The quiet that is blanketing a usually bustling Honolulu is evidence that most are taking the coronavirus seriously and opting to self-isolate without regard for any government mandate.
Chef Alan Wong has been watching the predictable cause-and-effect of coronavirus news and its impact on his restaurant for months.
“You see the immediate response,” he said. “When the case numbers go up, takeout goes up, and when it goes down, people are more willing to go out and eat.”
At Chef Chai’s, chef-owner Chai Chaowasaree said, “Usually I take my mother out to eat every day, but I stopped taking her three weeks ago when the numbers started getting higher.”
For at least the next two weeks, customers have no choice, given the latest stay-at-home order that shuts down Oahu dining rooms as of Thursday. The restriction validates the foresight of chefs such as Wong and Chaowasaree, who’ve introduced out-of-the-box meals for the boxed-in masses.
“We need to survive like everybody else,” Chaowasaree said. “This COVID economy is so uncertain, people are not gonna spend that much money on dinner, so the question is how to present something attractive enough that people will buy.”
Expanding on the idea of Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, services that connect consumers directly with farmers and ranchers, chefs are coming up with their own meal kits, market bags and boxes. They’re offering everything from produce and food products for self-prep at home, to gourmet meals ready to eat.
Wong and Chaowasaree’s repertoires have expanded to include choices from Wong’s meal kits for the likes of ramen and poke, to Chaowasaree’s $120 meal packs with enough food to sustain a couple for four or five days.
Also in the game are food distributors such as ChefZone and Gourmet Foods Hawaii, which previously supplied restaurant, hotels, caterers and airlines.
“During the March frenzy, when everyone was going crazy buying things, I joked to my friends, ‘If you need anything we have a whole warehouse of food,’ ” said Shawn “Possie” Badham, co-owner of Gourmet Foods Hawaii. “Then everything stopped and we were sitting here doing nothing.”
The most perishable items were donated to food banks right away, then they started packaging items in kits for home cooks, starting with friends and family, Badham said. “We had to learn how to label things and provide cooking instructions because our friends were calling to ask, ‘How do we cook this?’ It was something we didn’t have to do before because chefs never needed that.”
Badham said her company has been careful to avoid competing with restaurant clients.
She’s working on a paella kit with the basics of saffron, rice, sofrito and paprika. Home cooks can add their proteins of choice. And with no sign of a return to normalcy anytime soon, she’s already looking ahead to Oktoberfest and Thanksgiving offerings. The holidays may also be a time for sending food care packages to friends.
Also taking a cue from chefs’ enhanced offerings are the CSA services. Waianae’s Kahumana Farm has begun supplementing its produce boxes with a new Meal Share bag of food prepared in its cafe. The most recent bag featured ulu carrot soup, quinoa salad with feta, beet relish, pickled cucumbers and a chocolate bar.
“All this is good for consumers, who have more power than normal because people are competing for their dollars,” Chaowasaree said.
FOR HIS part, Chaowasaree has introduced a weekly Wiki Wiki Box, which allows a couple to pick up several meals by leaving the house just once. Each box includes a pair each of four entrees, a pair of salads and pair of desserts.
“After the CARES Act expired, customers started to drop off, so we had to do something. I didn’t want to wait until we are so far behind we can’t catch up later,” he said.
The Wiki Wiki Box menu changes weekly. Recent entrees have included Chaowasaree’s father’s recipe for braised beef shank with five-spice demiglace, served with coconut milk-ginger brown rice; grilled fresh fish with chile-ginger sauce and Thai jasmine rice; panang beef curry with green peas, bell pepper and kaffir lime, with Thai jasmine rice; and grilled prawns with penne and creamy macadamia nut pesto.
“The reason I can do this is because I don’t have to pay an expensive executive chef and I don’t need a general manager because I do that.”
Chaowasaree has also partnered with Kau Kau Box to be among its featured chefs. The box features eight prepared meals along with grocery staples from local markets for elegant replating at home. At a time when we can’t travel, the focus is on wanderlust-inspired variety — themed meals have included Mexican fare, such as chicken chile verde and barbacoa tamale pie, and the health-oriented fare of India, including veggie samosas and kabocha green lentil dal. Local farms provide fruits, vegetables and eggs that go into the boxes.
“If you go to the retail supermarket I don’t think you could make this at the prices offered,” Chaowasaree said. “I never go to the grocery store because I don’t usually cook at home, but when I did I was shocked. One small jar of olives was so expensive.”
AT ALAN WONG’S King Street restaurant, the AW at Home service features $42 complete meals packed to be replated at home to replicate the restaurant experience. Recent entrees have included salmon ochazuke risotto; Kauai shrimp, clams and fish in soupe de poisson broth; and twice-cooked, soy-braised short ribs. Each dish comes with sides and dessert. Wine pairings are available for each selection.
The restaurant is open for takeout Wednesdays to Sundays, but preordered specialty items are available for pickup daily. These include an ahi poke kit, individual or family-size ramen kits with up to five balls of Sun noodles and a half-gallon of broth, and beverage kits for making plantation iced tea, Alan Wong’s Bloody Mary, sangria and more.
And to help support farmers, he offers a $35 farmer’s basket of produce. “What people aren’t talking about is what is happening to our food suppliers and producers, from fishermen to farmers,” Wong said.
Over the past decades, farmers have upgraded to address consumer demands for organic produce and antibiotic-free meat products, but all this comes at a price consumers may not be willing to pay going forward.
“We might take a step backward because people who are hurting financially will be going out for fast food, and they’re likely to pass on vine-ripened tomatoes from Hawaii selling for $4 a pound when they can get a beefsteak tomato for $1.60,” Wong said.
Although his name is synonymous with fine dining, people are in need of comfort and Wong is addressing that through frozen-food offerings such as local-style beef stew, poi stew, seafood corn chowder and collagen-rich bone broth.
“People are starting to look for healthier options because it’s all about protecting their health right now,” he said. “But on the flip side, because of the economy, they’re looking for what they can afford and comfort food. People keep reordering and reordering the beef stew, maybe they no like cook at home. For us, making the stew is easy, everything else is kind of tough.
“Takeout, any kind of revenue, helps but it doesn’t stop the bleeding. Every restaurant is bleeding. For sure the dining landscape is going to change in the next three months and who knows what it’s going to look like.”
>> Alan Wong’s: AW at Home prepared meals available 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays. Frozen items and specialty kits available 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Preorder required: Call 949-2526. See menus at alanwongs.com. The restaurant is at 1857 S. King St.
>> Chef Chai: Wiki Wiki Box of eight entrees and sides is $120, or double up for $200. Pick up curbside at the restaurant, 1009 Kapiolani Blvd. Order online at 808ne.ws/chaiorders on Mondays for pickup from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays. Delivery available between for $12 in Honolulu area, $15 outside Honolulu. Call 585-0011.
>> Chef Mavro: M by Chef Mavro CSA box includes farm produce and items such as sausages and eggs, a house-prepared sauce, baguette and meat or fish for home preparation. Selections vary weekly, and the $140 box can feed four people for up to a week. A produce bag is $60, and cacao-nib cookie dough is $20. Pickups Thursdays and Saturdays at the restaurant, 1969 S. King St., or Fridays at Island Olive Oil, 609 Kailua Road. View each week’s selection and make reservations beginning Mondays at MbyChefMavroRestaurant.com. Call 944-4714.
>> Da Chefs Box: Food distributer ChefZone offers weekly chef-curated boxes, featuring prepared food and produce to feed a family of four for at least five days, for $125. Each includes precooked dishes for reheating, local fish, produce, eggs, bread and dessert. Order deadline is Thursday for Saturday pickup at 2905 Koapaka St., or delivery. Visit ChefZone.com to view menus and place orders. Call 852-6700.
>> Gourmet Foods Hawaii: The Take-A-Way Gourmet build-your-own kit offers selections from a list of specialty and bulk items, with weekly spotlighted and theme items ranging from pizza fixings to brunch, to local beef free of steroids, hormones and antibiotics. Order at gourmetfoods-hawaii.com, or call 841-8071 between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays. Pick up at 740 Kopke St.Delivery available from airport to Hawaii Kai, Kailua, Pearl City and Kapolei for orders over $150.
>> Kahumana Farms: Fresh Harvest box (eight to 10 produce items) or Fruit Box (12 to 15 pieces) are $30 each; $50 when combined. Meal Share bags are $50 with regular or vegan options. Sign up at Kahumana.org. Friday pickups at the Waianae farm, Kalapawai Market (Kapolei) or WaiWai Collective (Moiliili). Saturday pickups at Kakaako Farmers Market or Rokaru Shabu Shabu (Pearl City). Friday home deliveries $10 to Kailua, Kaneohe, Waianae, Makaha and Nanakuli.
>> Kau Kau Box: Cost is $138 per box, with 5% discount for subscription orders. View menus and order at kaukauboxnow.com. Pick up at Ala Moana Center Saturdays, or delivery available for $15. Call 476-7295.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.