Taste Hawaii: Savoring Alan Wong’s fresh farm-to-table feast

On a recent trip to Oahu, my wife and I had the excellent fortune to dine at Alan Wong’s eponymous restaurant in Honolulu. Consistently named one of the best restaurants in Hawaii, Alan Wong’s has been at the forefront of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement since its founding in 1995. Our farm-to-table, fusion feast featured a number of dishes that embody the chef’s culinary quest to showcase Hawaii’s fresh food products and its marvelous mélange of culinary cultures. Virtually every dish was a compact lesson in taste, texture, and tradition.

Our favorites included such signature concoctions as the Soup and Sandwich, a stemmed glass filled with chilled vine-ripened Hamakua Springs tomato soup presented with a yin-yang design, crowned with a parmesan cheese crisp and atop it a mini-kalua pig foie gras and mozzarella sandwich; Butter-Poached Kona Lobster, savory chunks of lobster served in a sauce of green onion oil with flavorful morsels of Hamakua Heritage eryngi mushrooms; North Shore Tilipia on a bed of local saimin noodles with Naked Cow Dairy lobster truffle butter nage; Ginger Crusted Onaga with piquant miso sesame vinaigrette, Hamakua mushrooms and sweet corn from Kahuku; Crab “Tofu” Agedashi, consisting of a tofu-like spanner crab mousse with Kona lobster medallions and plump lumps of crab meat, served with kudzu dashi; and a delightful dessert called The Coconut – scrumptious coconut meat-like haupia sorbet served in a chocolate “coconut” shell, surrounded by tropical fruits in a lilikoi sauce. Yum!

%Gallery-140566%Before our feast we had devoured Chef Alan’s 2010 book “The Blue Tomato,” which beautifully showcases both his culinary art and his life philosophy. So our dining experience was enhanced by the knowledge that he is a passionate and idealistic chef/entrepreneur, who goes out of his way to support sustainability efforts in Hawaii and to mentor and inspire his staffers to dream big. The aloha energy that he pours into his cuisine and co-workers seemed to fill the restaurant that night; from the warm, knowledgeable, and infectiously enthusiastic kitchen and wait staffers to the companionably oohing-and-aahing diners, everyone seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.

After our feast, I looked more deeply into Chef Alan’s background. Born in Japan and raised in Hawaii, he worked his way through the kitchen trade, first at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, then at Lutèce in New York City, and finally at The CanoeHouse on the Big Island of Hawai’i before opening his restaurant in Honolulu in 1995. Since then, he has won the James Beard Award and was one of 10 chefs in the United States nominated by the Wedgewood Awards for the title of World Master of Culinary Arts. Bon Appétit has recognized him as the “Master of Hawai’i Regional Cuisine,” and Alan Wong’s Restaurant has been ranked by Gourmet twice. It is also the only restaurant in Honolulu that appears in the Top 10 of America’s Best 50 Restaurants. In addition to “The Blue Tomato,” he is also the author of “New Wave Luau” and is a 10-time winner of the Hale ‘Aina “Restaurant of the Year” and Ilima “Best Restaurant” Awards in Hawai’i.

Inspired in general by the emphasis on ethnic fusion cuisine and farm-to-table practices we found in Hawaii and in particular by Chef Alan’s attitude and achievements, I asked if he would do an email interview with me. He graciously agreed. Here’s our conversation:

DG: Did you cook when you were a child?

AW: No, but my mom was a great cook. Her cooking taught me a lot about seasoning, and she showed me the value of not wasting anything in the kitchen.

Who have been your principal culinary mentors and inspirations?

Andre Soltner, Chef Proprietor, and Christian Bertrand, Chef de Cuisine at the Lutece Restaurant, in New York City, when I worked there; Mark Erickson, chef at the Greenbrier Hotel when I did my apprenticeship there; and Joe Kina, instructor at Kapiolani Community College where I went to culinary school.

What first inspired you to create the cuisine you are now famous for?

Being the Chef de Cuisine at The CanoeHouse Restaurant at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows, opening it in 1989. Meeting all the farmers on the Big Island and using their products, and being charged with creating Hawaii Regional Cuisine with 11 other chefs from across the state. HRC was born in 1991, and we have been celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

You mention “being charged with creating Hawaii Regional Cuisine with 11 other chefs from across the state.” How did HRC come about? Was it a spontaneous creation of island chefs or was it something that was proposed from some outside source such as the Hawaii Tourism Board and then adopted by the chefs?

Originally twelve chefs got together just to “enjoy the party” for a change instead of providing the party all the time. We established HRC Inc. for two reasons. The first was to help develop an agricultural network in the state with the help of the Department of Agriculture. We did this by divulging all of our farmers and purveyors whom we bought produce from. Our second goal was to promote Hawaii’s culinary scene so that tourists and locals would know that there was a different new cuisine of Hawaii evolving and developing.

What are the primary characteristics/ingredients of traditional Hawaiian cuisine?

The word “Hawaiian” refers to an ethnic group entirely on its own. They originally came from the South Pacific islands. They ate a lot of raw fish dishes. They cooked in an underground imufrom which kalua pig is most famous today. They grilled on hot rocks, called pulehu. Now we have iron, so we cook on hibachis. They placed food in the imubesides the whole pig, and that method is steaming today. Another method of steaming was known as lawalu, where a fish or meat is steamed in tileaves over the fire. Taro turned into poi was the main starch. For seasoning, the Hawaiians would use inamona(roasted kukui, or candlenut), sea salt, and seaweed.

What are the primary characteristics/ingredients of contemporary Hawaiian cuisine?

Hawaii (without the “an” at the end) Regional Cuisine is a contemporary cuisine that borrows from all the ethnic cuisines found in the islands today. To Taste Hawaii, we utilize as much locally grown and raised product as possible to feature what we have — the fish from our waters, grass-fed beef and lamb, local eggs, dairy, pork.

How important are fruits and vegetables to HRC, and how much do these vary from season to season? That is, because of Hawaii’s climate, are the same produce products available throughout the year, or are there seasonal differences and specialties?

We have two seasons in Hawaii, rain and sunshine, or another joke is mango season and no mango season. Fruits and vegetables play a big role in the cuisine. We have the best mangoes in the world when in season. Pineapples are best from here and do not travel well. Tropical fruits grow well here and for the most part, because of our weather, we can enjoy a vine-ripened tomato all year round.

What are the goals of the fusion cuisine you are seeking to create?

The most important things are flavor, good taste, having a sense of place, and featuring the food, not your ego.

Could you take one of your favorite fusion dishes/creations and “deconstruct” it: What are the different elements in terms of ingredients that go into it? How are these prepared and put together? Which cuisine traditions are you combining in this dish?

Ginger Crusted Onaga was inspired by childhood memories of Chinese cold ginger chicken. The miso sesame vinaigrette that goes with it is Japanese inspired. Combining ethnic flavors together comes naturally to me; the most important thing is that it has good flavor.

Are there any special techniques you use in creating this cuisine?

Most of the techniques are influenced by European techniques and French training. The different ethnic cooking styles, flavors, ingredients, and techniques do come into play and using the Hawaiian influence is important to me.

What’s the biggest challenge of creating Hawaii Regional Cuisine?

Your own imagination and creativity

What most excites you about the culinary scene in Hawaii today?

It is still growing and evolving, so there’s a lot to look for in Hawaii. Today the popularity of farmers markets is growing. People can go to the markets and meet the people who grow their food, and they can get products that are much fresher because they come from the source. There’s more variety in what’s available. Twenty years ago when Hawaii Regional Cuisine was first started, we didn’t have products like locally grown mushrooms, hearts of palm, abalone, chocolate, and vanilla. As more farmers continue to grow a wider variety of products, we as chefs can continue to be inspired by what’s fresh, local, and in season.

In your mind, how is Hawaiian cuisine related to Hawaiian culture?

Family is important, sharing food, talking story at the table. Aloha means many things: doing the right thing, to make things right, to have the right intentions. Hawaii’s multi-ethnic cuisine begins from the immigrant plantation days. Most of the immigrants came from Asia, so the local people are a mixed bag. When you are raised in Hawaii eating local food, you find that the source comes from this time, and it is heavily Asian influenced. Most of the food comes from a poor time and so something like the “Plate Lunch” is born out of necessity to fill your stomach so that you can go out and work again tomorrow. It has evolved quite a bit today.

What’s your favorite food memory?

I don’t have a particular one, however, cooking for Chef Andre Soltner every day for his dinner with his wife taught me so many valuable lessons that helped create who I am today professionally.

Is there a special goal or project you are working on now?

We plan to open another restaurant on Maui, partnering with the Grand Wailea Hotel. It will be called Amasia, featuring small plates and family-style fare. We’re hoping to open it in early spring 2012.

[Photos by Kuniko George]