Eating Around: How Good Is Our Food, Really?

Nov 15, 2019

Restaurant Week starts today, so if you’re on O‘ahu, you can dine out for a cause until November 24th.  Over 75 diverse restaurants around Honolulu have prepared special menus or are running deals, and donating proceeds to the Culinary Institute of the Pacific. Travel and food videos have raised expectations for the next generation of chefs.

Chef Grant Sato has been teaching in KCC's Culinary Program for twenty years, he also produced and hosted his own television cooking program for many years. Check his posts as 77sevn on Instagram for produce tips.
Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio

Proceeds benefit the Culinary Institute of the Pacific when you dine out during Restaurant Week in Honolulu, October 15 through November 24th 2019.

Chef Grant Sato has been teaching at KCC’s culinary school since 1998, and hosted a Hawai‘i cooking program for many years. Sato thinks the ‘90’s were a hey-day for Hawai‘i cuisine but that things have slipped since then.

“I feel like we’re at a turning point in our identity,” says Sato, “Because if we don’t change what we’re doing now, more tourists are going to look at Hawai‘i as just a scenic or ocean sports destination.”

Sato and says his graduate students do market surveys as their final project, asking visitors, how was your food experience here?

“Ninety nine percent of all tourists say the food here is of lower quality than they expected,it is higher priced than they expected, flavors are hit or miss, and there’s not as much of a seafood selection as they would have expected from an island state surrounded by the ocean.”

Sato says the respondents were eating at high-end places in Waikīkī,

But Honolulu’s got yelpers that seem pretty happy, and the diversity of offerings is way up, says Sean Morris, a Hawai‘i food blogger who consults on marketing in Asia.

Sean Morris is an Asian marketing & PR specialist w/ food column in Lighthouse, the Hawai'i guide for Japanese visitors. He also blogs on Vogue Japan online, and writes for Hawai'i based publications. Find Sean's tips and reviews on Instagram @incurablepicure.
Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio

Morris says all that food porn and travel make us more adventurous eaters in Hawai‘i. There’s a new diversity in Honolulu’s restaurant scene where you can get adobo fried chicken to vegan sushi these days.  Japanese visitors enjoy local takes on international cuisines, says Morris, but creating truly great food requires astounding dedication.

“There’s got to be the desire to take that investment of time, and it’s going to really be that, to elevate our cuisine to a whole new level. If we ever want to be considered for a Michelin star or World’s 50 Best spot, I think it’s going to take that kind of drive to make it happen.”

It also takes concerted lobbying. Morris points out, “Michelin is swayed by finances. A lot of destinations that want to boost their tourism have been able to lure the Michelin ratings system to their countries, recently, Seoul, Shanghai, Bangkok.”

For the first time, the state of California has its own guide. Otherwise, Michelin reviews the New York City and DC areas.

“A lot of it has to do with finances,” says Morris, “But we need to have talent as well. I think we’ve got amazing talent now but I think we need to nurture that to make to a level where it is truly a global appeal.”

Chef Sato says the top restaurants around the world earn respect through consistently great food, and that depends on fierce integrity through the entire supply chain. He favors chefs training as long as possible in Japan because, according to Sato, Japan has the highest density of people who will not sacrifice their integrity.  

But could Sato live in Japan? He says no. Workers in Japan, Sato says, look miserable! Hopefully that’s not the price of integrity.

Bites from Chef Jose Almogruera's Guam tasting menu: Tinala Katne--smoked beef with crab fat finadene dinache, red rice, Uhang Kelaguen--Kaua'i shrimp.
Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio

“But once you’ve experienced that, it’s life changing,” says Sato. “It realizes that, Yes, I enjoy my life in Hawai‘i but maybe there are ways I could be a little more focused and a little more consistent, and have a little more integrity in what I do, because there are places in the world where they do have that integrity.”

Culinary excellence is something Hawai‘i could do.  A more locally based food system would provide fresher, tastier food and make us safer too.