The Changing Food Scene

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - May 30, 2007
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A friend in the restaurant business commented last week, “Jo, I believe we are living in interesting times.” He was talking about the proliferation of new restaurants in Honolulu and about how the landscape of our culinary world has changed.

It’s true, we are living in interesting times, but I’m a little worried to tell you the truth. I’m excited about the growth of the industry, about the incredible job opportunities for those determined to make a long-term career in the restaurant business, and about the potential for agricultural growth.

But I’m worried about a lot of little things. Like mom-andpop restaurants, for example. I’ve nothing against chain restaurants, for the most part. If they do a great job, provide value for money, then I’m the first person to step up and say that they have a place in our economy.

But what we’re seeing in Hawaii is an explosion of Mainland, big-box restaurants that give no more than a passing nod to our local farmers and the flavors of our islands. Does The Cheesecake Factory have lines around the block because they offer a true taste of Hawaii? Is PF Chang’s Honolulu any different than the dozens of other restaurants nationwide? And how do you know you’re in Honolulu when the folks at Morton’s blacked out the windows to block the view of Ala Moana Beach Park, so it looks like every steak house on the Mainland?

In 1992, 12 Hawaii chefs, including Alan Wong, Peter Merriman, Bev Gannon, Philippe Padovani, George Mavrothalassitis and Roy Yamaguchi, got together to establish an identity for the incredible food found in our islands. These chefs, who made Hawaii Regional Cuisine famous, celebrated all our bounty of local fish, fruits and vegetables. Visitors to our islands, they declared, would soon find Hawaii to be a food destination comparable to anywhere in the world.

Fifteen years later we really do have an increased awareness of locally grown foods - and some restaurants like Ola at Turtle Bay, 12th Avenue Grill on Waialae Avenue, the neighboring Town, Chef Mavro and, of course, Alan Wong’s and Roy’s all support local agriculture wherever possible. Alan Wong has boxes of fresh vegetables delivered daily to his kitchen straight from the farm, and at Merriman’s on the Big Island more than 80 percent of the menu is made from dishes with locally grown ingredients.

But there have been more closures of mom-and-pop restaurants than anyone could have imagined, and while there are undoubtedly restaurants today that celebrate the bounty of our island produce, we are in danger of being taken over by a corporate mentality that doesn’t care if the tomato in your sandwich tastes like cardboard, only what it costs. A homogenous Hawaii dining scene offers nothing more than a mind-numbing lack of choice to people who come on vacation with combined millions of dining dollars to spend each year.

We’re losing our egg farmers, our dairy farmers, and we’ve already lost pineapples and sugar. What next? As one small restaurant after another closes its doors (last week it was the wonderful OnJin’s Café in Kakaako), the need to support local restaurants, becomes crucial.

Interesting times indeed, and I, for one, am more than a little concerned.

Happy eating.

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