Dining

The Mahalo Effect

Calling it now: Hawaiian cuisine is ready for its comeback
Silken tofu at Noreetuh | Photo: Evan Sung/Noreetuh
Hawaiian Restaurant Trend

Kiawe, pronounced kee-ah-vay, is a spindly tree with feathery yellow flowers and long, green pods. Native to South America, the invasive species found its way to Hawaii in 1828, and now in 2015, Jordan Keao, the chef at San Francisco's brunch pop-up, 'Aina, can't seem to find it amidst the redwoods in Northern California.

"It's the best wood you could ever cook with," Keao, a native of Hawaii's Big Island, says excitedly. "The flavor it gives off is so pure and clean. It tastes like you marinated something in teriyaki."

He's now experimenting with his own mix of wood to imitate its familiar sweet, smoky quality, piling on mesquite and whiskey barrel chips. It may seem like a lot of work just to recreate this common plant found in Hawaii, but for Keao, it's essential for what he wants to accomplish.

"I see myself as a simple cook trying to give Hawaiian food a new face, using what I have locally in California," he explains. "Everyone has a different interpretation of Hawaiian food, whether it's the mixture of immigrant food or the very set, traditional menus for wedding luaus, and that means it's possible to elevate the perception of island food. We're just seeing the beginning of it."

No longer lumped into Asian fusion or executed as a version of Spam-topped this, spit-roasted that, contemporary Hawaiian food is riding a new wave. A new generation of chefs—some born there, others recent converts; some working on the island, others transporting the flavors abroad—are digging deep into the islands' sprawling culinary identity. They're taking Hawaii's mash-up of cuisines from the native Polynesians and the influx of Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Portuguese immigrants and celebrating and recasting them.

"This is an exhilarating time to be part of the Hawaiian culinary community," Lee Anne Wong, chef at Koko Head Cafe in Honolulu, says. "What's so amazing is now you see a generation of chefs, local and transplants, like myself, figuring out new ways to incorporate modern techniques, contemporary ideas and new styles of presentation into our unique style of cuisine."

To get to the point we're at, though, started nearly 24 years ago with Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC). The twelve Hawaiian chefs, now legends like James Beard Award-winner Roy Yamaguchi, empire builder Alan Wong, Beverly Gannon and others, gathered at the Maui Prince to bring back Hawaiian food. They urged making use of all the unique, local ingredients and celebrating the farmers, fisherman and artisans who provided them. Eventually they got a name, even a cookbook, and began traveling as culinary ambassadors to Hawaii. HRC's influence flows through today's new generation.

"Hawaii Regional Cuisine will always have an impact on my career because it celebrates and promotes all of the food references that I had growing up," Chung Chow, the chef at NYC's Noreetuh, which opened this past spring, says. "Developing a menu for Noreetuh that can be defined as Hawaiian food in New York City's East Village is a testament to what the HRC movement was all about."

"But HRC has its pros and cons," Eric Sakai, chef at Restaurant Marron, counters. "It can lead to stagnation and a fear of working outside the boundaries. It's easy to find a formula that works and stick to it because it's safe and assured. I'd love to see young island chefs color outside the lines more and find their own styles not based on what's trendy or established."

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Fortunately, this new generation of Hawaii-inspired chefs isn't afraid to do just that. Here are the ones for which to watch:

Ravi Kapur (Liholiho Yacht Club, San Francisco): Born and raised in Hawaii, Kapur started Liholiho as a roving restaurant, eventually finding a brick-and-mortar space in Lower Nob Hill. The Hawaii-skewing restaurant opened in spring with rave reviews from critics and chefs alike. "He has it right on point," Keao says. "That's why 'Aina got popular so fast— because someone is championing the mission, like we are."

Lee Anne Wong (Koko Head Cafe, Honolulu): The native New Yorker and former Top Chef star is winning locals with her Portuguese sausage-studded congee and Elvis-influenced sandwich (read: banana tempura). "That girl is cooking her butt off right now," Sheldon Simeon, Migrant Maui chef, praises. Wong is currently gearing up to open a noodle soup shop slash whiskey bar.

Eric Sakai (Restaurant Marron, Seattle): He's churning out genre-bending dishes that nod to his Japanese heritage and Hawaiian upbringing, like salted black bean-studded ragù and Wagyu brushed with dashi butter. He won last year's Food & Wine People's Best New Chef Northwest and Pacific title, so watch out, Seattle.

Wade Ueoka and Michelle Karr-Ueoka (MW Restaurant, Honolulu): Nominated for the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant last year, the husband-and-wife team weaves Hawaiian ingredients and flavors seamlessly and whimsically, like loco moco meatloaf and butterfish arancini. "Michelle Karr-Ueoka and Wade Ueoka exemplify what modern Hawaii Regional Cuisine is, both the sweet and the savory, at MW Restaurant," Chow says.

Jordan Keao ('Aina, San Francisco): Trained under HRC great Roy Yamaguchi, Keao has since retired his wildly popular pop-up (the last one had two-hour wait time), despite rave reviews. Instead, he's thinking of opting for a tasting menu-only experience via e-mail.

Ed Kenney (Town, Honolulu): Nominated for a James Beard Best Chef West award this year, Kenney has long been a community builder with his Italian-leaning, Town, and casual, Kaimuki Superette. He's just about ready to open up Mud Hen Water, which will rely on locally caught fish and an Asian melting pot of ingredients, like ginger and miso. "Current Hawaii chefs, like Ed Kenney, are going back to our roots of what we ate as kids," Simeon says. "HRC is taking a turn."

Chung Chow (Noreetuh, New York City): The former Per Se sous chef is bringing some much-needed aloha to the East Village. His dishes are refined, yet spirited, like genius kalua pork croquettes and house-made corned beef tongue musubi.

Chris Kajioka (TBD, Honolulu): Fresh from a stint at San Francisco's Mourad, Kajioka is coming home to Honolulu. "I want to represent Hawaii and all the special ingredients and people who come from here," Kajioka tells me. "I want my restaurant to have a sense of place." Of all the chefs asked, Kajioka is the one everyone is excited about. "What Chris did two years ago at Vintage Cave is crazy," Simeon gushes. "He completely redefined the limits of what elevated Hawaiian cuisine looked like at Vintage Cave," Chow adds.

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