Nico’s New Thing; Elmer’s Memories

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - September 28, 2011
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Nico Chaize of Nico’s at Pier 38. Jo McGarry photo

Amid the congratulatory, hearty cheer spreading around the banquet room at the annual Hawaii Restaurant Association gathering last week, a couple of young chefs had some of the best stories to share.

Nico Chaize, the chef/owner of Nico’s at Pier 38, was all smiles and contagious enthusiasm as he talked about the progress of his new restaurant overlooking Honolulu Harbor. “It’s going to be a very beautiful restaurant,” he said modestly of the two-story, custombuilt space.

Chaize may not have been center stage last Monday night, but he will be when his restaurant opens (hopefully) by year’s end. His work ethic is as strong as his talent. He’s driven, passionate and willing to get up every morning to ensure the predawn delivery of fish to his restaurant.

“I am one of the luckiest chefs,” he says with a huge grin. “Who else could hope to be close to such fresh fish?”

Another chef who considers himself lucky and who like Chaize is a huge proponent of our local fishing industry is Elmer Guzman, chef/ owner of Poke Stop. As the 12 chefs who started the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement took to the stage bedecked with lei, Guzman and I talked story about the night the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement began.

“I was working for Alan (Wong) at the time at The CanoeHouse (at Mauna Lani),” he says, “and a bunch of chefs were hanging together at the bungalows next door. I didn’t really recognize too many of them at the time. I was just cooking up Chef Alan’s food and walking it out to the gang.”

He says the mood that night was optimistic, the chefs certain that they were about to start “something different.”

“They were having a good time drinking beers and whatnot,” said Elmer, “but you could tell they had a mission. I heard them talking about the farmers and about our food and what they were going to do. The next day we asked Chef Alan about it and he told us to watch because something big was going to happen.”

The “something big,” was, of course, Hawaii Regional Cuisine, and soon news of the meeting of the 12 chefs made its way into the media and around the culinary world.

Guzman, following in his mentor’s footsteps, left Hawaii and went to work at The Greenbrier, the historic West Virginia resort where Wong had apprenticed years before. Then he headed down to New Orleans to work with Emeril Lagasse.

“It was really something to be down in New Orleans and have Emeril talking about the food movement happening in Hawaii,” says Guzman. “When I look back on that time I can still remember seeing a magazine article with the photos of Alan and Roy, and then talking to Emeril about Hawaii’s new food movement.”

And Guzman, who took a taste of the Pacific Rim to New Orleans, brought back a sense of the South when he returned home to develop his own unique twist on HRC. He’s the author of a cookbook on reef fishing and a torchbearer for the promotion and use of fresh island fish with some N’awlins spice.

“I do feel like it’s been full circle for me,” he says. “Looking back on that night and where those chefs were, I have a deeper understanding of what they did for us, for my generation, and I feel like now it’s up to us.”

Happy eating!

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