Making Chains Adapt

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - June 21, 2006
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There’s a certain air of anticipation around Waikiki these days as the restaurant industry watches with interest the planned Waikiki Beach Walk project.

With more than 92,000 square feet of retail and dining space about to open in November, there’s room for a lot of new restaurants.

Work has begun, too, on the redevelopment of the Waikiki Parc Hotel, where celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa will bring his remarkable culinary talents in December.

All good news for the restaurant industry, right?

Or is it?

With a finite dining pie that spreads itself thinner each year, national chains and international stars may take away from mom and pops. Mainland chain restaurants want to be in Hawaii. The Cheesecake Factory has its No. 1 location here and, years after opening, there are still lines at the door every night. Romano’s Macaroni Grill also has its top location in Hawaii, and it too has a long waiting line almost every night.

Good for the economy, of course.

But for our local food culture? I’m not so sure.

We have a wealth of young, culinary talent in Hawaii that needs to be cultivated so chefs can remain innovative and culturally aware. But with students tempted by the proliferation of restaurant jobs, is it possible that our talented young chefs will become nothing more than line cooks delivering a corporate recipe?

Conrad Nonaka, director of the Culinary Institute of the Pacific, doesn’t think so.

“One of the positive things about the Mainland chains is that they bring an experience to the islands that students had to previously leave to find,” he says. “The negative, though, is that students are being tempted to leave school early to work.”

Paul Ah Cook, director of operations for Desert Island Restaurants, sees both sides of the coin. He oversees Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and Macaroni Grill. But he’s a local boy with firm ideas about how Hawaii restaurants should run.

“We do have that chain stigma,” he says, “but here’s the difference: we’re local all the way. I absolutely insist on hiring local chefs at the top of every restaurant.”

Ah Cook is also serious in making the “chain mentality” adapt to Hawaii, rather than the other way around.

“There’s a pretty strict dress code at Ruth’s Chris’ around the Mainland, for example,” he says, “but here I insisted that people in Hawaii need to be able to eat out in shorts and shirts. Not jackets and ties.”

Ah Cook goes further than his compatriots on the Mainland, too, in that he supports local farmers and growers as much as possible.

“It was a struggle at first to get corporate to listen to us - but I just told them, ‘Hey, man, we’re Hawaii.’”

Conrad Nonaka also sees the very positive benefits of large restaurants coming to the islands.

“It keeps the competition here extremely high,” he says. “With the opening of Nobu, for example, fine-dining local restaurants know that they need to step up and keep raising the bar. Nobu’s puts everyone on their toes.”

But Nonaka also believes that there is always the danger of the homogenization of Hawaii’s culinary scene.

” We have to remain innovative and continually believe in the value of the quality of Hawaii Regional Cuisine,” he says. “It’s critical that Hawaii restaurants continue to be a benchmark and continue to create an atmosphere that offers a taste of our culinary culture. We need to promote the best of Hawaii if we want to remain a serious tourist destination.”

Local restaurants stepping up, students with glorious job opportunities, local born chefs running corporate kitchens without ever having to leave the islands. All sounds good - as long as we remember where we are and as long as our worthy local restaurants get the support of the dining community. For those restaurants that make the effort, the future looks bright. Paul Ah Cook says, with great passion, “We’re local people too and we want our customers to see that.”

As we wait for the opening of Nobu’s and Waikiki Beach Walk, let’s not forget the essence of where we are. As long as there are chopsticks and shoyu on the table at Romano’s Macaroni Grill, poi bowls on the menu at Alan Wong’s and Nalo Greens in every salad bowl, we’ll keep making the point.

Hey, man, we’re Hawaii. Happy eating!

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