo).
The hotel’s fabled Coconut Grove is ringed with booths staffed by actual farmers in for the occasion, such as Phil Becker of Aikane Plantation Coffee. “It’s great for us to be at something like this,” he says. “We’re just small coffee farmers in Kau.”
The food, cooked by the hotel staff under the direction of Swiss-trained chef Hans Stierli, showcases local farmers, ranchers and fishermen: fresh catch from Pier 38 with tomatoes from the Big Island’s Wow Farms, Kuahiwi Ranch sirloin with Maui onions, ahi sashimi with Big Island avocado and Nalo Farms microgreens, Alii Lavender scones, Waialua Chocolate shortbread and Ho Farms apple banana tartlets. You get the idea.
One of the most popular dishes was Hawaiian Red Veal loco moco with Hamakua mushroom gravy.
Most people focus on the ingredients here, clearly a triumph of the ongoing locavore movement. Hamakua Mushrooms began in 1996, Hawaiian Red Veal from Big Island ranchers debuted about a year ago.
But think about it: a loco moco at the Royal Hawaiian?
“No, no, you’d never get a loco moco at a Waikiki hotel 20 years ago. It would be eggs Benedict,” says George Mavrothalassitis. “Twenty years ago, food in Waikiki was boring, boring, boring.”
Mavro remembers Bon Appetit’s Barbara Fairchild advising readers to enjoy the meal on the plane, because it was the best food they’d get on a Hawaii vacation. “It was not true, but travel writers never got out of Waikiki and the other resort areas,” he says. “There was interesting food all over Hawaii: Japanese, Filipino, Chinese. We had more interesting flavors in the employee cafeteria than we did in our restaurants.”
HRC was not just local ingredients; it was a willingness to work with the mix of ethnic cuisines that everyone in Hawaii ate. We just didn’t eat them in high-end restaurants.
“Twenty years ago, all the white-tablecloth restaurants here served exactly the same thing,” recalls Yamaguchi. It was the Americanized version of European cuisine called Continental food. You may remember it: Chateaubriand with Béarnaise sauce. Sole Almondine. Veal Cordon Bleu. Duck à L’Orange.
“It shocked me when I first got here,” says Josselin. “There were so many ethnic groups with their own cuisines. There were great bentos, great street food, great plate lunches. But it didn’t translate into hotels and restaurants. The food here was not a reflection of what was happening in the state.”
Josselin immediately began playing with lumpia wrappers, pickled ginger, green papaya.
The loudest gun in the cuisine revolution belonged to Yamaguchi.
Merriman is generally given credit for being the leading edge of the locavore movement. “But, yes, how we cooked also changed,” says Merriman. “Arguably, Roy was the leading edge on that, with his East-meets-West cooking style.”
Yamaguchi had been a resounding success in a Hawaii Kai eatery that conventional wisdom had doomed to failure. Lesson learned: Hawaii diners would be receptive to food that combined Asian and Hawaiian flavors with high-end, French-derived culinary technique, and would drive all the way to Hawaii Kai for it.
The other chefs were following the same path, in different directions. No two HRC chefs cooked the same.
“Of course, they all had different culinary DNA,” says Sam Choy, “different training, different mentors. Allen had all that precision, Mavro his French way with fish. But they all educated themselves in Hawaii food, added their tweak and made magic.”
The magic was simple. The chefs took the foods and flavors that everyone here ate anyway, and kicked them up a notch, making them worthy of a high-end restaurant table.
Yamaguchi put hoisin on his baby back ribs and sauced his shu mai with a deft shoyu beurre blanc. Wong took ochazuke with canned salmon and turned it into green tea risotto with fresh salmon. Mavro took local snapper, fresh local herbs and ogo, and cooked them in a salt crust Provençal style. Padovani turned the usual, awful sweet-sour duck sauce into a brilliant plum and pickled ginger reduction. Gannon made fried rice with foie gras and duck confit.
“There were mixed reviews at first,” says Yamaguchi. “People would say they weren’t used to those flavors.”
But it was food that fit the Hawaii palate—and dazzled everyone on the Mainland who still thought that Hawaiian food was a ham slice with pineapple.
Much of the dazzle was supplied by Shep Gordon’s promotional instincts.
Suddenly, Hawaii had a story to tell and a cuisine to sell. The chefs cooked together at dozens of food events. One of the peak moments was the 1993 Big Island Bounty at the Ritz Carlton Mauna Lani. That event drew celebrity foodies from Wolfgang Puck to Florence Fabricant of The New York Times. Mainland food writer Janice Wald Henderson was there to promote The New Cuisine of Hawaii, the cookbook that featured all 12 chefs.
Choy was in charge of doing a luncheon for the assembled Mainland travel press. He gave them a mixed plate. They loved it.
The stories started flowing out of New York and Los Angeles, with one message: “Hawaii now has interesting food.” Never mind, it always had.
Alan Wong takes home an award at the 1996 Hale Ainas.
“People used to come to Hawaii for sand, surf and sun, and more sand, surf and sun,” says Wong. “Now they make dinner reservations a month before they arrive.”
The 12 chefs managed to change the world’s perception of Hawaii food. To Gordon, perhaps the apotheosis of the movement came in 1992 at the Los Angeles kickoff dinner for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s restaurant venture, which eventually became Planet Hollywood.
“The chefs were all there wearing their HRC jackets, Wolfgang Puck even wore one. The guest list was a Who’s Who of celebrities. The food was great, Kapono sang and Elizabeth Lindsey danced hula. For one night, HRC owned Hollywood.”
HRC may have owned Hollywood and the Mainland travel press, but the real impact may have been on Hawaii’s perception of itself.
For your anniversary or birthday, you used to go to a restaurant like The Third Floor or Bagwells 2424. Good as those old-style Continental restaurants were, there was a subtle message: This is fine food. And it’s imported, in both ingredients and style, from somewhere else. The food you love, the kind you usually eat, is second class.
With HRC, suddenly real Hawaii food had moved to the head of the class. Yamaguchi, Wong and Mavro won James Beard awards. Chefs became celebrities, and young people growing up here began to eye culinary careers.
“That’s the biggest change I see,” says Ellman, “the number of young guys who come into the restaurant and want to learn.”
But, more to the point, people began to be both aware and proud of what they ate, and that improved the food throughout the state. You can now order, at the counter, furukake ahi with Nalo Farms greens at Nico’s on Honolulu’s fishing pier. You can get a pizza made with Hamakua mushrooms and MAO Farms organic arugula at V Lounge. You can get pai ai with your skirt steak at Town, charcuterie made with Shinsato pork at SALT. And a Hawaiian Red Veal loco moco at the Royal Hawaiian.
We hardly call all these things—this wondrous mix of Hawaii ingredients and food traditions—HRC anymore. HRC is so ubiquitous it’s not worth mentioning.
HRC, as an organization, only lasted about three years.
Gordon has always regretted it did not institutionalize. “We were a worldwide success. We should have gotten an office, inducted new people, kept the ball rolling.”
“I’m not sure that matters,” says Merriman. “We succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. Hawaii’s food now has a national reputation, there are more fresh ingredients than ever. It seems like every chef in the state has his or her own little touch of HRC.”
“It was never really a cuisine,” insists Yamaguchi. “Everyone had their own cooking style. It was a movement, the right idea at the right time. So it belongs to everyone. The chefs. The farmers. The food writers. The guests at restaurants. The world can now look at Hawaii and say, You really have something good going for yourselves.”
HAWAII RESTAURANT ASSOCIATION
The Hawaii Restaurant Association (HRA) is celebrating the 20th anniversary of Hawaii Regional Cuisine with a year of activities. So far, they have included: • A March 2011 dinner at the prestigious James Beard House in New York, with James Beard award-winning Alan Wong and George Mavrothalassitis, hosting national and international media. • Publication of a commemorative cookbook. • A special exhibit at the Hawaii State Art Museum accompanied by a series of cooking demonstrations. • Launch of an HRC web site with an online chefs/cooking program. • And, finally, an induction of the 12 original HRC chefs, plus Shep Gordon, into the Hawaii Restaurant Association’s Hall of Fame, at a September, 2011 gala. For a current list of Hawaii restaurants that offer Hawaii Regional Cuisine, visit HawaiiRegionalCuisine.com.