What is Hawai‘i Chef Alan Wong Doing in Ni‘ihau and Shanghai?
When he's not hosting President Barack Obama for dinner, this legend of Hawai‘i locavore cuisine is vetting new ideas, helping Ni‘ihau become economically sustainable and opening his Shanghai restaurant.
Photo: Steve czerniak
For our January story on the Hale ‘Aina Awards, we sat down with Alan Wong, 2016 gold winner for Best O‘ahu Restaurant, for insights on how local ingredients find their way onto the menu at Alan Wong’s restaurants.
Discussion first focused on a new game entrée, eland, and how that came to be, and what it could mean to Ni‘ihau, where the African antelope roams free, foraging on kiawe. And we got the Wahiawa-born chef to explain how he came to open a Shanghai branch of the restaurant, an idea that’s been in development since January 2015.
It's all just another day in the life of the influential but humble chef, who hosted President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, at dinner at his eponymous eatery this week. The restaurant is a favorite dinner spot during their annual holiday visit to Honolulu.
HM: Where do you get your ideas about new ingredients, not to mention new dishes?
AW: Most of it comes to us. A new rancher has something he wants us to see. I’ll get an email, a letter or a call about something new. I say, of course, send me a sample. A lot of times, I never get the sample.
I’d heard about eland. Heard about it, but I never got the sample. But then I was on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, a chef-at-sea thing. One of the guests was on the board of Makaweli Meat Co. of Kaua‘i. He said, “I like what you’re doing with the local beef, but mine’s the best. You’ve got to try Makaweli beef.” Two weeks we spent together with him saying, “Try the beef, try the beef.”
But it took over a year to try the beef, before they were ready and able. They had to make sure they had the supply if I liked it. They kinda knew that, if I was interested and they didn’t have a supply, I’d be like, “What for?”
I try it. I like it. I meet the guy in charge, Jehu Fuller (the general manager). We hit it off. I didn’t know Makaweli Meat Co. was part of the Robinson family that owns Ni‘ihau, so we started talking about Ni‘ihau lamb and eland. So Russell Hata of Y. Hata, Roy Yamaguchi and I get on a helicopter. We go to Ni‘ihau. Bruce Robinson, the owner of Ni‘ihau, goes off and catches a couple of eland. They dress it right in front of us. We even take a small piece of it raw right there: steak tartare.
HM: The eland run free? How do you catch them?
AW: By long-range rifle. They never see it coming. With game, it’s important that they don’t go through that stress. It’s humane, plus, when the animal is being chased, the adrenaline produces chemicals that make the meat taste different.
So they dress it, put it into containers, and helicopter it back to Kaua‘i to the Makaweli plant, to chill it down, then butcher it up. We break it down at the Makaweli plant.
HM: Facing the carcass, staring down at an entire animal in front of you, how do you start thinking about finding your cut?
AW: It’s a commitment. First of all, when you deal with a whole animal, you feel more responsible for the entire animal. You get involved in the butchering process. That helps you understand how to cook each part. You see the potential in each part. You can see some parts are tougher than others. Making a stew or a braise with eland, you’re gonna be grinding it (i.e., working hard to make it succulent, because game has less fat). Because you know you can’t do other things like a roast, or a sautee like a chop. [By taking part in the butchering] you understand why we cook certain things a certain way.
HM: How do you taste-test it?
AW: First thing, we eat it raw. Tartare, carpaccio. Looking at a tenderloin raw, we didn’t see a lot of connective tissue. No gristle. So it’s easy to eat. The first time we cooked eland, the impression was it tasted very clean. It wasn’t gamey at all. None of that taste of blood, of iodine, that you get with venison. Very neutral.
HM: How do you get consumers to try it? Is it a seasonal menu thing?
AW: Hawai‘i is pretty tough. We don’t have seasonal food. Now it’s a little cooler, if you want to serve something heavier, now is the time. But Hawai‘i is not a big game-eating culture. Game is a European thing, like cheese. Not a whole lot of Europeans came to Hawai‘i.
It really is the same as cheese. We have cheese-growing operations going here, people we support like Dick Threlfall of Hawai‘i Island Goat Dairy Farm. From day one to now, his cheese-making program has grown so much—from one cheese to six or seven kinds of cheese. Now, if you want to start somebody off on cheese, you give them the mildest one first—and not the stinkiest one. Like a fresh chevre, that’s not been aged. When we entice local people to taste Dick’s chevre, they say, “This is not bad. It’s almost like ricotta.” That’s how you get them started.
If eland was going to work here, we had to find something mild, but still have a distinctive taste. With so little fat, when you cook game, you don’t want to overcook it. It tends to get liver-y, and tough. What’s good is eland tastes fresh and clean with very little cooking. We do Ni‘ihau lamb, too. It’s not gamey, either; doesn’t have that mutton taste.
HM: Like the famous salt lamb of Brittany? They eat marsh grass by the sea, the taste gets into the meat. Ni‘ihau is low and flat and by the sea, like Brittany.
AW: Ni‘ihau’s eland and lamb forage in the wild, both of them; that may have something to do with it. The salt in the air, maybe. But you’ve got to imagine they eat different things—eland eat the lower canopy of the forest, not the grass.
At the last Hale ‘Aina Awards, we featured Ni‘ihau lamb in our tent. When I talk to people about that night, they only remember our lamb burgers, like sliders. Everybody was standing in line for them—Ni‘ihau has cachet, the forbidden island, all that.
HM: How important could eland be to Ni‘ihau? Does that drive you?
AW: Bruce Robinson wants Ni‘ihau to be economically sustainable. Bruce feels there could be a market for them. Having them could help the local people earn a better living.
Do people come into the restaurant and ask for eland? No. But we’re testing the waters, to see how well it would be received. For eland, we ran the numbers. Because, in the end, you have to make a living, you have to get a price. Eventually you have to put it on the menu, and the customer will make the decision. If they don’t like it, if they say, “What the hell is eland?”… [Wong shrugs.]
We’re right at the beginning of a launch. Jehu [Fuller, of Makaweli Meat Co.] came into town three times and we featured his products. We did Chopsticks and Wine for the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, the Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival and the Hale ‘Aina evening.
The Robinson family is especially protective of Ni‘ihau. I respect that. That’s the reason they trust me.
When you keep these people in business and they keep growing their business, everybody wins.
[Editor’s Note: According to Jehu Fuller at Makaweli Meat Co., a slaughterhouse is set to open on Ni‘ihau by the end of February, making a trip to the Makaweli plant on Kaua‘i unnecessary. It will be the first new source of jobs on Ni‘ihau in memory. “This is a big deal,” says Fuller, “because, other than sheepherding, people have to boat over to Kaua‘i to work.” The island has 10,000 sheep and an estimated 1,500 eland; its beef production “is maxed out at 10 head a week to restaurants,” with no room to grow. Unlike the cattle, Fuller says, “eland doesn’t need ranching, they have more than enough food and water.” Originally from the dry savannahs of Africa, eland thrive in drier climates.]
HM: We hear you’re going to Shanghai.
AW: We’re doing a soft opening. It will be bigger than [Alan Wong’s on South King Street]. A Japanese company approached me and asked, did I want to go back to Tokyo—where I had a restaurant until 2010. After I said OK, two weeks later they said, “We have an opportunity in Shanghai.” So here we are, in the Shanghai Center, with the Ritz-Carlton, on West Nanjing Road, in the old French Quarter. It’s the Fifth Avenue of Shanghai.
HM: What will the menu be like? Do they know Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine?
AW: We’ll do signature items from Hawai‘i. On my last trip I went to learn about Shanghai, about China, their dislikes and likes, the flavors. It’ll evolve as I evolve.
On the trip, we were bridging over three cultures and three languages: Japanese, English, Chinese. No matter how difficult it may be understanding the language, it’s food we all understand. The expressions we make, the gestures.
HM: Did any particular moment of cultural confusion stick out?
AW: The funniest thing was trying to explain salsa. We do a shiitake mushroom salsa with peanuts for a pork loin. So we’re trying to explain. They only know pico de gallo, which translates as “rooster’s beak.” They want to know, how does that relate? So finally we started pecking the table like roosters. We ended up laughing so hard. It was a good laugh.