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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.


(page 4 of 6)

Click here to read the profiles of the original HRC chefs.

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.”

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

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