The Hawaii Restaurant Buzz

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - July 04, 2007
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Alan Wong, Gail Ann Chew, Paul Ah Cook and Beau Mohr
Alan Wong, Gail Ann Chew, Paul Ah Cook and
Beau Mohr

There’s a lot of hot gossip in the restaurant industry right now - and almost none of it is about the food.

Location, service, the “poaching” of staff, high prices, survival of the best, and the closure of mom-and-pop restaurants are just a few of the topics being discussed around the dining rooms of Honolulu.

I sat down for lunch at the Pineapple Room a couple of weeks ago with renowned chef Alan Wong, and we were joined by director of operations for Desert Island Restaurants Paul Ah Cook, chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association (and owner of Pearl ) Beau Mohr, and HRA executive director Gail Ann Chew, who spent many years organizing HVCB’s “Chefs of Aloha” and “Aloha Cities” campaigns.

We talked, over appetizers, about the importance of Hawaii Regional Cuisine and what those 12 founding chefs, who gathered together in 1992, have done for the restaurant industry. And as we talked a little food history, Wong explained that the real turn around in Hawaii’s food culture - the one that began drawing international writers and critical acclaim - actually began in the late 1980s.

“When Roy Yamaguchi opened in Hawaii Kai, where no one had really made it before,” says Wong, “that began a change in the climate.”

Food writers, aware of Yamaguchi’s presence and talent, traveled to Honolulu to find where he’d gone - and to write about his new venture in an office complex with an open kitchen and a spectacular view of the ocean.

“After they’d eaten at Roy’s, they stayed around for a few days and ate at other restaurants,” says Wong, “and the rest of us began to benefit.”

Once the media arrived, they had to find things to write about - and the food jokes about Hawaii in the late ‘70s were getting old.

“The joke was always that the best food in Hawaii was on the plane coming over,” says Wong.

And it’s true. Poi and kalua pig were thought of as something exotic and to be avoided by tourists at all costs, and “Ham Steak Aloha” (a slice of ham with canned pineapple and a maraschino cherry on top) was considered a “Hawaii dish.”

But local chefs had already started to develop their own style. And from a desire to prove to the culinary world that Hawaii might have joined the race late, but with all the ingredients to win international acclaim, like-minded chefs, including Yamaguchi, Peter Merriman, Bev Gannon, George Mavrothalassitis, Mark Ellman and Sam Choy, got together.

“We had two aims when we started HRC,” says Wong. “One was to develop an agricultural network, and the other was to get Hawaii on the map.”

The 12 chefs produced a brochure about local farmers and their produce, and then they produced a recipe book on Hawaii Regional Cuisine.

“We traveled everywhere giving that book out,” says Wong, who notes that today the book is out of print and that copies are rare.

So, fast forward almost 20 years, where agriculture is certainly stronger in some areas, but an explosion of Mainland chain restaurants is contributing to a homogenization of areas like Waikiki.

“That coincided with the arrival of the ‘big box’stores in Hawaii,” says Paul Ah Cook. “Everyone wanted to take advantage of the boom. And today, most of the problems are arising because the dining pie is not getting any bigger, with restaurants vying for smaller slices of the pie.”

But Ah Cook sees another problem as paramount.

“The main problems that restaurants are experiencing right now come to down staffing,” says the man who just a year or so ago was faced with the task of finding 250 new employees for Macaroni Grill. “I expect to see some real issues with that as the holidays get closer.”

Wong agrees. The problem, he says, is that with an unemployment rate of 2 percent, it’s difficult to find people to train.

“How can you expect an 18-year-old server to correctly anticipate the needs of a well-traveled, sophisticated, 50 year-old businessman?” he asks.

At that point, we stopped talking for a while to enjoy our lunch at The Pineapple Room. My favorite dish is the simple, understated, excellent poi bowl. Try it next time you’re there.

Over lunch I asked Alan if his staff were particularly nervous whenever he sat down at a table in his own restaurant.

“I don’t know,” he said with a smile. “I never usually have time to eat here!”

Join us next week for more comments on the state of the restaurant industry in Hawaii.

Happy eating!

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