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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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.