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Eating Around: Foundations of Hawai’i’s Cuisine

Noe Tanigawa
Noe Tanigawa

Noe Tanigawa eady availability of local produce is one lasting contribution consumers enjoy, thanks to recent combined efforts of chefs creating cachet and demand, farmers being encouraged to grow and expand offerings, and the counties and other entities that have supported farmers' markets.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

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Food is a shared national obsession these days, and the way we eat now has its roots in a movement that began in California in the 1970’s.  Increased awareness of fresh and local became the basis for Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine in 1991, and it got us excited about Hawai‘i’s rich food culture.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa looks at where we are, thirty years later.

Chef Alan Wong and Chef/Educator Grant Sato share insights about what quality and consistency require

Hawai‘i’s first star chef, Roy Yamaguchi, was just out of culinary school and gunning to work in the best kitchens when the California cuisine movement began in the early 1970's.  Alice Waters, Michael McCarthy, Jonathan Waxman, Wolfgang Puck, Jeremiah Towers, and other chefs, were turning away from classic methods and presentation toward a fresh and ingredient-centered cuisine. 

“It changed people’s lives! Not just for themselves, because now they’re doing something they really enjoy and it’s exciting, and the customers who were going to those restaurants, felt cool.  You felt like, hey, this has a great vibe!”

Yamaguchi remembers one of the first experiments in what he was calling Euro-Asian cuisine: a scallop mousse, hint of ginger, with a French beurre rouge. Another: teriyaki chicken on a salad with a French vinaigrette---made with hazelnut or walnut oil, and a raspberry or champagne vinegar.  

Wolfgang Puck and others were also romping in this new Euro-Asian playground, and in the blush of this adventurism, Yamaguchi opened his first restaurant in 1984. 385 North, on La Cienega in Los Angeles, had pink lights, and lots of stainless steel.  Yamaguchi recalls, an early review compared his servers to "refugees from a Siberian prison camp." Far from the usual black and white,  the wait staff sported grey designer-made uniforms, lots of zippers, and baggy arms that flared out. 385 North lasted four years.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
A truffle risotto at Senia by Chef/owner Chris Kajioka. He and his partner, Anthony Rush, opened the eatery on King Street downtown in 2016.

“Growing up in Hawai‘i, Roy was the man, you know, he’s the guy,” says Chris Kajioka, chef and owner of Senia restaurant and soon, Bar Maze (pronounced, ma-zeh, as in the Japanese, mazeru.) He is part of a new generation of Hawai‘i chefs.

Kajioka says, “Roy brought a lot of credibility to Hawai‘i because he was a rising star in L.A., coming to Hawai‘i. I think he was Chef of the Year in L.A. before he moved here.  People were wondering, Why?  So he kind of brought that credibility, that route that he took, he notched everything you’re supposed to do before you open a restaurant.”

Alan Wong, is a classically trained Hawai‘i chef who, with Yamaguchi, was among the twelve founders of  Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, HRC, in 1991.  He says HRC had two goals: first, to develop an agricultural network in Hawai‘i. Wong says HRC influence lives on in all the farmers’ markets here, and continues in the quality and variety of products available to young chefs and even in supermarkets.

“The second goal of the HRC guys was to tell everyone in the world simply, that there was a new cuisine in Hawai‘i."

Certainly, the doors opened to a whole generation of local chefs, and excitement began to grow about food culture in Hawai‘i. Trader Vic’s, Don the Beachcomber, and other popular signposts of the 1960’s and '70’s promulgated a Hawai‘i cuisine that was distinguished by pineapple, and often sweet, sticky sauces.  Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine focused on respectful preparations of the best ingredients Hawai‘i could produce.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Chef/owner Alan Wong's signature restaurant opened on King Street in 1995. I've heard it referred to as "Alan Wong University," for the lessons in life and culinary available there. Here, Wong appears beside an image of an iceberg, an apt metaphor for the restaurant business, Wong says, in that a tremendous amount of rigorous teamwork underlies the hour or two we spend at table.

This first wave of HRC chefs was largely rigorously trained.  Alan Wong did a stint at one of New York City’s beloved landmarks, Lutece, before returning to Hawai‘i to open his own restaurant on King Street in April 1995. Wong won a James Beard Award the next year for “Best Chef, Pacific Northwest.” I asked Chef Wong if aspiring chefs today are willing to work as hard.  

“In general, I don’t think so.  You hear them apply for jobs at 18 years old, right out of culinary school, in the interview they talk about work/life balance.”

“I think it’s important,” Chef Wong continued, “But there’s a time to go to school, there’s a time to pay your dues, there’s a time to become a sous chef, there’s a time to become a chef.  Right off the bat, work/life balance? I cannot understand that.  Cannot.”

“This profession is not an easy profession. You have to be about doing something daily, consistently, striving to become better every day,” says Wong.

Few truly care that much. Here’s Kajioka:

"The local food movement is not what it is without Roy, without Alan, without Mavro, without Jean-Marie (Josselin).  I’m happy to be in that conversation, but there’s more we can push it for sure."

Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine peaked in the 1990’s, when we had a lot of international attention on our food. That has certainly waned. Where to next? Not sure, but we’ll look at one chef’s process for getting there.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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