Up until recently, Hawaii has had quite a bad food reputation: the land of Spam and canned vegetables; a vacation destination where the in-flight meal was often better than offerings found on the islands; the tropical cornucopia where nearly 90 percent of on-island food came from off-island sources. But those were the old days. Hawaii has been shedding—in small ways, via a select few chefs—its previous "bad food" repute.
Over the past year we've canvassed Maui, Oahu, and The Big Island in search of our first class of Hawaii Rising Stars, so we’ve seen (and tasted) this quality-shift firsthand. From the innovative reinvention of local classics like loco moco and oxtail soup to an array of eclectic crowd-pleasers, such as pho, pork buns, and an array of charcuterie, Hawaii has caught up to certain recent food trends. It might still be tourist-Mecca, but going (not yet gone) are the days of safe, unchallenging dishes.
Case in point: the 2012 Rising Stars. Just take Chef Christopher Kulis of Capische?, whose beef carpaccio is decorated with a bevy of wild lettuces from his own garden, or Beach Tree’s Nick Mastrascusa and his pillowy gnocchi. There’s also the Asian-inspired—Cameron Lewark’s Thai coconut ceviche, Sheldon Simeon’s ramen, and Wade Ueoka’s fusion of Japanese and Chinese flavors with local ingredients, all paying tribute to Hawaii’s melting pot of Pacific Rim immigrants.
We weren’t expecting Hawaii to have pastry talent on par with top culinary markets, but we were surprised by the new flavors and textures these sweet chefs have to offer. We were dazzled by Michelle Karr-Ueoka’s tantalizing and refreshing Lilikoi brûlée and her playful reinterpretation of shaved ice at Alan Wong’s, and Elizabeth McDonald’s vegan and gluten-free takes on chocolate mousse and cheesecakes at Honu Seafood & Pizza were sure triumphs over the challenges many pastry chefs face in an increasingly health conscious marketplace. And while the cocktail scene hasn’t quite caught up to the mainland, mixologists in Hawaii are well read, relatively well stocked, and eager to do more than serve “fortified fruit juice.”
We were particularly impressed with the bounty of Hawaiian produce available—from the year-round product just begging to be harvested (or foraged by endlessly energetic chefs like Mark Noguchi) to farmers markets sprouting up around the islands. We toured fruit and vegetable farms that had several micro-climates within their small tracts of land and offered abundant diversity. Chef-purveyor partnerships have increased visibility of local goods and helped fight commercial blockades and government overreach. It’s not just a marketing bullet point to be sustainable in Hawaii—it’s a point of pride for many chefs, one they're taking to preserve their state’s heritage.
That’s not to say there aren’t challenges remaining in Hawaii. When we toured the Honolulu fish auction, we learned how federal observers board most swordfish treks, which has cut down on illegal fishing significantly. But only one-fourth of tuna fishing trips include the same precaution (though nearly all boats are tracked via GPS), meaning the possibility for abuse still exists. While many farmers raise amazing and exotic crops, we found that simple onions and carrots were too cheap to plant, and were still imported in some cases. Bringing wine to the islands also has its own shipping and cost impediments, as Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya will tell you. And local coffee growers face the ever-looming threat of over-development and pests.
Despite geological and economical boundaries, Hawaii is flourishing. Its young up-and-comers are ascending past the dreary reputation of yesteryear and taking to heart the culinary lessons of their on-island forebears, the likes of George Mavrothalassitis, Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi, and Mark Ellman. For the new crop of Rising Stars, the sky’s the limit.
Join us at our Hawaii Rising Stars Gala on December 4, where you can sample the talents of many of the islands’ culinary stars during a night at the Halekulani hotel. Sign up for your tickets before we sell out! And keep your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers coming. We'll soon travel to the Bay Area, Philadelphia, coastal New England, the Carolinas, and our own backyard of New York City. For real-time updates on our whereabouts and meals, follow us on Twitter and Facebook.