Friday, 3 Jul 2020

Islands culinary scene infused with fresh talent

The monarchs of Hawaii’s regional cuisine movement have reigned over the Aloha State’s food scene for decades, but a talented new crop of chefs on the Islands is introducing new concepts and ideas and picking up plaudits along the way.

Hawaii’s food scene has always been shaped by its diverse immigrant history — including large Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Filipino communities born during the sugar and pineapple plantation booms of the mid-1800s — and its fusion with Hawaiian culinary traditions and products. 

The 1990s brought a renaissance in fine dining, with Peter Merriman, Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi, George Mavrothalassitis and others fusing the Islands’ diverse culinary influences with a focus on local ingredients and cooking traditions into a Hawaiian regional cuisine that drew recognition.

Soon it seemed like macadamia nut-encrusted mahi-mahi was on every menu. It coincided with the growth of the slow food movement’s focus on sustainable and local sourcing, and the trend perfectly fit Hawaii’s own push for agricultural diversity.

While the old guard of Hawaiian regional cuisine is still prominent today, with several of them helming multiple restaurants, a fresh selection of toque-wearing talent, although not necessarily all young, are pushing the state’s cuisine forward with new ideas, techniques and fusions. Four of the chefs were recently recognized as the only 2020 semifinalists from Hawaii for the James Beard Best Chef Northwest award, which includes Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington state.

• The kitchen at Senia, opened in Honolulu’s Chinatown in 2016, is led by chefs Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush, who met while working together in New York at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. Kajioka is a Honolulu local while Rush is British, and they collaborate on a modern regional American menu that highlights Hawaiian flavors in creative ways, such as Maui venison tartare with pistachio and mulled wine. Diners can choose from an a la carte menu or, for an up-close look at the dicing and sauteing, the Chef’s Counter, where six to 12 people are hosted for a multicourse tasting menu.

• Chef Keiji Nakazawa left his native Japan in 2017 after a three-decade career building a sushi empire, with numerous apprentices launching their own Michelin-starred restaurants. Today he serves a $300, 30-course omakase meal at Sushi Sho in the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach that is inspired from beginning to end. Nakazawa is renowned for his mastery of the prerefrigeration-era Edomae sushi style, experimenting with fermentation and aging for new flavor and texture combinations. But it is his attention to detail — adapting his plates, pace and even sake recommendation to each guest — that sets the experience apart.

• Two-time “Top Chef” contestant Sheldon Simeon has spent most of his life in Hawaii. He was born in Hilo, graduated from Maui Culinary Academy and started as a dishwasher at Aloha Mixed Plate in Lahaina before working his way up to executive chef at Aloha’s sister restaurant, Star Noodle. Simeon opened Lineage at the end of 2018, and the Wailea restaurant earned instant accolades for a menu pulling inspiration from his Filipino heritage, including two different whole-fish preparations and a Niihau lamb with chow fun and sous vide egg. Diners are immediately greeted by a dim sum-style cart including pickled and fermented items that reflect Hawaii’s melting pot.

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