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Hawaiian Regional Cuisine


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#1 skchai

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Posted 03 February 2004 - 09:57 AM

This is going to be a little polemical but. . .

Along with others in this forum, I've been arguing that Hawaiian Regional Cuisine has lost its edge, that it has become cliched, and that the same dishes are being recycled over and over again. It's hard to measure what effect, if any, this has had on the commercial side of things. However, there's no question that some of the excitement that characterized the food community here in the early 90s is starting to wear off. . .

What can be done to revitalize the local food scene? IMHO, the one thing that needs to be done is to tie the efforts of high-end restaurants more intrinsically to Hawai`i's popular cuisine. No, I don't mean that HRC places should start to serve chicken katsu, teri beef, and loco moco! At any rate, Wayne Hirabayashi's foie gras, unagi, lobster, and quail egg "loco moco" shows that even that kind of "grass-roots" cuisine can be bent totally out of shape if the only thing that is maintained is name and the outward form. Instead, local high-end chefs should try to do more to inhale the spirit of local cooking, and the kind of blending that comes less from a conscious attempt to fuse East and West and to mark off culinary territory, and more of an attempt to create what tastes good, regardless of provenance, based upon the extremely wide range of ingredients that are available locally.

If I would cite a historical precedent for HRC, it would be Trader Vic's "Tiki" Cuisine from the 1950s. Contemporary foodies may view Tiki Cuisine, with its psychedelic cocktails and flaming pupu platters, as kitchy retro, but during its peak era it was considered the height of fashionable eating not only in Hawai`i but throughout the American West Coast. And like HRC, it came out of a conscious attempt to fuse East and West, creating something that was labeled "Polynesian" for a global audience. And, if you'd actually ever eaten at a Trader Vic's, you'd know that some of results do taste very good. However, like much of HRC, it was essentially built upon creating a fantasy vision of Pacific cuisine, once based upon upscaled and Westernized dishes from various parts of East and Southeast Asia. The actual cuisine of the Pacific Islands, while not exactly ignored, was not taken seriously as the basis for something that would be acceptable to the mainland gourmands towards whom the cuisine was aimed. Hence once the novelty faded, there was little to fall back upon to renew the vision and innovation. HRC people may not enjoy the comparison, but in 20 years will "Seared Ahi" and such be viewed with the same mixture of nostalgia and condescension as the Pupu Platter?

What do you think? What can be done to create a local high-end cuisine with staying power?

Sun-Ki Chai
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Former Hawaii Forum Host


#2 kaukaulesa

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Posted 05 February 2004 - 02:25 AM

Excellent points Sun-Ki, this could be a great discussion.

First I wanted to say...Trader Vic's is alive and well in some far-flung parts of the world. My father and brother live in Dubai and the first time i went to visit in 1992, boy was I surprised to find Trader Vic's is one of the city's most popular restaurants. My Dad loves it, cause he can swill maitais and it's a nostalgia trip for him—he loved Trader Vic's here back in the 60s. He's a sweet-and-sour-loving haole. They keep the tiki torch burning, with the addition of some seminal 80s culinary additions like chicken satay and the like. (As a kid living in Jakarta in the seventies, I never guessed the peanut sauce I ate at street stalls would go on to conquer the world.)

I agree there is a certain strata within HRC that is becoming humdrum—the requisite mahimahi with mango salsa, and "crisp" moi and now seems to be taking its place. (The plus side is that while that may seem boring, it's cool that it's trickled down to budget operations like Diamond Head Market and Grill...it's nice to be able to get mahi-mango for 7 dalah.)

But as I said, in the Hale Aina Awards topic, I think a few chefs are going to be changing things, like chef Etsuji at Brown's Beach House at the Fairmont Orchid on the Big Island. He's so excited about getting to know the famer's in nearby Waimea. I ate there and he specially made a dish of sliced hamachi topped only by sweet locally grown tomato slices and a light shiso vinaigrette. He also did something extraordinary: baked baby (also locally grown) potatos in ala'ea. He said "Taste these potatoes, they have so much flavor you can just eat them plain." And he was right. Trained in Japanese and French technique, his way with seafood is masterful, highlighting pure flavors. The hotel just built him a new open kitchen.

Also, although his regular menu is often criticized, chef Hiroshi at L'Uraku really does some outstanding cooking for his contemporary kaiseki dinners. Uni risotto, kahala sashimi, gosh, there were other memorable little plates. They highlighted local ingredients but never fell into a HRC rut. I highly recommend trying to get a reservation at his next kaiseki event this spring.

Seared ahi is much more than a HRC dish...it already is a classic. You'll find versions of it as the chicest restaurants in Manhattan, along with some kind of tuna tartare. I think you'd be surprised to find how far HRC's reach has gone in subtle ways. Rocco DiSpirito (yes, the chef from that lame Restaurant reality show) made his name not with Italian food, but with his Pan-Asian-inflected contemporary cooking at his restaurant Union Pacific. It opened in 1997, and is just phenomenal. Roy's, Alan Wong's and Chef Mavro will never reach this level of cooking. But I don't know if he was influenced by what was happening in the Pacific Rim, or vice versa, or if there was no influencing going on at all. The fact is, Hawaii kitchens COULD be doing his kind of cooking: Halibut cooked in its own fat, covered in tangled scales of caramelized young ginger (just substitute the halibut for a luscious local fish), curried baby calamari in a Madras sauce set off by marinated dried blueberries (substitute the berries with dried strawberry guava or something). There is so much room for innovation and experimentation.

I think as new crops of Hawai‘i born chefs graduate from places like Maui Community College's revamped $17 million culinary center and go out in the world and discover new flavors and techniques then return home, we'll see a natural evolution out of our mahi-and-mango culinary holding pattern. (I hope!)

#3 skchai

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Posted 05 February 2004 - 04:18 PM

You're right, Lesa, perhaps I'm being a bit too pessimistic. There's nothing surprising, I guess, about the fact that local restauranters are hesitant to abandon a successful commercial formula as long as it keeps on working. And once it stops working, they should be well equipped, as you mention, to move onto to the next level. I've never had the opportunity to go to Brown's Beach House at all or to L'Uraku for dinner, but certaintly from what you describe they are exploring well beyond the standard HRC menu.

Along the same lines, the commercialization and mega-"branding" of products that seems rampant among Hawai`i's celebrity chefs too is perhaps understandable given the financial precariousness and overwork that is endemic to the restaurant business. Interesting that you mention Rocco in that light. People who are only familiar with his cheesy on-screen persona (or that of Emeril for that matter) may not realize that they got into a position to ruin their good names by being genuine innovators for many years. BTW, though this is off the point, perhaps the most popular eGullet thread of all time was the one in which seemingly about half of the staff of "Rocco's" registered and posted various insults directed at their boss and the network (and Tony Bourdain posted to quasi-defend - or put in context - his appearance on the show). Not that enlightening but a lot of fun. . .

But back to HRC. . . I guess my main question is an "identity" one - once they decide that self-conscious East-West fusion is no longer the paradigm around which want to define local high-end cuisine, is it going to be replaced by a new paradigm, or just a collection of disparate individual styles? And does it matter from a gastronomical point of view? From a commerical point of view?

I also had a Trader Vic experience about six or seven years ago - there was one in the basement of the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, where the American Political Science Association conference was going on. Went with a friend of mine from Vancouver, who told me that Trader Vic's was considered the happening place there. Anyway, the tikis were burning brightly that night, and I ordered the pressed duck with almonds and plum sauce. Very sweet, as you might expect (shades of HRC!), but crunchy and addictive. The shadows cast by the heathen idols urged me on, and I couldn't stop eating it. . .

BTW, Irwin ("wesza") on this forum (Hawai`i's "Mr. Restaurant" of the 70s and early 80s) has regaled us with his recollections of Vic Bergeron himself. The Trader was quite a colorful fellow, and quite knowledgable about "authentic" traditional Polynesian food - his chapter on lua`u food in this Pacific Islands Cookbook is very well-researched - he just never served it at his restaurants.

Sorry for all the digressions. . .

Sun-Ki Chai
http://www2.hawaii.edu/~sunki/

Former Hawaii Forum Host


#4 kaukaulesa

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 01:57 PM

I guess my main question is an "identity" one - once they decide that self-conscious East-West fusion is no longer the paradigm around which want to define local high-end cuisine, is it going to be replaced by a new paradigm, or just a collection of disparate individual styles? And does it matter from a gastronomical point of view? From a commerical point of view?


Interesting question. It seems to me simply the make up of our population will always lend itself to a blending of East and West in all avenues of life here. A local-born poet, Gary Chang, has his first book out. In one poem, a line describes him, a Chinese American, hunting on Maui and makes a reference to Hemingway's Francis Macomber. It's the literary version of L'Uraku's ikura panna cotta. I feel like that will always be the base, with "disparate individual styles" arising out of that.

But, as you say, this HRC has become such an identifiable brand, a wave that I think Yamaguchi et al will ride until the bitter end. It may fall out of fashion, like Calvin Klein jeans. And magazines and newspapers will come up with another convenient term to group a small school of chefs together.

#5 FoodZealot

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 01:59 PM

I've been thinking about this for a while. Great points so far. Here are some humble, yet idealistic thoughts.

While I don't agree with declaring a school, who the practitioners are, etc, I think HRC served a purpose. But the flip side of the way they invented it and handled it is that now that it seems a bit tired and there are some connotations to the name HRC, the other chefs who would have taken up the torch don't identify with the name, and so it doesn't go on indefinitely - it becomes associated with a particular span of time.

I'm not a fan of labels, but labels serve a purpose. So if I was a chef trying to differentiate myself from HRC now, I'd have to invent my own term, like Contemporary Hawaiian Global Cuisine or New Hawaiian Cuisine or whatever. The problem with those is that there's a reference to time there as well. Perhaps something more poetic would be better - Trade Wind Cuisine or Volcano Cuisine.

For the sake of discussion, let's say that the vast majority of all ingredients and techniques are now global. Everything is available, just about everywhere. How do you make that work within a context? How do you make the globally influenced food from Hawaii taste and SEEM identifiably different from the globally influenced food of Australia or Spain or New York or Tokyo? Clearly, it's not just the names - calling something lau lau or loco moco is only a small part of it.

In terms of food, I think Hawai`i can legitimately be a player among food destinations, but it faces the same challenges of being at the highest level. Beyond being delicious and technically well prepared, the best food conveys a sense of place, shows a recognizable aesthetic, and is memorable.

The advantage Hawai`i has over some places is hospitality - the Aloha spirit. But that doesn't come across automatically - it has to be fostered and encouraged.

I guess what I'm getting at is have to put yourself in the mindset of creating an experience for your guests, with emotions and memories attached, not just tasty and pretty food. And if you're doing it for real, it shouldn't be done with declarations and press releases.

#6 skchai

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Posted 22 February 2004 - 03:24 AM

Tad - as usual I kept sitting on any response, hoping to think of something original to say - since that's obviously not going to happen, I'll at least try to give some brief reactions to some of your thoughtful comments.

For the sake of discussion, let's say that the vast majority of all ingredients and techniques are now global.  Everything is available, just about everywhere.  How do you make that work within a context?  How do you make the globally influenced food from Hawaii taste and SEEM identifiably different from the globally influenced food of Australia or Spain or New York or Tokyo? Clearly, it's not just the names - calling something lau lau or loco moco is only a small part of it.

In terms of food, I think Hawai`i can legitimately be a player among food destinations, but it faces the same challenges of being at the highest level.  Beyond being delicious and technically well prepared, the best food conveys a sense of place, shows a recognizable aesthetic, and is memorable.


That's a good question, and one that is arguably harder to answer at the higher end of the restaurant scene.

Indeed, in your larger cities, there's really little attempt by high-end restauranters to clearly define a regional style. They can afford to be eclectic and idiosyncratic. That's why it's very difficult to identify a coherent "New York", "Paris", or "Tokyo" style of high-end restaurant cooking - styles are associated with specific chefs or restaurants rather than a geographical area.

On the other hand, being a smaller population center dependent on tourism, Hawai`i has to provide a clear identity in order to draw in customers who may very well be from New York, Paris, or Tokyo; or at least have regular access to such cities. The question for such customers is "Why should I spend $100 to eat in Hawai`i when I could save this money to eat anywhere I want in <big culinary captital X>?" The answer is not going be - "Because our choice is so much wider and our technique so much better", so it has to be "Because we can provide you with a distinctive dining experience that you can't get anywhere else".

And the simplest way to convince people of that is to mark out a clearly recognized, distinctive regional style of high-end cuisine. There's no strict requirement that such a distinctive cuisine have a strong relationship with the traditional foods of the region. Indeed many high-end regional styles, HRC being only one, tend to stretch the plausibility a bit on that and risk accusations of "inventing tradition". Nonetheless, it does help to create at least a putative connection, however, since the tourist/customer to some extent is likely to viewing his/her dining experience as a kind of cultural adventure.

And here's where things get very difficult, as you mention. Since traditional ingredients associated with nearly every traditional food culture are now available throughout the world, local chefs cannot rely on a monopoly on such ingredients as their means to creating a distinctive style. Hence, the solution is to define local high-end cuisine not so much in terms of ingredients but rather in terms of some sort of local culinary aesthetic, not so much as a fancification of local traditional cuisine but as an expression of where a combined aesthetic embodying our particular mix of cultures would take things given an expanding range of ingredients and techniques. Obvious, defining that aesthetic is very difficult - simply calling it "East-West" puts us in the some culinary bin with dozens of other destinations that are attempting to exploit a similar niche.

To me, the most notable attribute that we can exploit culturally, and also culinarily, is sheer intensity which which national styles and attitudes are pushed and kneaded together. There is nowhere else in the world with as much ethnic diversity in such a tiny land space, and with regards to food this means that it is very difficult to respect national boundaries. Hybrid dishes that take their inspiration from multiple parts of the Pacific are a common occurence in local popular cuisine, and the blending of traditional foods is so seamless that it is often difficult to guess the national origins such of dishes.

If we can harness this in some way into high-level cuisines, it could really set Hawai`i apart from the rest. IMHO, the main weakness of most East-West cooking, including HRC, is that cultural borrowings are too visible and blatant. "Eastern" and "Western" cuisines are not so much combined as juxtaposed, often by combining classic French cooking techniques with putatively local ingredients. A smooth integration of cuisines has yet to make place, and Hawai`i is as well-equipped as anywhere in the world to generate this integration.

Sun-Ki Chai
http://www2.hawaii.edu/~sunki/

Former Hawaii Forum Host