Cooking A Luau For The President

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - July 08, 2009
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Chef Alan Wong in Washington, D.C.

There’s a memo taped to the in-box on Alan Wong’s desk that reads “Please call the deputy social secretary at the White House. He needs to speak with you directly about a private matter regarding the First Family.”

Not the sort of thing you come back from coffee break to every day. In fact, it even took the usually super-cool, James Beard Award-winning chef by surprise.

“It’s a bit surreal when you get a message like that,” he says, shaking his head, still almost in disbelief.

Calling the secretary back, after a moment or two of simply staring at the number, he was told that the Obamas had requested his presence at the first-ever luau at the White House.

He told a couple of his closest friends. And then waited to hear more. “I really started to think that maybe it was just a prank.”

It’s hard to rattle the ever-calm Wong, and rarer still to see him almost overwhelmed by an experience, but here’s Alan, sitting at his desk two days after returning to Honolulu and the trip of a lifetime, still not quite believing that he spent the better part of last week in the White House kitchen.

And you can imagine why, because it’s one thing to cook for celebrities and dignitaries in your own restaurant, but quite another to have the president ask if you can come over and cook at his house.

After he recovered from the first feeling of shock, he started planning the menu and deciding what local produce could travel safely to Washington.

There are so many restrictions imposed by the Department of Agriculture that a list of Wong’s favorite local ingredients was immediately nixed. But the menu offered a sampling of Hawaii’s regional cuisine, nonetheless. “It was the congressional picnic and not really a traditional luau,” says Wong,

“but they did request our wasabi potato salad and hoisin baby back ribs.” Also on the menu were tilapia tempura rolls, lomi salmon, kalua pig, shrimp and salmon, crispy chicken hoagies, grilled lamb chops and spiced short ribs, farm green salad and stuffed new potatoes.

And while the Hawaii restaurant crew was far from home, they found lots of help in the kitchen.

White House chef Cristeta Comerford is Filipino, and executive sous chef, Tommy Kurpradit, is Thai.

“They were the most wonderful people to work with,” says Wong, “just the nicest, most hospitable people you can imagine. They made the whole experience so easy for us.”

A luau on the lawn, shaka signs in Washington. What next? An imu in the Rose Garden?

Wong laughs. “We tried,” he says. “They thought about that request for about a second before saying no.”

And they nixed the poi, too. But in terms of Hawaii’s culinary culture, all pretty impressive, don’t you think?

“It was such an honor,” says Wong, still trying to take the fantastic trip in. “And I’m so happy that we got to take our staff. It’s something that they’ll be able to tell their kids and their grandchildren: ‘Hey, we cooked at the White House, for the president.’ “

And in case you’re wondering if all those photos of the president giving the shaka sign all over town are only for the benefit of the press, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka provided the real story.

“For years I’ve been giving the shaka sign in Washington,” Akaka told Wong at the picnic, “and people just ignored it. Ever since President Obama arrived, everyone’s giving the shaka sign to me!”

No doubt, there’s a lot of aloha in the White House these days.

Happy eating!


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