Alan Wong and the Cuisine of 21st Century Hawai‘i

In its most elevated form, food is an ephemeral art. A few decades ago, several chefs, writers, critics, investors and foodies created a movement in Hawai‘i. After the development of what came to be known as Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine and the explosion of chef personalities inex American popular culture, native son Alan Wong has emerged the most ardent originator of his peers. He has also become a local celebrity. As Wong has not been content to simply cook delicious food as the most acclaimed chef in a multi-million dollar industry, he has involved himself and his dedicated staff in every aspect of food production on the islands.” The Chef,” as his coworkers call him, has worked with everybody who’s anybody in local eating, from dairy farmers and start-up kale growers to the President himself.

Alan Wong’s CV hardly needs reiteration. Coming up from a local upbringing and an education at the Kapi‘olani Community College Culinary Arts Program, to which he lends his credibility, Wong now exists in the upper echelon of the modern chef-as-celebrity era. The back flap to his beautiful 2010 cookbook The Blue Tomato tells some of the story: a 1996 James Beard award winner, a stint as a guest judge for show Top Chef, and several appearances on the Food Network and public broadcasting, including extensive exposure on the Hawai‘i episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.

In 2009, Wong took his staff to the White House to serve 2,300 guests at the annual Congressional Picnic. “Obama wanted something like a first baby luau,” he explains. Wong tells the story in a self-effacing way. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. More than being a chef, it made me happy as a boss, that I could take 13 folks to the White House, and I knew they’d have this forever. This restaurant made that opportunity for them.”

Wong’s ascendancy has traced the arc of a local food movement that was in need of something better to eat. The growth of what came to be called Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine over the last 25 or so years was a community endeavor, and none championed the emergence of the scene more than English professor and magazine editor John Heckathorn. Prior to his untimely passing in late December 2011, Heckathorn wrote concise, mouth-watering descriptions of the latest in local farm-to-table innovation and his favorite subject: the food and camaraderie at Alan Wong’s. In 2008, he wrote, “Alan Wong’s is, by acclimation, the best restaurant in Hawai’i. Wong himself is a Hawai’i-born, classically trained, James Beard Award-winning chef. He helped invent Hawai’i Regional Cuisine in the early ’90s, and he remains its current reigning practitioner.”

Heckathorn knew what he was talking about. Unlike food critics from the mainland, he did not apply classic Euro-centrism to the movement, which alternatively dismissed Hawaiian cuisine as nothing more than fusion food or lazy interpretations of other cultures’ delicacies. Hawai‘i’s emerging cooking culture was just an amalgamation of better stuff from other parts of the world. The argument was that as Hawai‘i did not have centuries of communal cultivation to back it, the dishes could never bear comparison to the fine dining of Europe. It was saying to local folks something people of color had gotten used to hearing throughout the 20th century: that your experiences are not valid.

Even as non-local critics extolled the insanely delicious meals of local chefs, they applied a false static set of rules to something inherently dynamic. In that way, they missed the biggest lesson that one takes from a basic study of cultural theory: that it is always in flux. A community’s cuisine is a constantly changing dialogue with humans, plants, animals, and economic trade in the world they inhabit in the present. A cuisine is not the endpoint of their diet, a stock number of dishes prepared in a fixed way, but rather the result of thousands of small decisions made by the community at large asking itself, “What will we eat tonight?”

Alan Wong and his peers had an answer to that. In his cookbook, New Wave Luau, published in 1999, Wong reiterates the now-mythic plantation progeny of our ubiquitous mix plate. We’ve all heard the story, the one about a Chinese farm worker far away from home, who in between shifts hacking at sugar stalks, made his way to the Hawaiian guy and the Japanese guy eating lunch in the field. A bit later, the Portuguese guy and the Filipino guy joined the club. Out there in the hot shadow of the sugar mill, they spoke their own language and laughed while mixing and matching their wives’ packed lunches. From there, they made their own culture and a cuisine to match its diversity. Back in their workers’ plantation homes, their families made a special kind of dinner: white rice from Asia, Chinese buns with Hawaiian style pork, Portuguese bread and Filipino noodles. It is from these sugar-field encounters that local folks eventually modified and created what we eat regularly on the islands.

Of course, the history of Hawai’i and its food has never been that simple. But it is a glorious, romantic myth of equality, which Alan Wong celebrates in his restaurant nightly to great acclaim. The real gift of Hawai’i Regional Cuisine was that it validated the experience of local palettes. Up until the mid-1980s, the best place to eat in Honolulu while on holiday was at a first baby luau. The vast majority of hotel kitchens and restaurants were headed by non-locals, and they cooked that way. In attempting to emulate the way fine dining operates in other parts of the world, they were missing out on the possibilities of what could be produced locally. Two thousand years of indigenous cuisine and a few hundred years of mostly peaceful ethnic coexistence as expressed on a dinner plate was eschewed for uninspired pre-frozen cod with macadamia nuts sprinkled on top. When local chefs started using local ingredients as a statement about their own identity, the community rallied, and quite literally ate it up.

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Wong could easily rest on his capacity to cook delicious food and manage a talented staff. What sets him apart from his peers is not his ability to cook, but rather his active intrusion into the way we eat and grow food on the islands, and by extension, order our culture. In consistently pursuing the local over the non-local, he is making a political statement about what it means to eat here, now.

Alan Wong knows his numbers and has been making a pitch for the “eat local” movement for years. “The Department of Agriculture says that if we increase local consumption by 10 percent, we make 300,000 jobs and increase our local tax base by $600 million.” He goes on: “So, it’s our company mission to help get towards 10 percent by shining a light on these local growers. We do that, in part, with the Farm Series Restaurant dinners.” Although a week of these dinners is the price of a slightly used sedan, at least the moral component is in place. Wong certainly understands what he is up against. “Things are disappearing all around us. Look at the bees. Without them, we have about seven years on planet earth. I’m doing this adopt-a-beehive program with UH Hilo to help local folks learn about beekeeping. This is just bees though. We used to make 70 percent of our own food, our own eggs and dairy.”

He explains what he’s up to. “I know this restaurant is doing our part to be more self-sufficient and sustainable. There’s a supply and demand thing going on with local production,” he says as he checks off a mental list of points for an interview. “I was just in a civil defense meeting. Who knows how I got invited, but there I was. Without shipping, we’ve got no more than three days of MREs before we starve. I’m trying to make this place more than a restaurant. People raise money with us all the time – really the entire chef population does it so it’s not just us. This is good karma.” More than good karma, this is actually the sort of sermon that makes it seem completely rational to drop half a paycheck on a dinner date.

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Alan Wong’s flagship restaurant on King Street in Honolulu is easy to miss if you’re zooming past McCully Street and the more conspicuous chop suey spots. The place requires a slower pace to find. The day I took the elevator up to the third floor, the chef and his staff were reviewing menu items for a forthcoming restaurant to be located in the Grand Wailea resort on Maui, named Amasia.

Arranged on one of the tables were dishes in various forms of development. Simply grilled, large sardines were arranged on a silver platter; poha and caper berries glistened in spiced olive oil; a platter of fried lotus root with mustard powder looked like something I would stand in line for 30 minutes to attack at Costco. Fried ulu and sweet potato spiraled out of a metal container like an edible fire, and a pot of Japanese pork curry with whole peppercorns and macadamia nuts funked up the area, disrupting all capacity for rational thought. I tried not to drool all over a conspicuous notepad. In a vain attempt to maintain professionalism, I sat askew of the table and waited to dig in like a Pavlovian dog after the bell had rung. It was intensely difficult to pay attention to the serious discussion of dish preparation with the full spread awaiting plunder like that. A later review of my notes was a testament to the experience. For a full page all I could write was, “Effing ONO,” like Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining when he really lost his marbles.

When Wong reviews his menu, it is a serious affair. Gathered around the table, the young chefs resembled doctoral candidates during a status review of their respective work prior to submission, hanging on the words of their director. He uses silence as an instructional tool much like a stoic professor out of a Kurosawa film, with all moves and words intentional and instructive. In The Blue Tomato, Wong writes about the process of menu development: “Our staff’s reaction and interaction is more important than whether that dish ever makes it onto the menu. … This process also makes anyone offering a critique a better teacher. Criticizing a new dish in front of the staff can be intimidating, but our most successful cooks, who have gone on to become sous chefs of chefs, were the ones who embraced this and met the challenge.” Each staff member was being actively reviewed for talent, and the dishes met the challenge.

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New restaurants are notoriously difficult business ventures, and even the best have failed to survive past the watershed two-year mark. No matter what happens with Amasia, the food will be amazing. The concept of the restaurant is the “gastro-pub,” a phenomenon that has been changing the way we eat out for the better. Wong later explained it as “izakaya-style, something that goes across cultures. We’re celebrating Asian street food. There will be traditional tables, and a robata station for certain orders.” In describing the necessary investment discussions, he explained, “I was in a meeting with haole guys from the mainland, and you could imagine how well ‘pupus’ goes over as a restaurant title with them.”

Pupus would have been a great name, but not with the tourists. While the traditional American sit-down offers very few surprises, the pupu platter concept is nothing but hits. What Wong and other restaurateurs have picked up on is the way we eat when we aren’t stuck in our chairs. With smaller plates and more options, sharing becomes a necessity. Eating can be fun again. The chefs that Alan Wong has hired will not disappoint. This is local food unburdened by provincialism. These are local ingredients set free to inspire.

When I asked him what the secret is to cooking for local folks, he spun the question back at me, “How do you tell if say, a Chinese restaurant is good?” To which I reply, “If there’s a table of old Chinese dudes grinding at the corner table at 3 p.m.”

“You got it,” he replied, “Another good sign is if kids like your food. You can’t fake it to them.” Like an ancient sage, the Chef answered my question with an observation. The reason that local folks love his food so much is that it is a reflection of themselves. The food at his restaurant is an artistic, gorgeous interpretation of what we eat at home. These meals are worth every penny.

Tags: Features