Where Are the Hawaiian Chefs? Part 2: Lorraine Haili Alo
Why is it rare to find Hawaiian chefs cooking Hawaiian food professionally? Lorraine Haili Alo of Haili’s Hawaiian Food tells her story.
Part 1 of this two-part series featured Kealoha Domingo of Nui Kealoha catering. Here’s Part 2.
Six years ago, a visiting food writer marveled that Hawai‘i showcased an Indigenous culinary tradition more widely than anywhere else in the U.S. I agreed. After all, lau lau and squid lū‘au are part of our everyday food vocabulary. But one thing is missing: the Hawaiians.
Of the “traditional” Hawaiian restaurants on O‘ahu, only two—Haili’s Hawaiian Food and Waiāhole Poi Factory—are owned by Hawaiians. Perhaps that’s not so surprising, given that what we know as the Hawaiian plate lunch was codified in the plantation era, resulting in lau lau alongside chicken long rice and other products of post-contact local culture.
Many of the most lauded local chefs who have brought Hawaiian food and culture to the forefront are not Hawaiian. And very few Native Hawaiian chefs overtly incorporate that part of their ethnicity onto the plate. So while Indigenous-owned companies are now bringing Hawaiian culture into everything from fashion to tourism, why is it a rarity to find Hawaiians cooking Hawaiian food professionally?
I spoke to two for whom Hawaiian food defines their work. Lorraine Haili Alo of Haili’s Hawaiian Food has been passing on a tradition from her parents for more than 50 years. Here is her story.
SEE ALSO: Where Are the Hawaiian Chefs? Part 1: Kealoha Domingo
Lorraine Haili Alo
“I don’t want to be like everyone. I try to stay true to myself and true to what my parents taught us. And I think that’s another reason why we’ve been here for so long.”
About five years ago, an assistant for Andrew Zimmern called Lorraine Haili Alo, asking to film at her restaurant. The assistant was cagey with details until, finally, when Alo pressed her for more information, she said the show was called Bizarre Foods. Alo replied, “My story doesn’t belong on Bizarre Foods. Lau lau is a culture. It is my culture, and there is nothing bizarre about a lau lau.”
She tells me: “Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa and Jon Osorio are personal friends—they have doctorate degrees and are at the UH School of Hawaiian Knowledge. We were at Kamehameha together. We were all part of that group of protesters in the ’60s and ’70s, with George Helm—we were of that generation. My husband was on the boat that went over to Kaho‘olawe.” Alo imagined being featured on Bizarre Foods and “Lilikalā calling and saying, ‘What the heck did you do!?’”
The assistant called back a few days later and said Zimmern had just started a new show, Delicious Destinations, and would she reconsider? This time, Alo said yes.
Alo’s parents, her father “pure Hawaiian” and her mother “pure Chinese,” began Haili’s as a fish market and Hawaiian food counter in 1958 at Ward Farmers Market (now demolished). Alo remembers Gabby Pahinui, a “good friend of my dad’s,” coming to the parking lot behind the market to play music and chase down beer with palu. “The old style of palu is the intestines and stomach of the fish, eyeballs, some fish meat, salt and chile pepper, mixed together and aged for a couple of days in the refrigerator,” Alo remembers. Her father and friends loved it.
Foreseeing increasing rents and development in the area, Alo and her sister moved Haili’s to Kapahulu in 2006 and focused on Hawaiian food. Today, Haili’s Hawaiian Food is one of the few places that still serves ake, raw beef liver; na‘au, a stew of pig intestines and lū‘au leaves; and poke mixed with ‘inamona and limu kohu. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Why did your family decide to start a fish market?
My father’s sisters owned a bar down in Chinatown. My mom would go to work with my aunties, and it got to the point where my mother didn’t want to take my sisters into that kind of environment. My older sisters remember when the bar got really busy late at night and guys were drunk. The bar used to have these liquor closets, big back room cages to keep the liquor under key. My mom would lock my sisters in the liquor closet to keep them safe.
My mom told my father, let’s open our own store. I want a normal family life for my kids.
Who made the Hawaiian food?
My mother learned how to cook from my aunties. My dad also knew. And we were all given responsibilities. Even as a little girl, we would have to help make lau lau—we’d all have to peel the leaves, 100 pounds of taro leaves once a week. And the poi would come in 50-gallon wooden barrels. Two men would roll it into the store, and we’d have to go and use our hand and dig the poi out of the barrel.
I’m very old school. I’m very traditionalist as far as mixing poke. You know, you can go to places and they’ll have spicy poke with mayonnaise. Mayonnaise doesn’t belong with fish. I wasn’t raised with mayonnaise in my fish. Sometimes, my children will tell me, “Well Mom, the trend is…” Well then, they can go over there.
I don’t want to be like everyone. I try to stay true to myself and true to what my parents taught us. And I think that’s another reason why we’ve been here for so long. Never mind what other people around you are doing. Stay focused on what’s here. Because this is what got us to where we’re at today. And that comes back to the traditional way of cooking.
All the traditional stuff, I still make it. Ake, we still do that. I think right now I’m the only one that does it. It’s very time-consuming. You get the whole beef liver—one weighs 8 pounds—and you need to flush it out with fresh water. So you’re standing at the sink for at least an hour, just flushing it out. And you have to clean up all the veins and stuff and let it soak overnight in a salt brine. Then the next day, you can mix it with kukui nut and limu.
My clientele is very old customers and now their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are coming. A lot of people order to take to the outer islands because they can’t get it there.
Will someone in the next generation take over?
My two sons are firefighters and my daughter is a schoolteacher, so they have their own professions. That’s why we sent them to good schools—they got their education so that they wouldn’t have to do this. But now the trend is, people want to continue a culture.
Without food, without language, we wouldn’t have a culture. There’s no strength in the culture if we don’t continue to teach our kids how to prepare food, where to go get the materials that they need. Everyone has their own way of doing it, but there’s protocol when you go into the mountains to pick a certain type of fern shoot or when you go to the ocean and you start picking limu. You have to ask permission, you give thanks. You say a prayer. And you only take what you need.
Why do you think that of all the Hawaiian plate lunch businesses on O‘ahu, only two are run by Native Hawaiians?
It’s sad because it’s hard to perpetuate our culture if there’s not enough people sharing their knowledge of the way that traditional foods are prepared. It means that our kids need to go to other cultures to eat.
It makes me happy to see that the younger people are trying to at least incorporate foods that are Hawaiian, that there is a movement going, because back in the ’50s and ’60s, it wasn’t promoted.
But we have to still stay vigilant and share our culture and the spirit. My mana is being passed through the food. Some people say that it’s just a Hawaiian plate lunch, but for me, it’s more than just a Hawaiian plate lunch.
Haili’s Hawaiian Food, 760 Palani Ave., hailishawaiianfood.com, @hailishawaiianfoods