Taste buds start to hula when thoughts of Hawaiian vacation food spring to mind. There was a time, though, when dining on the islands wasn’t all that memorable — or even palatable.
As recently as 19 years ago, the bulk of Hawaiian produce was being exported off the island and chefs were left to prepare mainland ingredients that were generally far from fresh and lacking in quality. Then, in 1992, Peter Merriman, executive chef of Merriman’s restaurant on the Big Island, decided to channel his frustration by convening 12 of Hawaii’s top chefs for a meeting of the minds.
“It was the salad days for chefs,” he said. The chefs wanted to create a bridge between Hawaii’s agricultural and culinary communities. That vision became known as the Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC) movement — a cooking style that features goods produced in Hawaii and reflects the multicultural character of the islands. Nowhere are the fruits of these innovative chefs’ labors more apparent than on Oahu and the Big Island of Hawaii.
BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII
Merriman’s restaurant in upcountry Waimea puts its respect for local farmers on full display: Photos of neighborhood growers line the walls and the smell of freshly prepared produce wafts from the kitchen. “Almost everything served here is from Hawaii,” Merriman said. “We buy from over 30 different farmers and ranchers every single week.”
Merriman’s minimalist culinary approach is highlighted in dishes such as ponzu-marinated mahi mahi, made from fish caught daily by a local troller boat and then sautéed with sesame-grilled shiitake and complemented with Ninole hearts of palm and upcountry onion relish.
When Chef George Mavrothalassitis moved to Oahu more than 20 years ago, he was daunted by a magazine article that declared: “Enjoy your food on the plane, it’s the best you’ll have while on vacation in Hawaii.”
“The real food of Hawaii already existed. It just wasn’t found in the hotels or fine dining restaurants,” he said, suggesting that authenticity in those days was limited to local eateries and family dinner tables.
A proponent of nouvelle cuisine, Chef Mavro (as he’s known locally) was frustrated by the challenge of finding fresh ingredients. Upon receiving Merriman’s call, he immediately came onboard as one of HRC’s founding members. Now diners savor entrees such as Mavro’s roasted mountain meadow lamb loin medallions dusted with cépes and accompanied by eggplant with ajwain, baked alii mushroom, confit Big Wave tomatoes and lamb jus paired with wine by the glass. Mavro invites guests to learn HRC techniques through occasional cooking classes. Also try fellow HRC co-founder Sam Choy’s restaurant on Oahu — Sam Choy’s Breakfast, Lunch & Crab.