Present at the Food Revolution in Hawaii

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


(page 5 of 6)

Photo: Courtesy of Roy Yamaguchi.

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.

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

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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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