I am in culinary bliss. My fork and knife caress an olive-oil-poached strip loin, coated in just the right veneer of black-bean-and-garlic foie-gras purée. Just beyond the dish I’m toying with, a whole-vine-ripened-tomato salad catches my eye. A quick look at the menu, and I learn not only what type of tomato I’ll be eating but also the grower who cultivated it. And yet I’m not in a New York or Los Angeles haute-cuisine eatery; I’m in downtown Honolulu, in the dining room at Alan Wong’s Restaurant on King Street.
Twenty-seven years ago, this locale stood at ground zero for the Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC) movement. It was then that Wong and a dozen of his contemporaries took the melting pot of cultures within Hawaii and stirred its contents to just the right consistency.
I ponder this while reflecting on the evening’s amuse bouche: Wong’s Soup and a Sandwich (chilled “yin-and-yang” yellow-and-orange tomato soup served in a martini glass with a grilled-cheese, foiegras and kalua-pork finger sand- wich). Never in my world travels have I tasted a tomato-based dish that has zero acidity, let alone one that pairs so well the rich flavor of the new with the old.
“One of my goals — in every dish I serve — is to have people taste a slice of Hawaii,” says the James Beard-awarded chef during a chat after my meal. Wong tells me about his support of MA’O Organic Farms, on Oahu’s Wai’anae Coast. The farm produces most of his “sassy” salad mix — kale, Swiss chard and cilantro — as well as employing at risk youth and offering scholarships. “But I’m just scratching the surface,” he adds.
Wong’s words strike a chord inside me. Perhaps plated perfection is not solely in the hands of those who wield shiny chefs’ knives. The thought passes through my lips, and Wong smiles, knowing I’ve seen the light.
The most recent evolution of HRC goes beyond the kitchen: Some might call it sustainability; Wong calls it “farm to plate to table ” — or just plain common sense. It’s the farmers, Wong assures me, who are driving the next phase of HRC, with creative strains of vegetables, herbs and fruits and with aquaculture and freshly made relationships with some of Hawaii’s most notable chefs, including Peter Merriman of Merriman’s. These chefs, the founders of HRC, are teaming up with third-generation farmers and fishermen on the fertile volcano side of upcountry Maui, the homestead lands of Oahu and the verdant coastlines of the Big Island (where Wong has a restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai).
One such farmer is Richard Ha on the Big Island. Wong speaks about him with so much enthusiasm that I immediately book a flight to see him. Ha’s Hamakua Springs Country Farms is a 600-acre slice of land in the rather unassuming Pepe’ekeo. When I arrive to the town, no signposts guide my way to the farm where that miraculous tomato was harvested. Only a few wild chickens on lush green hillsides (parts of this island receive nearly 300 inches of rain per year) alert me that there’s taste-bud-blowing agriculture brewing nearby.
When I find the 64-year-old Ha, he’s tinkering with a million-dollar hydroelectric system, which very soon will power his entire farm. Ha tells me he is working toward having biodiesel fuel power his delivery trucks. But sustainable farming is only part of what brought me to this farm. What I really want to know about are tomatoes.
Ha describes the day Chef Wong showed up at his farm. Wong didn’t just ask Ha to buy his tomatoes; he asked if he and his entourage of sous chefs could prepare a meal for Ha and his staff. When that time came, Ha sat back and observed Wong’s culinary team fashion a half-dozen dishes out of his tomatoes alone — sparing nothing from the fruit. He soaked in the meticulous procedures that went into crafting each dish.
“That day, my job description was reborn,” Ha says reverently. He’s now looking to harvest shrimp, fish, cattle and pigs in addition to produce, thanks to his relationship with chefs like Wong. “It totally upped our game.”
When Wong began putting Ha’s name on the menu to designate the grower who produced the ingredients in his recipes — a practice happening in more and more restaurants throughout Hawaii — Ha realized that instead of waving goodbye to tomatoes on the loading dock, he was now responsible for their appearance on a plate at Alan Wong’s Restaurant.
When I return to Oahu, I ask Wong just how deep this new avenue of HRC runs. “When we put a farmer’s name on our menu, it energizes them,” he tells me. “This isn’t a tomato: It’s Richard’s tomato. And it gives our staff a story to tell the customer. It brings what’s on the plate full circle for them. They are not only in Hawaii, but eating Hawaii.”
I order the soup again, holding to my lips the glass filled with yellow-and-orange tomato bisque as if to enjoy every drop of the last soup on earth. With each sip I’m transported back to Ha’s farm, standing on the volcanic slopes, palming a ripening tomato.
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