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From a small 'fraternity' came an identifying style

By Erika Engle

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 04:35 a.m. HST, Feb 27, 2011



A dozen chefs gathered for a weekend at the Maui Prince Hotel in August 1991 and set in motion the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement.

The chefs, who regularly got together to cook for events, thought how cool it would be to get together without having to cook — so they could actually spend some quality time sharing ideas.

Roger Dikon, executive chef at the Maui Prince, offered the chefs free rooms and was "happy to host the first meeting of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine group at my hotel for a cookout at the Makena Golf Course Restaurant," he said.

"We formed the group just as a fraternity of sorts, as an opportunity to exchange information with peers," said Peter Merriman, then of Merriman's restaurant in Waimea. "It grew into something much larger than we envisioned."

The gathering moved to Shep Gordon's house about four miles away to continue their planning. Gordon, now a 36-year Hawaii resident, has managed the careers of several actors, musicians, and high-powered chefs, including Wolfgang Puck.

An avowed food enthusiast, Gordon brought into the mix Roger Verge, seen as a father of nouvelle cuisine, and Dean Fearing, considered the father of Southwestern cuisine, to share their movement-launching experiences with Hawaii chefs.

European-influenced continental cuisine ruled hotel restaurant menus in Hawaii through the late 1970s and into the 1980s. They were dominated by dishes such as Lobster Thermidor and Steak Diane, the types of dishes requiring a set method of preparing specific ingredients, Alan Wong explained.

At that first meeting, Verge and Fearing regaled the local chefs with their pioneering experiences and "in both cases, it was exactly the same story," Gordon said. The movements began with chefs buying from local farmers, guaranteeing farmers buyers for their crops and ensuring the chefs a supply of the freshest-possible local ingredients.

The Hawaii movement meant "all of a sudden you're seeing things on the menu like grilled tuna with pineapple salsa," and menus touting trademarked Nalo Greens by Dean Okimoto, who was working the family farm begun in 1953.

Gordon arranged a launch party in 1992 at Schatzi, a Santa Monica restaurant owned by Arnold Schwarzenegger, attended by Hollywood A-list celebrities and covered by the entertainment and food press. He worked with the Maui Visitors Bureau, got chef jackets made up for all the celebrities and hired Miss Hawaii 1978 Elizabeth Lindsey to dance hula at the event. "I still have the original jacket," Gordon chuckled.

Other high-profile events and appearances on television and national food press followed, and Hawaii Regional Cuisine became the name, the mantra, the cooking and plating style and the buzz.






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