Present at the Food Revolution in Hawaii

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


(page 3 of 6)

Until the creation of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, dining in Honolulu never looked like this: Big Island lobster with abalone over angry lobster noodles, kim-chee caviar and yuzu foam, from Roy’s.

photo: rae huo

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.

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

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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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