You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

Hawaii Regional Cuisine is not over. It’s only just begun.

Every once in a while, you hear some jaded foodie say something like, “I’m just getting a little tired of Hawai’i Regional Cuisine. If I see one more stack of seared ‘ahi, I’ll scream.” You can sympathize. Since HRC has been around for almost 15 years, you’d think it would have to be getting a little stale.

“So what’s next?,” you ask, rubbing your hands together and unfolding your napkin. Retro cuisine has been pretty popular: The Bistro is serving dishes such as Steak Diane, and Gourmet just ran a recipe for Baked Alaska, the very height of chic in the 1950s. Or you could try a “raw food” restaurant-there aren’t any here on O’ahu, but Maui is a good candidate for one-and pig out on broccoli foam. Will Japanese become the new Italian? Is … wait a minute, wait a minute! HRC is not over. In fact, the HRC movement is such a success, its biggest problem is that we’ve come to take it for granted.

True, two of the original 12 HRC chefs have left the Islands, and Peter Merriman is no longer forced to shimmy up a coconut tree in search of ingredients, but there is more to the story of Hawai’i’s culinary continuum. HRC is still shaping not just the way we eat here, but what the rest of the country eats. Perhaps we’ve grown too accustomed to it to see the highly regarded culinary movement that is continuing to evolve right under our noses. In an incredibly short amount of time, it has become as vital a cuisine as any other world-class food culture: Provençal, Szechwan or Cajun.


The spread of HRC

As famed chef Lidia Bastianich wrote, “Restaurants represent the energy of a culture.” So what, exactly, do Island restaurants say about us?

Mile-high presentations are often seen in HRC, such as this Bufula Tomato Salad from David Paul’s Lahaina Grill. Photo: Kent Hwang

“Hawai’i is all about family and food; they are completely connected. People have such a passion for food,” enthuses Jonathan Pratt, owner and executive chef of the Umami Café. Pratt’s menu includes “poi-tatoes,” spicy sesame-crusted ‘ahi served with wasabi cream and rice, and Hawaiian Sun beverages. He claims to have married his wife for her pork adobo recipe, and a sign in his restaurant reads, “Onolicious Grinds, Come Inside Eat.” You’re thinking, “So?” Well, the thing is, Pratt lives and works in Upstate New York.

Restaurants like the Umami Café show how far-and fast-the influence of Hawai’i’s cuisine has spread. “HRC put Hawai’i on the map as far as food goes. It’s still there, there’s still talk about it,” says Jackie Lau, the corporate chef for Roy’s Hawai’i. “The difference is that it’s not just 12 people any more.”

“I see HRC wherever I travel,” adds D.K. Kodama, of Sansei and Vino. “We go to New York and see HRC being used all over. And that’s the biggest food city in the country.”

It’s not only foodie havens such as New York that have embraced HRC. Think about how many Mainland restaurants now offer ‘ahi tuna, a redundant term, to be sure, but one that has nevertheless become ubiquitous. Daikon? You can find it at Sullivan’s Steak House in Dallas. Snack on panko-crusted calamari at the Raccoon River Brewing Co. in Des Moines. If you’d prefer something sweet, dig into a macadamia nut tart with coconut ice cream … in Milwaukee.

Whether they are here in the middle of the Pacific, or working out of land-locked, rust-belt states, many chefs are reaping benefits from the work of the 12 apostles of HRC. They not only built solid relationships with farmers and suppliers, goosing the state’s agriculture output, but contributed vastly to the public’s awareness and appreciation of what the Islands have to offer.

“The marketing side of HRC has been so incredible,” says Ron Miller, executive chef of the Hukilau Länai on Kaua’i. “The reputation for Hawai’i’s food has certainly changed. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t flip on the Food Network once in a while, and Hawai’i is very well represented on that channel.”

When George Mavrothalassitis, the chef/proprietor of Chef Mavro restaurant, first arrived in Hawai’i 16 years ago, he was determined to shake up the standard, hotelesque menus he found here. “No more Sole Meuniere or Caesar salad! You don’t come to Hawai’i to eat shrimp cocktail!”

“Now,” he observes, “all the new restaurants are HRC.” Think about it.

Home chefs have benefited, too, in terms of product availability. As Bev Gannon, chef/owner of Maui’s Hali’imaile General Store, Joe’s and Celebrations Catering, puts it, “Before the advent of HRC, Hawai’i had C-grade produce.” Remember that listless lettuce? Those pale pink rocks called tomatoes? That stuff had been sitting in a truck, then a warehouse, then a boat, then a warehouse, before it hit a Safeway.

Thomas Kafrack says “cheese” with his employees at the Surfing Goat Dairy.Photo: Kent Hwang

HRC goes grocery shopping

At the dawn of the HRC movement, “It was guerilla sourcing,” recalls Douglas Lum, executive chef at Mariposa in Neiman Marcus. “Chefs would have a closely guarded list of farmers that they didn’t share with anyone.”

Today, says Jurg Murch, proprietor of David Paul’s Lahaina Grill, “We see much better availability and better products.”

The increased dialog between agriculture and table has led to confidence: Confidence from producers, that their vegetables or fresh goat cheese will find a market demand, and confidence from restaurants, that farmers will plant enough to supply their busy kitchens.

“It’s been an educational process,” explains Lum. “HRC is maturing and we have the infrastructure and sustainable resources to support it. The ingredients we’re getting locally are equal to the quality of any region in the world.”

Besides, Gannon adds, “We should be able to grow everything we need here. Why should I buy carrots from the Mainland? If you taste local asparagus versus Mainland, you can tell the difference. The lettuces, the corn.”

“I would love to have more artisanal cheeses available here,” she says. “To have truffles and morels, and some more aquaculture-oysters, mussels, that sort of thing. As far as produce, that’s moving along at a pretty good pace. I have people who come and say, ‘What do you want me to grow? Some things work and some things don’t, but there are a number of people out there who are willing to try.”

The best known is Dean Okimoto, president of Nalo Farms in Waimänalo. He reports that chefs have been requesting carrots and varieties of small, colorful potatoes, so his company has responded with test crops.

“HRC was based on fresh ingredients to begin with,” he adds, “but the neat thing is that the younger guys are figuring out how this will benefit them. Even eight years ago, the fresh stuff wasn’t labeled as such. Roy Yamaguchi, Alan Wong, they taught these guys about quality. It’s better for the economy, better for the restaurants. Chefs can put that on their menus and advertise.”

Other agribusinesses, such as beef and dairy farms, lag behind the produce boom, but they’re emerging. Several chefs we spoke to mentioned that the past year has seen Hawai’i beef truly come into its own. The grass-fed beef is lean and favored by many chefs for its richer flavors. Calvin Lum, owner of the North Shore Cattle Co., says he is baffled that the state is “shipping 60,000 head of cattle a year to the Mainland, then we import 95 percent of our beef. I’d like to see more beef kept here for consumption. There’s quite a bit of land that could be converted to pasture land. A cattle industry is viable in Hawai’i.”

At the Umami Cafe, you can taste the influence of HRC—even though the restaurant is in Upstate New York. Shown is the Sweet Soy Braised Lamb Shank. Photo: Kent Hwang

The state should also add chocolate to its portfolio of assets, enthuses Bob Cooper, president and owner of The Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory, in Kailua-Kona. “Sugar cane is in the rearview mirror, pineapple is waning; cacao could, if done responsibly, be the next major agribusiness for Hawai’i.” He points out that a farmer raising a diversity of products-land, say, planted with cacao, macadamia nuts, Kona coffee and exotic fruit-is more recession-proof than a farmer relying on a single crop.


HRC is good for the ‘Aina


Just as we pay more for gas and housing, chefs and farmers face the challenge of the high cost of doing business in Hawai’i. “Our price for a pound of goat cheese is $16, instead of $5 or $6 from a Mainland company,” concedes Thomas Kafsack, owner of the Surfing Goat Dairy. “But we are paying $19 for alfalfa instead of $3.”

Many food-lovers feel it’s worth paying the higher price to support local suppliers. “It is expensive, true, but when you put the price per portion, it’s not that bad,” says Ron Miller of the Hukilau Länai. “We’re not afraid to spend the money if the quality is there. What is challenging is that sometimes you can get five pounds of an item and the next day, it’s completely gone. When you run out of local produce and instead have to go to the big produce company, they may not give you the best tomatoes compared to the guy who is buying from them regularly.”

By being willing to pay a little more for Island-grown ingredients, HRC chefs are essentially helping subsidize our state’s farmers. They aren’t afraid to push for more diversification, either.

“We’re getting wonderful rambutans and lychees from the Big Island,” muses Chef Lum. “Still sought after are the unique products, such as dragon fruit. For the future of the cuisine, we have to ask suppliers to go beyond tomatoes, lettuce and herbs.”

We have to watch what we eat, too. “I would love that 10, 15 years down the road, the average serving is three ounces of fresh fish, three ounces of complex carbs and two fresh vegetables,” says Peter Merriman, chef/owner of Merriman’s and Merriman’s Market Café on the Big Island. He calls a three-ounce portion “healthy and sustainable.” Most restaurants, he says, give at least eight ounces of fish in a serving, “and that strains our resources.”

Ron Miller Shows off his use of local, fresh ingredients. Photo: Ron Kosen

The new head of Maui Land & Pineapple, David Cole, is generating buzz among chefs for his work on sustainable Island farming practices. “David wants to create diversified land use and has some really visionary ideas,” explains Gannon. “He has an organic farm back East. If we don’t start listening to some of the ideas coming in from the Mainland, thinking out of the ‘develop, develop, develop’ mindset of homes and resorts, we’re going to lose the island [Maui] to a big, concrete jungle. People come here to see the wide-open spaces. They don’t come here to see rows and rows of condos.”

“The state puts so much into high-tech and, to me, we’re looking at the wrong things,” says Okimoto. “The important thing is to keep the empty land in agriculture. We’re going to lose everything to development.”


Tiny toques


As Hawai’i’s gastronomical fame grows, so will the demand for chefs trained in HRC, and the need for skilled kitchen workers. After all, would-be Alan Wongs can’t simply jump in and start flinging around the Kahuku shrimp and Mänoa lettuce. They still need the fundamentals, points out Ronald Takahashi, associate professor and department chairman of Kapi’olani Community College Culinary Arts. “Students must understand that it all starts with quality stocks, mother sauces, knife skills, work ethic, attitude, professionalism, recipe costing and the comprehension of profit-and-loss statements. All this must be mastered before we can get to the fun, creative stuff that they crave.”

Last fall, Maui Community College opened Pa’ina, a new, $13.5-million food-service facility, for its culinary arts programs. It features a cafeteria and food court, a fine-dining room, a bakery, a lab for cooking skills and classrooms.

“This helps build experience for local students, who can enter our top restaurants,” says Jurg Munch. “The students can develop knowledge and creativity in Hawai’i. Instead of going to Johnson & Wales, they can go to MCC. That should bring out some great new talent.”

Munch recently put his money where his mouth is, presenting high school senior Ramel Reyes with a $2,000 scholarship to MCC. Reyes, who will start perfecting his dicing and chopping techniques this fall, says he became interested in becoming a chef because he enjoys eating out at restaurants. Thus, today’s HRC masters are already helping mold the next generation.

Dr. Calvin Lum stakes out the steaks at the North Shore Cattle Co. Photo: Olivier Koning


More mouths


Like a growing family, Hawai’i has more mouths as of late. According to the Hawai’i Visitors and Convention Bureau, domestic arrivals were at a record high in the first quarter of 2004. Scheduled, domestic-air seat capacity rose 14 percent and was projected to rise another 11 percent in the second quarter. Tourists are spending more, too: Expenditures per visitor rose about 23 percent for both East Coast and West Coast travelers. The HVCB is targeting affluent visitors, so we’re likely to get more sophisticated, food-savvy diners.

Maui, in particular, has seen an influx of hungry visitors. “We have 12 direct flights coming in from the Mainland, almost daily. We’re expecting a very busy summer season,” says Munch.

In the first five months of 2004, the Surfing Goat Dairy, located in Kula, had already hosted 20 percent more visitors on its dairy tours than it had for the entire previous year. Much of the success of HRC can be credited to the idea of taking flavors that are familiar to the local audience and then reinventing them. The strong regional identity of Hawai’i cuisine helps separate us from other tropical locations.

“More tourists are looking for a culinary experience, so if you’re doing the same thing as everyone else, you are in trouble,” warns Mavrothalassitis. For example, he was drinking a vanilla bubble drink when visions of lobster starting dancing in his head. His epiphany was translated into a Keähole lobster brochette with Hawaiian vanilla bubble sauce and coconut-Moloka’i sweet potato. “I thought, This is too much! I am going too far!, but when I served it to the staff they all loved it.”

At David Paul’s Lahaina Grill, inspiration came in the form of a fruit unfamiliar to most Mainland palates: pohä berries. Diners can taste them in a new dish for summer: grilled Pacific salmon fillet with a shaved baby fennel salad and pohä berry vinaigrette.

The Hawaiian Chocolate Factory produces 1,000 pounds of chocolate a month. Photo: Olivier Koning

And what of our student chef, Ramel Reyes? He says he likes to cook “basic stuff, like fried rice or chicken.” Well, you never know. Today’s fried rice could be tomorrow’s “calamari dusted with pummeled fried rice and served with a pohä berry dipping sauce.”

Jim Reddekopp, owner of the Hawaiian Vanilla Co., has launched a program for visitors to visit farms and see cooking demonstrations using locally grown ingredients. Attendees sign up for daylong excursions, which include destinations such as the East Maui Irrigation office, or viewing onion production. How popular tours some tours will be-“Your next stop will be at Pioneer Hi-Bred International to learn about Hawai’i’s seed-corn industry … boxed lunch served”-remains to be seen.

What is for certain is the status of HRC: Very much alive, thank you. And through national exposure, the growth of culinary tourism, an increasingly vital agricultural scene, investments in education and the continued experimentation of some very talented people, we’re not at the end of a trend. We’re at the beginning.