The reborn Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement can expect quite a bit of national ink following the performance of chefs and restaurateurs George Mavrothalassitis and Alan Wong and their crews at New York’s James Beard House earlier this month.
"I was able to sit with my friend chef Sara Moulton," said Gail Ann Chew, executive director of the Hawaii Restaurant Association and dinner organizer. Moulton is a cookbook author, TV personality and former executive chef for the now-folded Gourmet magazine (now online only). Moulton said "it was phenomenal," Chew said. "She was just full of oohs and aahs."
"I visited all of the tables, and people were truly blown away. My message to the audience (was) that, yes, George and Alan are among our community’s finest, but I also told them there are so many others we have yet to share with you, and we look forward to doing that."
Moulton was "impressed with the quality of the meal and the caliber of the camaraderie between the chefs," who have to cook in a very small kitchen. A whole team has to fit into a home-size kitchen. Even in what Chef Mavro calls a "temple of gastronomy," there is no stadium-size commercial kitchen a la "Top Chef" in which the culinary team can freely move about and even run.
While the kitchen has been slightly expanded in recent years, with some new equipment added, space restrictions necessitated that a lot of the prep be done beforehand, beginning with smart menu planning. Agricultural restrictions prevented the chefs from taking isle-grown tomatoes with them, Wong noted, but both chefs brought a preponderance of local produce and food products.
"The biggest problem is storage," as in fridge space. Wong and Mavro each have previously cooked at the Beard House and prepared their staff members for the challenges. "I told ’em horror stories," Wong chuckled.
Cautionary tales aside, Wong, Mavro and the younger Hawaii culinarians were excited to be there. "You’re walking in to history," Wong said. "It’s always chicken-skin."
Chew "did an awesome job" organizing the dinner, Wong said, but Chew said "it takes a lot of people" to pull off such logistics. The HRC dinner was supported by the Oahu Visitors Bureau; distributor HFM Foodservice, which "put up the money"; and the state Department of Agriculture, which "arranged for the flowers to get there," she said.
Chew and other Hawaii officials are looking forward to seeing the TV and magazines’ reporting on the dinner and re-energizing of the HRC movement spawned 20 years ago. The OVB will harvest clips and video snippets.
The afterglow of aloha is still top of mind, and Chew heard from James Beard Foundation President Susan Ungaro Friday morning, as the two had planned to reconnect once Chew returned to Hawaii and "got settled." Ungaro wants to extend and strengthen the partnership among "the HRA, our industry and the foundation, and I’m really looking forward to that," Chew said.
Meanwhile, HRA has been fielding calls from legislators and others interested in doing what they can to help reinvigorate the Hawaii Regional Cuisine brand and spread the wealth of a rising tide that will help Hawaii’s economy.
"We’ve gotta go out there," Wong said. Since the food scene is a significant part of Hawaii’s hospitality industry, "a lot of people are going to have to put in more time and energy to support that and participate."
In addition to the HRA’s upcoming golf tournament and September Hall of Fame induction of the 12 original HRC chefs at the Waikiki Edition hotel, other organizations are planning additional awareness-raising events. Wong, chef-restaurateur Roy Yamaguchi and Nalo Greens farmer Dean Okimoto also are spearheading the inaugural Hawaii Food and Wine Festival at the end of September. Five chefs from around the world will be part of the event, which will help "bring the spotlight to Hawaii," Wong said.
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Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Advertiser. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.