The Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, born 20 years ago this August, is in need of a revival.
The movement took off in the 1990s with chefs Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi, Sam Choy and others gaining worldwide recognition for their Pacific-inspired dishes made with local ingredients.
Their efforts made Hawaii a hot destination for serious foodies and gave local growers an expanding market for their produce.
The state promoted Hawaii Regional Cuisine as a way to boost tourism. The chefs opened Hawaiian cuisine restaurants, made frequent appearances on Food Network and published enough cookbooks to fill a shelf.
CELEBRATING 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF HAWAII REGIONAL CUISINE
» March 9: "Chefs of Aloha" dinner at the James Beard House in New York City by James Beard Award-winning chefs Alan Wong and George Mavrothalassitis.
» Sept. 19: Induction of the 12 original Hawaii Regional Cuisine chefs into the Hawaii Restaurant Association Hall of Fame as part of the HRA’s annual gala, and publication of a commemorative cookbook containing new recipes from the original HRC 12 and other Hawaii chefs. Location is not yet set for the gala.
» Exhibit at the Hawaii State Art Museum, including conversations with and cooking demonstrations by chefs and other leaders in Hawaii’s restaurant and food-service industry. Dates are not yet set for the exhibit.
For more information, see www.hawaiiregionalcuisine.com.
Source: Hawaii Restaurant Association
But in recent years, Hawaii Regional Cuisine has lost momentum.
"What happened to you guys in Hawaii?" asked former Gourmet magazine Executive Chef Sara Moulton in a conversation with Wong. "You guys were out there, people knew about Hawaii food-wise, and all of a sudden, you stopped," Wong remembered her saying.
"We need to do that again," Wong said. It will be "good for everybody, tourism, the hospitality industry — that’s our No. 1 engine."
Tourism and the restaurant industry would benefit from Hawaii Regional Cuisine raising its profile once again.
To that end, the Hawaii Restaurant Association plans this year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the cuisine.
"The goal is to re-establish our culinary industry’s message," said Gail Ann Chew, restaurant association executive director.
On March 9, Hawaii chefs will return to the James Beard Foundation house in New York, a center for culinary arts, to cook for restaurant glitterati and, perhaps more importantly, the food press.
The dozen founding Hawaii Regional Cuisine chefs will be inducted into the Hawaii Restaurant Association’s Hall of Fame at its annual September gala, at which a new Hawaii Regional Cuisine cookbook will also be unveiled. The Hawaii State Art Museum will stage an exhibit highlighting the uniqueness of Hawaii’s food origins and traditions.
While Hawaii’s top-of-mind awareness as a foodie’s paradise has dulled somewhat, what has grown continually since those early days is consumer awareness of and demand for local produce and meats.
"When I first started buying from farmers, locally grown stuff was not available in the supermarket," with some exceptions, said Peter Merriman, a Big Island-based founding Hawaii Regional Cuisine chef with one restaurant then, seven restaurants now.
"The ingredients from the farmers that we had" became more widely available to the public via farmers markets and progressive, competitive grocery stores, Wong said. "And there was always Chinatown."
People’s Open Markets offering fresh produce have been around since Mayor Frank Fasi’s time in office, but the number of farmers markets on each island has exploded since the inception of Hawaii Regional Cuisine.
"The general public’s consciousness has been raised about supporting the local agricultural community," said Myrone Murakami, a farmer and president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation. "There’s no question that that kind of willingness on the consumers’ part, to go after local products, encourages local production."
"Even though we’re not necessarily competitive in price (to the supermarkets) at this point, the consumers’ willingness to kind of put that aside and continue to look for local products, it will help in creating the atmosphere for the growers to continue to produce, and to try to find ways to be more competitive," Murakami said.
Another benefit of Hawaii Regional Cuisine is it made being a chef in Hawaii cool.
That’s important to the more than 3,100 restaurants in Hawaii that employ more than 76,600.
"I am always very thankful for all the HRC movement has done for the islands," said Chuck Furuya, master sommelier and partner in the D.K Restaurant group, noting development of local talent by the founding chefs.
Yamaguchi has by far the largest empire among the founding chefs. Some 31 restaurants bear his name, either through ownership, franchising or a joint venture; he has authored cookbooks and has a cookware line.
Furuya attended a meeting of Yamaguchi’s chefs and general managers from around the world. Of the 34 chefs in attendance, "29 were from Hawaii and had come up through the ranks over the years," he said.
Other founding chefs have launched and sold restaurant chains, as did Mark Ellman with Maui Tacos.
Alan Wong has two Oahu restaurants, one of which hosts President Obama and his party at least once a year.
Hawaii Regional Cuisine followed similar regional cuisine explosions from New England, Texas and Florida, said Barbara Fairchild, formerly the longtime editor of Bon Appetit magazine and currently a freelance writer and consultant. "With chefs like Jean-Marie (Josselin) and Peter Merriman leading the way, Hawaiian cuisine got much more notice."
The founding chefs of Hawaii Regional Cuisine were all over national networks and local stations in mainland markets, as well as in print media, putting Hawaii on travelers’ radar for a reason other than sun, sand, or surf.
Choy appeared numerous times on "Emeril Live," featuring celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, on Food Network.
Hawaii Regional Cuisine "menu items spread to high-end restaurants all across the country — in restaurants belonging to Wolfgang Puck, Michael Mina" and others, said founding member Gary Strehl, now operations manager for Virginia-based hospitality management company Crestline Hotels & Resorts Inc. Choy, Wong and Yamaguchi "were the guys that really put us more on the national scene," he said.
Chef-restaurateur George Mavrothalassitis remembers the culinary reputation Hawaii had in 1988. "A travel magazine quoted, ‘Enjoy the food in the plane, because it is going to be your best meal of your vacation,’" Mavrothalassitis recalled. The comment was "nasty" and largely untrue, though the food served to most Waikiki tourists was not great, he said.
Before the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, most restaurants in Hawaii imported their ingredients, including produce from California and frozen mahimahi from Mexico, Mavro said.
"It was urgent to change this negative image and I was excited to be a part of HRC," he said. "I’ve always worked from the local market wherever I’ve been, so it was natural for me to search out a way to make that happen here — but it took a group of us all working with local farmers, all letting people know what we were doing, that changed the direction of cuisine here."
Hawaii Regional Cuisine "had an incredible positive effect" not just on the founding chefs, but the agriculture industry and stakeholders in the tourism industry, said founding member Roger Dikon, then with the Maui Prince, now director of food and beverage at a retirement community in Florida.
"I believe the flavor combinations from such chefs as Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi and chef Mavro have indeed inspired many young chefs and culinarians throughout the state — and the food in Hawaii now rivals any in the world, in my opinion."
The 12 founding chefs of Hawaii Regional Cuisine and Shep Gordon, a co-founder and talent agent.
1. Sam Choy
1991: Chef-owner and partner in Sam Choy’s Kaloko Restaurant and the Kona bowling alley.
Now: Partner in Sam Choy’s Breakfast, Lunch and Crab and Sam Choy’s Catering. Will soon open Sam Choy’s Kai Lanai in Kailua-Kona under a different partnership; cookbook author, TV show host.
2. Roger Dikon
1991: Executive chef Maui Prince Hotel
Now: Food and beverage director, The Carlisle, Palm Beach Fla.
3. Mark Ellman
1991: Chef-owner Avalon Restaurant and Bar, Lahaina
Now: Chef-owner, Mala Ocean Tavern, Lahaina; partner, Mala Wailea; partner, Penne Pasta Cafe, Lahaina; cookbook author.
4. Amy Ferguson
1991: Executive chef, Hotel Hana-Maui
Now: Cater Hawaii LLC (Kona) owner, specializing in consulting, event planning and catering, cookbook contributor.
5. Bev Gannon
1991: Owner, Celebrations Catering and Haliimaile General Store (restaurant).
Now: Also, owner Joe’s, Gannons (Wailea), was Hawaiian Airlines corporate chef for 11 years, ending in December; cookbook author.
6. Shep Gordon
1991: Owner, Alive Enterprises talent management company representing some 20 recording artists; also chef-management subsidiary Alive Culinary Resources with 100 chefs represented.
Now: Manages Alice Cooper, partner in numerous business ventures.
7. Jean-Marie Josselin
1991: Chef-owner, A Pacific Cafe, Kapaa, Kauai (the first of multiple Hawaii locations, now closed. Also hosted a TV show, opened the former 808 restaurant at Caesar’s Palace in a partnership deal.)
Now: Chef-owner Josselin’s Tapas Bar & Grill, Poipu; cookbook author.
8. George Mavrothalassitis
1991: Executive chef, Halekulani and chef de cuisine, La Mer restaurant
Now: James Beard Award-winning chef (2003); chef-owner, Chef Mavro Restaurant; cookbook contributor.
9. Peter Merriman
1991: Chef-owner, Merriman’s Restaurant in Waimea
Now: Chef-owner Merriman’s Restaurants in Waimea; Kapalua on Maui, Merriman’s Fish House and Downstairs Cafe in Poipu, Kauai; and Merriman’s Market Cafe in Waikoloa; owner-partner in Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman in Wailea; and Partner of Hula Grill Kaanapali on Maui.
10. Philippe Padovani
1991: Executive chef, Manele Bay Hotel, Lanai
Now: Partner, Chocolates by Padovani LLC, chef, partner Padovani’s Grill, Honolulu.
11. Gary Strehl (not pictured)
1991: Executive chef, Hawaii Prince Resort
Now: Operations manager for Virginia-based Crestline Hotels, tending to 60 properties around the U.S.
12. Alan Wong
1991: Chef at Canoe House, Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows
Now: James Beard Award-winning chef (1996); chef-owner, Alan Wong’s Honolulu and the Pineapple Room by Alan Wong, cookbook author.
13. Roy Yamaguchi
1991: Chef-owner Roy’s restaurant in Hawaii Kai (opened in 1988).
Now: James Beard Award-winning chef (1993), chef-owner of six Hawaii Roy’s restaurants, franchiser of Roy’s restaurants in Guam, Japan and Pebble Beach, Calif., and joint-venture partner in 22 other mainland locations; cookbook author, TV host.