Meeting the Alice Waters of Hawai‘i: Chef Alan Wong

“Be sure to eat on the flight” the oft-repeated joke goes, “because the airplane meal is likely to be the best you’ll have on your trip to Hawai‘i.”

Honolulu magazine’s October cover story on Hawaiian regional cuisine traces that  jibe about the Aloha State’s supposed lack of gourmet dining to Bon Appetit’s former editor-in-chief Barbara Fairchild, who advised readers to enjoy the meal on the plane, because it was the best food they’d get on a Hawai‘i vacation.

These days, visitors with low culinary expectations about the islands are in for a surprise. I took a dozen or so trips to the Hawai‘i over the past four years to research Lost Kingdom and, each time,  enjoyed some terrific food, usually at hole-in-the-walls near downtown Honolulu, within easy walking distance of the Hawai‘i State Archives.

Chef Alan Wong wins an award for his second cookbook, The Blue Tomato

But my most memorable meals required short drives from downtown Honolulu: grilled garlic ahi at Irifune on Kapahulu Ave., a pork noodle soup at a Hawai‘ian Vietnamese restaurant called Hale Vietnam, off Waialae Ave., and lemon pepper shrimp from Macky’s Sweet Shrimp Truck on Oahu’s north shore. I generally ate at modestly priced places, but did splash out once for the Sunday brunch at the Halekulani in Waikiki, where both the food and the ocean view were spectacular.

I’d heard of Alan Wong, who has cooked for President Obama on a number of occasions, as well as his Pineapple Room in Honolulu’s Ala Moana Center, but had never made it there during one of my trips. But recently the James Beard Award-winning chef made it to San Francisco, courtesy of Watermark Publishing and the Hawai‘i Visitors & Convention bureau as part of a Taste Hawai‘i Tour of big west coast cities.

On one evening of his tour, a group of writers from the San Francisco Bay Area were invited to meet Chef Wong, who prepared a tasting menu for us. A broad shouldered man wearing chef’s whites, he was in fine form and sipping towards the end of the evening on a Napa cabernet. Accompanying him on the tour were a shrimp farmer from Kauai, a tomato grower from Ho Farms in Kahuku, and an agriculturalist working for the Dole Food Company, which is now experimenting with growing cacao in former pineapple fields.

Two decades ago, Alan Wong was one of twelve chefs who banded together to create a locavore movement they called Hawai’i Regional Cuisine, focusing on using locally-grown vegetables, milk and dairy products from local dairies, and seafood and beef from the islands. In recent years, he — like Chez Panisse‘s Alice Waters — has thrown his support behind the islands’  local producers and helped teach school children about food.

Regional cuisine was a movement catching on around the country at the time (in the early 1990s, I wrote a story about Midwestern chefs doing the same thing and, of course, the Berkeley’s own Alice Waters helped kick it off in the San Francisco Bay Area decades earlier.) The efforts of these pioneering Hawaiian chefs come at a time when the state is grappling with the question of how to reduce its dependence on foods imports.

That, in turn, is the sad legacy of the islands’ economic transformation from a time when native Hawaiians supported themselves by planting taro patches and building fish ponds. With the arrival of enterprising foreigners, these were subsumed during the nineteenth century by vast sugar plantations.

Now, the sugar industry is almost gone and more than a century of planting vast swaths of the islands with a single crop have taken a heavy environmental toll. As a result, Hawai‘i is left with an alarming dependence on imported food. Encouraging local farmers is a step in the right direction. Yet, many islanders simply can’t afford $3 tomatoes and $12.50 a pound frozen shrimp. Hence, much of the local food ends up in expensive restaurants catering to tourists.

Chef Wong, who attended a government hosted conference on food security for Hawai‘i recently, told me that if a natural or man-made disaster occurred and both container shipments and air cargo were halted, the Hawaiian islands would last just six days before running out of food. Apec Leaders meeting in November in Hawai‘i are likely to discuss this and other food security issues.

No doubt, the food at the Apec meeting, hosted by the East-West Center at the University of Hawai‘i will be delicious. And despite talk of potential food shortages in the case of an emergency, the evening with Chef Wong in San Francisco in late October was one of abundance, with tastes of more than a dozen of dishes from his new cookbook, The Blue Tomato.

Some highlights: a Hanaoka Farms ahi cerviche with pickled jalapeno and purple sweet potato, “Char Siu” lamb chops with hoisin-sriracha-five-spice greek yogurt, and a dish chef calls “Da Bag” – Kalua pig and steamed clams with shrimp, and lobster. Click here to watch the video of Chef Wong preparing “Da Bag.”

The chocolate crunch bars made from Dole’s Waialua Estate on the north shore of Oahu were memorable, too (the chocolate is available at Whole Foods stores in Hawai‘i) as was his pineapple shave ice. A lovely evening that raised some thought-provoking questions about the growing movement in Hawai‘i to support local agriculture and talented home-grown chefs.

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