Modern Hawai‘i Cuisine has come a long way.
Remember when anything with a pineapple on it was considered “Hawaiian?” Plop pineapple on a pizza and voila, Hawaiian pizza.
Same for the burger. Put some pineapple and teriyaki on a patty, slap it between a bun, and bam, Hawaiian burger. “People thought we cooked with a lot of pineapple and ate a lot of spam,” recalls Alan Wong, one of the original Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine (HRC) chefs.
Nothing against the beloved meat or fruit, but those two items hardly define Hawai‘i cuisine. “Part of the original mission of HRC chefs was to change that misconception,” explains Wong.
The Twelve Chefs That Started Hawaii Regional Cuisine
Twelve Hawai‘i chefs established the culinary movement in 1991 to showcase ethnic flavors with local ingredients. Suddenly, the 50th state was a culinary hotspot, thanks to HRC Originals: Sam Choy, Roger Dikon, Mark Ellman, Amy Ferguson Ota, Beverly Gannon, Jean-Marie Josselin, George Mavrothalassitis, Peter Merriman, Philippe Padovani, Gary Strehl, Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi.
Chef Roy Yamaguchi on Elevating the Level of Food in Hawaii
Yamaguchi helped lead the way with style dubbed “fusion,” but he described it as simply cooking from the heart, with flavors inspired by his upbringing in Japan. He remembers as a 6-year old boy driving hours to the fish market to buy live tako (octopus) and helping rub salt and cooking steaks and chicken hibachi (flame grilled) style.
Now 60 years old, Yamaguchi reflects on where we were 25 years ago, saying “Hawai‘i has really come a long way through food. I think it’s something that we all strived for when we put together HRC, elevating the level of food.”
The Hawaii Food & Wine Festival
For Yamaguchi and Wong, who also turns 60 this year, they remain driving forces elevating Modern Hawai‘i cuisine as co-founders of the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival. Their mission is to keep attention on Hawai‘i’s food and farmers while giving the next generation of chefs a chance to shine in a benefit for local and agricultural culinary programs.
“It Has to Be We, Not I” – Chef Roy Yamaguchi
“Us old dogs are maybe in a different position,” says Yamaguchi. “I was I don’t think self-centered. I wanted to get ahead, driven. We need guys out there to do both. To get ahead and give back. The newer guys are starting to do a lot of great things. They have to have the same philosophy. It has to be We, not I.”
And why not? It was a recipe for success 25 years ago, and it continues to re-define how the world views Hawai‘i cuisine.
The Original Twelve Hawaii Regional Cuisine Chefs and What They’re Doing Now
Kai Lanai (Kailua-Kona, Hawaii’s Big Island)
Executive Chef at Robert’s Hawaii Magic of Polynesia (Honolulu, Hawaii)
Mala Ocean Tavern (Lahaina, Maui)
Mala Wailea (Wailea, Maui)
Amy Ferguson Ota
Chef Amy Ferguson / Global Consultant (Kailua-Kona, Hawaii’s Big Island)
Haliimaile General Store (Makawao, Maui)
The Red Bar (Wailea, Maui)
Lanai City Grille (Lanai City, Lanai)
Jo2 (Kapaa, Kauai)
Tapas @ Kukuiula (Poipu, Kauai)
Chef Mavro (Honolulu, Oahu)
Merriman’s Waimea (Waimea, Hawaii’s Big Island)
Merriman’s Kapalua (Kapalua, Maui)
Merriman’s Poipu (Poipu, Kauai)
Gourmet Pizza & Burgers by Merriman’s (Poipu, Kauai)
Padovani’s Chocolates (Dole Cannery, Honolulu, Oahu)
General manager, Courtyard by Marriott (Jacksonville, FL – unconfirmed)
Alan Wong’s Restaurant (Honolulu, Oahu)
The Pineapple Room by Alan Wong (Ala Moana, Oahu)
Roy’s Hawaii Kai (Hawaii Kai, Oahu)
Roy’s Waikiki (Waikiki, Oahu)
Roy’s Ko Olina (Ko Olina, Oahu)
Roy’s Beach House at Turtle Bay Resort (North Shore, Oahu)
Roy’s Kaanapali (Kaanapali, Maui)
Roy’s Waikoloa (Waikoloa Village, Hawaii’s Big Island)
Eating House by Roy Yamaguchi (Koloa, Kauai)