NEW YORK Chef Alan Wong is striving for the authentic experience. When customers dine at his restaurants in Hawaii he wants them to savor all the ethnically diverse flavors and traditions of the islands.
"It's all about a sense of place," Wong, a winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Year for Pacific Northwest, said in an telephone interview from Hawaii.
"Hawaii is called the melting pot of the Pacific for a reason. Even a pineapple picked in Hawaii tastes different from one picked in San Francisco or New York City."
An impassioned locavore, Wong is a founding member of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine (HRC), a nonprofit group dedicated to highlighting his islands' products and cuisine.
Wong, 56, spoke to Reuters about merging Hawaii's diverse ethnic cooking styles into cohesive dishes, his dedication to promoting the islands' produce, people, and culture, and why he thinks President Barack Obama, a repeat visitor to his eponymous restaurant in Oahu, is a foodie.
Q: How would you describe Hawaiian regional cuisine?
A: "My simple definition is that it's the way we cook in Hawaii today that borrows from all the ethnic influences you find in Hawaii. We're in the middle of Pacific Ocean, halfway between America and Asia. For an American it's the gateway to Asia, for an Asian it's the gateway to America. The cuisine here is very East-West and very melting pot-like."
Q: Why did you co-found the organization Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC)?
A: "In 1991, 12 of us chefs got together in Maui. Over the months we formed HRC. We had two goals: first, to help the Department of Agriculture create a directory for our sources for farmers and product; second, to publicize that you can come to Hawaii for some o.k. food now."
Q: What was missing from Hawaiian cuisine before?
A: "The joke used to be that the best food in Hawaii was on the plane over. Back in 50's, 60's and 70's you had the luau, which had become commercialized, and a lot of ethnic restaurants. We tried to mimic Italian and French, and not very well. Hawaiian never had an identity until 1991. I think we helped give it an identity by using local products, encouraging farmers to grow things for us, and using the flavors that local people grew up eating in Hawaii and reinterpreting them."
Q: You champion the sustainability/locovore movement. Why is that important to you?
A: "So that our grandchildren's children can enjoy what we enjoy today and tomorrow. Hawaii imports over 85 percent of its food. We're not self-sufficient here. But if we make the right decisions maybe we could all affect a 10 percent change, to 75 percent. That means supporting local farmers, businesses and ranchers."
Q: What is your philosophy of cooking?
A: "Keep it simple. Understand what is the star of the plate and let that star shine. Everything starts with the ingredients. You have to have the freshest fish, the best produce. We're in Hawaii. The fish here is not the same as you find elsewhere, and I think we have some of the best mangoes in the world."
Q: "Is there a spice or flavor emblematic of Hawaii?
A: Chili pepper water. The Portuguese brought the chili pepper to Hawaii and we created chili pepper water. Almost every household has a bottle in the refrigerator. It's basically our tabasco sauce. It's really hot."
Q: What inspired you to become a chef?
A: "My mom was really a good cook. She's from Japan and raised me on Japanese food. Then when I visited my Dad's family my Chinese grandfather would cook Chinese food. I was fortunate. They were both good cooks. Their food was perfectly seasoned."
Q: What is it like to serve the first family?
A: "President Obama grew up here. He understands local food, and I think he's an adventurous eater. He goes out to eat often. I like that. He's a foodie. It's great for the business, great for the restaurant."
‘Ahi Poke (Makes about 1 1/4 cups)
8 ounces sashimi-grade ‘ahi
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion
1 tablespoon finely diced round onion
1 teaspoon sambal oelek (a paste made from red chilies)
Cut the ‘ahi into 1/4- to 1/3-inch cubes.
Season the ‘ahi with salt.
Add the sesame oil and mix to coat well.
Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
Taste and adjust seasoning.
(Reporting by Dorene Internicola; editing by Patricia Reaney)