Hawaiʻi might not be the first “foodie” location that comes to mind. But perhaps it should be standing alongside cities such as San Francisco, New Orleans, and Chicago. The emerging gastronome scene in Hawaiʻi, focusing on innovative, diverse, artisanal, and functional foods, is building off a food revolution that began more than 30 years ago: Hawaiʻi Regional Cuisine.
In 1991, a dozen of Hawaiʻi’s most prominent chefs–Sam Choy, Roy Yamaguchi, Peter Merriman, and Alan Wong among them–joined forces to manifest a vision of putting the island chain on the map as a culinary destination. Their design was a filigree of local farmers and ranchers that could be continually sourced from in order to bolster a new standard of food in Hawaiʻi: an intermingling of the eclectic food cultures present since the days of Hawaiʻi’s sugar industry, and locally grown produce and meat from the distinctively sterling environment of the islands.
It is perhaps the island chain’s association with laid-back, beach-chilling, easy-living that promotes the idea that there are no serious chefs developing prix fixe menus in the open-air fish markets, no canners, concoctors, chocolatiers spending their days in kitchens instead of in the sun, no family-owned food trucks investing everything in the name of innovative, top-notch food on wheels. But they are here, they are prominent, and the movement is only just beginning.
Hawaiʻi Regional Cuisine is where the seed of the gastronome scene was planted, but it is blooming now into a prismatic flower, spearheaded by a crop of young, distinctly innovative chefs and artisanal makers that passionately celebrate the array of food traditions and the unique locally-grown ingredients of Hawaiʻi.
And across the ocean, people are noticing. Two Hawaiʻi-based chefs won the 2022 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northwest and Pacific regions: Sheldon Simeon (Tin Roof Maui, “Cook Real Hawaiʻi”) and Robynne Maii (Fete). The 2022 Good Food Awards also featured winners from all four of the main Hawaiian Islands. Honey and coffee makers from Hawaiʻi Island (Big Island Bees, Big Island Coffee Roasters, Akaka Falls Farm), Maui-made chocolate (Maui Kuʻia Estate Chocolate), Slow Island Kauaʻi Mai Tai Beverage Mixer made on Kauaʻi, and Oʻahu-based ʻUlu Mana’s Cool Lime flavored ʻulu chips (both available in the CG Marketplace!).
These Hawaiʻi-based artisanal makers are launching exceptional products with an impact. Their achievements are proof that real Hawaiʻi-made products–the ones with truly local ingredients–are finding their deserved recognition on the mainland and beyond. Hawaiʻi has joined the “Maker Movement” that has burgeoned in places like San Francisco and Brooklyn in the past decade, and has joined it full-force.
The heart of Hawaiʻi’s gastronome scene is the melting pot of cultures that have long influenced the food offerings within the islands but are becoming more honed, pushing boundaries further, and putting greater emphasis on innovation.
Hawaiʻi born and raised chef Ed Kenney is elevating local and Hawaiian-style dishes at Mud Hen Water. The Pig and the Lady, with plates named as some of the best in the state, self-describes as “cooking with Vietnamese sensibilities.” ʻAina Kauaʻi features a nine-course tasting menu interpreting the Japanese culinary tradition of kaiseki. Kō on Maui, named after the Hawaiian language word for sugarcane, has a menu inspired by the sugarcane era of Hawaiʻi’s history, drawing influence from Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Korean, and Japanese recipes that were brought to the islands generations ago.
There is a lot of innovation on four wheels across the islands as well, as is seemingly mandatory for foodie communities in this modern world. The food truck Holey Grail uses Hawaiʻi-grown taro root as the starch for their donuts. Banan takes Hawaiʻi-grown bananas and converts them into what effectively comes across as plant-based ice cream. Kitoko Maui tries to answer the question: “What if your favorite restaurant were a food truck?” with up-scale bento box offerings by former Four Seasons chefs.
And if all of this amounts to the heart of the gastronome scene in Hawaiʻi, then surely the high-quality and unique, locally-grown and raised ingredients is the blood—without which the heart would have nothing to pump. Local farms are investing in the future, like MAʻO Organic Farms, training and mentoring youth who co-manage the farm. Waiʻanae Gold mills 100% keawe bean pod flour, utilizing an invasive tree species to regain community health. Forage Hawaiʻi sources only ethically treated animals from local farmers and ranchers dedicated to regenerative agriculture practices. Local ʻIa is a community supported fishery who supports fishermen who live and work in the communities where they fish.