The islands of Hawaii have done a culinary 180 from imported foods and styles, embracing local product and traditional preparations. Meet the chefs (and their dishes) that are defining New Hawaiian cuisine. 

By Michael Ruhlman Photography by Jessica Sample Photography by Jessica Sample
Kee Beach

Kee Beach, Kauai

 

"Hawaii is the most isolated land in the world, and Kauai is the most isolated of the islands," the chef says as he bastes a baby pig in a smoker he's built of cinder blocks. The pig came from a nearby farm. The liquid he slops on the pig is based on a vinegar he fermented using the island's lychees. And the wood for smoking the pig is from a lychee tree fallen in a friend's yard. 

Isolation encourages such practices, but more, being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean necessitates precautions: What if weather or natural disaster cuts off transportation to and from the Hawaiian archipelago, or more specifically, this verdant dot on the map? This is what Adam Watten, a tall, slender Virginian with a shaved head and dressed in a blue T-shirt and jeans, asks in rhetorical support of his culinary manifesto of Hawaiian self-reliance. "Local" is the foundation of everything Watten does on Kauai. At Hanai, his culinary outpost of grocery store, catered meals, and a dining room in the small town of Kapaa, all the food on the shelves comes from Hawaii. When cooking at Hanai, Watten won't even use vegetable oil or olive oil (neither is produced on the island), relying on rendering his pork fat and working with avocado and coconut oils.

He slops some more lychee baste on the pig, smoke rising from the embers, and covers the smoker. An hour later, when I bite into his succulent pork and scoop up that Hawaiian staple, poi, made by a local taro farmer, I know that traveling 6,000 miles just to eat was a brilliant idea. This embrace of Hawaii's most traditional foodways—its local and sustainable produce and proteins championed by Watten and a growing cadre of talented chefs—is worth the journey to witness. And the food is, simply, delicious.

 

Chef Adam Watten embracing local flora
Photo: Jessica Sample
Chef Adam Watten's Paiai Scrapple
Photo: Jessica Sample

Adam Watten and his Paiai Scrapple

What's with all the hitch-hikers? And more, what's with all the chickens? These are the questions I chew on while white-knuckling my way along Kauai's twisting and treacherous roads. While I have come to Hawaii to chase chefs and eat their food, I've also come to see this paradise that's invaded my dreams, courtesy of vintage airline posters and 1960s television fare, my entire life. Starting the journey on Kauai is like diving into one of those travel posters. Called the "Garden Island" and at the northern end of the archipelago, Kauai feels on the alluring edge of civilization. Everywhere, people and animals share the road with me. Hens and roosters cross roads as they please here, as well as congregating on golf courses and in parking lots. They even cluck around me on the white sands of Kee, touted as one of Hawaii's most beautiful beaches. This poultry is onto something, I think: Here is nothing but balmy air and salt water, slopes dense with coconut palms and guava trees right behind me, and a crashing turquoise surf at my feet.

But there's more to eat. I take Watten's recommendation to try Street Burger, which boasts more than a dozen burgers made with local beef and lamb. As I struggle to decide between the "Southern" (a burger with fried green tomato, pimiento cheese, and buttermilk-chive dressing) and the "Wailua" (crispy Spam, jalapeño-pineapple marmalade, kabayaki glaze—certainly the hometown style), the chef team of Aaron and Kristin Leikam appear, surprising me—I met them 10 years ago when I wrote about a restaurant they both worked at, the highly regarded Primo in Rockland, Maine.

"I've been coming here since I was 12," Aaron says, explaining why he and Kristin chose to open their burger spot on this island of 70,000 people. "This was kind of an untapped market," he adds. And untapped resources, as well. Kauai chefs are able to use so many local ingredients because this island, Hawaii's wettest, is so fertile—to which the royal poincianas and orange bougainvillea, brilliant explosions of color along the winding roads, attest. Stuff just grows here. Why not cook it?

Street Burger's Kristen and Aaron Leikam
Photo: Jessica Sample
"the Southern" at Street Burger
Photo: Jessica Sample

Kristen and Aaron Leikam and the goods at Street Burger

 

Why not, indeed? Another day, I sit down to a farm-to-table brunch at Kitchen Table in Kilauea, where Executive Chef Ron Varr serves up homemade cheeses, root vegetables, sushi, and fabulous kalbi ribs, almost all sourced from the island. "I want to go back and be like the Amish," Varr says. "This is our farm; this is what we have. I had to tell a lady today why we had no maple syrup. Because there are no maple trees on Hawaii! But we have coconut syrup, and a fruit compote that I made."

The voices of these chefs signal Hawaii's second culinary renaissance. In the early 1990s, a first wave of pioneers, including Roy Yamaguchi, Alan Wong, Bev Gannon, Chef Mavro, and Peter Merriman created what would be called Pacific Rim or Hawaii Regional Cuisine. And this is what people commonly think of as Hawaiian restaurant cuisine today, a fusion of French technique and island ingredients that gave us preparations such as macadamia-crusted mahi mahi and passion fruit beurre blanc. Now, these new chefs stand on their shoulders to move Hawaii's cuisine into the future by bringing it back to the past.

While life on Kauai is quickly becoming addictive, I know I have to leave the garden for the city. So I head for the epicenter of the new Hawaiian cuisine in the buzzing restaurants of Honolulu, and check in with the man who arguably set the whole second renaissance in motion.

"I'm part Hawaiian, so I have ancestors here," says Ed Kenney, chef/owner of four heralded Honolulu restaurants. "I look back 160 years ago—we were 100 percent self-sufficient. You had to be." Kenney and I talk as he drives me to an organic farm that employs Native Hawaiian youths from underserved communities. "We're growing young people," he says with a smile.

Kenney, at only 48, is considered by many to be the father of the new local food movement. He grew up here, spent his youth surfing the reef breaks in the preternaturally blue water and eating with his food-loving family. The types of foods grown on Oahu, Kenney's home base, include virtually everything you can find in a tropical environment and then some, given the many microclimates here: asparagus, kale, broccoli, squash, chiles, turnips, tomatoes, and too many fruits to mention, plus locally raised pork, lamb, grass-fed beef, and, of course, all kinds of fish. The aromatics are abundant, as well—coriander, lemon grass, allspice, cinnamon. Add to that list the "canoe plants" brought to the island by settlers from the Marquesas around the 5th century, such as bananas, coconut, breadfruit, turmeric, and taro, an abundant root used to make the fermented mush called poi.

Perhaps more important even than the ingredients, though, is the chefs' respect and support for one another, a deep connection to the land, which they call kuleana, the understanding that it is a privilege and a responsibility to respect the land, and aloha aina, literally "love of the land." In all my travels I haven't encountered the depth of spirituality among chefs that I have here, combining a reverence for what grows on and swims offshore of these islands.

Chef Lee Anne Wong at her Honolulu brunch/lunch hot spot, Koko Head Cafe.
Photo: Jessica Sample

Poke, one of Hawaii's traditional foodways, rises and shines in Wong's poke omelette.

Photo: Jessica Sample

Lee Anne Wong and her poke omelette at Koko Head Cafe.

I have wonderful meals at all these chef's restaurants, including Lee Anne Wong's Koko Head Cafe for breakfast and lunch. "Local is important, because if the boats stop coming tomorrow," Wong tells me over a breakfast skillet of eggs, beef patty, gravy, and rice, "if the planes stop coming, Oahu would be in absolute chaos within a week." It's a clarion call that takes me by surprise, but makes every bit of sense. While these chefs lead a taste revolution, they also lead a cultural one. Hawaii should—and must—grow the food that can feed its own, feed its visitors, and bring its farmers back into a cycle of prosperity.

My last meal in Hawaii takes me to the edge of the movement, to Andrew Le's The Pig & The Lady in Honolulu. One of Hawaii's most respected chefs, Le says he's moving even beyond Hawaiian regional cuisine. "I feel like we're creating our own now," he says. "Mainly the focus is our Vietnamese food philosophy. That's my heritage. So we focus on umami, lots of herbs, different textures and contrasting flavors. We apply it to whatever we want, whether it's going to be a pasta or be a nostalgic dish like we had growing up, going to the poke shop before the beach."

Indeed, I have one of the best courses I've tasted in years at Le's restaurant. While a number of the dishes I taste rely heavily on the chef's Vietnamese heritage, he reaches into the creative stratosphere with a foie gras macaron, a crisp, savory meringue "cookie" filled with foie gras mousse. It almost tips me out of my chair, it is so good.

In Chinatown, The Pig & Lady's chef/owner Andrew Le
Photo: Jessica Sample
Foie Gras Mousse and Pink Peppercorn Macarons, Pho, Summer Shakshuka
Photo: Jessica Sample

The Pig & The Lady's Andrew Le and (clockwise from top, left): Foie Gras Mousse and Pink Peppercorn Macarons; P&L Pho (featuring 12-hour roasted brisket and sirloin); Summer Shakshuka (including zucchini, kale, soft egg, and yogurt

 

Before heading to the airport, I console myself with a final Mai Tai at the classic La Mariana Tiki Bar, opened in 1957. My thoughts return to flower-filled Kauai and Adam Watten's smoke-roasted baby pig meal, which included grilled cucumbers with tarragon, spiny lobster caught by hand by a neighbor, kabocha squash, roasted broccoli with local goat feta, and, for dessert, a macadamia milk spin on the Creamsicle.

I had asked Watten why he loved this food. His response was both simple and profound. "Because it tastes like … here," he said.

And "here," I agree, is a place like no other.

 

GET HERE
The stunning restaurants (and beaches) of Honolulu, Oahu, are reached easily by direct flights from a variety of American cities. Many airlines now fly direct to Kauai's Lihue Airport, but you can also connect from Oahu.

STAY HERE
KAUAI - The refined St. Regis Princeville sits on a secluded beach cove overlooking Hanalei Bay on the paradisiacal North Shore. Rates start at $1,250; 808/826-9644 or stregisprinceville.com.

OAHU - In Waikiki, the gorgeously serene Halekulani, with its beachfront setting and unobstructed views of Diamond Head, excels at quietly perfect service and understated luxury (not to mention its renowned seven shades of white). Rates start at $495; 844/ 873-9424 or halekulani.com.

WHERE TO EAT NEW HAWAIIAN
KAUAI - Adam Watten's Hanai offers market meals with fresh catch. Street Burger does upscale and unforgettable burgers in an urban-chic setting. Kitchen Table runs Sunday brunch, but also a series of cool events with various culinary themes.

OAHU - All of Ed Kenney's restaurants—Town, Kaimuki Superette, Mud Hen Water, and his newest, Mahina & Sun's—are worth a stop. Lee Anne Wong owns the morning at her hotter-than-hot Koko Head Cafe. Andrew Le's The Pig & The Lady has evolved from cool pop-up to leading-edge restaurant.

 

Michael Ruhlman is an award-winning author of more than 20 books, primarily on food and cooking. "The Story of an Oyster," published in the October 2015 issue, was his most recent piece for Coastal Living.

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