What should you eat in Hawaii this winter? What’s flying under the radar, food-wise, that every island visitor should sample? If you’re hungry for answers to these questions, you’ll be happy to know that we talked with several chefs recently to get their take on local dining and drinking.
Beyond the prickly fruit
“We’re a lot more than pineapple,” says chef Alan Wong, a pioneer of Hawaiian regional cuisine and co-founder of the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival (which will take place October 20 to November 5).
The state has a wealth of under-appreciated local ingredients that chefs prize and visitors should seek out.
Greg Gaspar, executive chef at Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa on Ka’anapali Beach, does all sorts of things with purple sweet potatoes. He turns these spuds, which grow in abundance on the nearby island of Molokai, into chips, hash and soup. One of his signature desserts is a sweet potato mousse cake with toasted coconut.
Maui chef Joey Macadangdang, who owns Joey’s Kitchen in Whaler’s Village and the recently opened Joey’s Kitchen Napili, uses a variety of local products that draw on his Filipino heritage. He sautés edible white flowers called katuday, and he makes a savory soup base from alukon, a shrub related to the mulberry tree that he grows in his own backyard.
Chef Heather Love, of Maui’s Cow Pig Bun, which specializes in burgers and craft cocktails, bakes banana bread using local apple bananas. She describes the fruit as having the texture of bananas but a flavor more like Granny Smith apples.
“Our restaurant gets most of what we need on Maui,” she says. Love adds that the farm-to-table philosophy is an idea that “we have to truly live.”
Farm-to-table, island style
“When I think of farm to table, for me, it’s a way of life,” says Oahu-born chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka, who, along with her chef-husband Wade Ueoka, runs Honolulu’s locally focused MW Restaurant and its casual sibling Artizen by MW. “In Hawaii, regional cuisine is what we grew up with.”
What’s different now, she notes, is that there are many more farmers growing for the local market than in the past. Each of the islands has so many microclimates, too, that a diversity of products, from mangos to coffee, grows throughout the year.
Known for her creative desserts, like the MW candy bar, made from a macadamia-praline crunch, salted caramel and Waialua chocolate, Karr-Ueoka says, “I can get chocolate from every island.”
Gaspar adds that Hawaii’s varied climates and temperatures also affect vegetables — for the better. “Lettuce is a lot fresher and sweeter, and we have a wide variety of micro greens and herbs.”
A melting pot of cultures
“Hawaii is a big melting pot of cultures, and our food reflects this,” Karr-Ueoka says.
According to Gaspar, though, it’s only recently that island chefs with fine-dining training have felt comfortable featuring typical local foods. Hawaiian chefs are now showcasing “comfort foods that they grew up with,” whatever their culture.
Macadangdang is a good example. Born in the Philippines, he immigrated to Hawaii with his family as a teen and spent much of his professional career as a chef for another Hawaiian culinary institution, Roy’s Restaurants.
Taking the leap to open his own kitchens, Macadangdang says that, particularly at his new Napili location, he’s emphasizing, “my Filipino roots and what I like to eat.”
“Filipino food hasn’t had its moment yet,” he explains, but he’s developing dishes that give a new spin to traditional Filipino ingredients. “I’ll get a goat, braise it or stew it and pull it off the bone and serve it with gnocchi, chickpeas and tomato sauce.”
Or he’ll take a classic Filipino lechon (roasted pig) and deliciously pair it with housemade pickles.
Similarly, after years in fine dining in Chicago, notably as owner of Trio, which helped launch the careers of chefs like Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Alinea’s Grant Achatz, restaurateur Henry Adaniya says, “I wanted to come back and explore my roots in Hawaii.”
The islands’ “plantation era had an almost soul food basis,” and as owner of Hank’s Haute Dogs on Oahu and Maui, Adaniya playfully draws on this multi-ethnic history. One example is his Portuguese sausage, which Hawaiians traditionally serve with eggs or rice. Instead, he offers the meat hot-dog-style, topped with a thoroughly modern mango mustard.
“Our local culture is so diverse,” adds Love, who tries to incorporate Hawaiian ideas and products even into non-Hawaiian dishes.
Be on the lookout for her Hawaiian take on Canadian poutine and cocktails like the Menehune, blending Maui-made Ocean vodka with elderflower liqueur, lilikoi (passionfruit), peach bitters and sparkling wine.
Perhaps Alan Wong sums it up best when he says, “We have lots of chefs with different backgrounds. I tell them all to be proud of their cultures. Cook what you know.”
So, if you’re visiting Hawaii, go beyond the pineapple and discover new tasty trends we can all support.