A decade after leaving the Big Island, culinary hero Alan Wong is back to see how things have (and haven't) evolved.
I'm driving up Queen Kaahumanu highway on Hawaii's Big Island with Alan Wong, one of the state'sand many say America'smost innovative chefs. We're here because Wong has just returned from Oahu to open a restaurant on the island where he first made his name. Much has changed in the years he's been gone. This Kohala Coast, the sunny, western side of the island, is fast becoming the most desirable luxury destination in the United States, and the food...well, we'll come to that. But for now, as we pass mile upon mile of bare black lava rock, Wong says it seems as if nothing has changed at all. This stretch of road looks like it must have the day it spilled out of Mauna Loa volcanowhich is five minutes ago, geophysically speaking. Yet a mile or two down various drives off the highway are glamorous resort oases and restaurants. Many of them probably wouldn't exist if it weren't for Alan Wong.
It was a decade ago that the chef left one of these restaurants, CanoeHouse at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, to move to Honolulu, where he opened Alan Wong's Restaurant, followed by the Pineapple Room, both to great acclaim. This year is also the 10th anniversary of the book that changed his life by altering forever the rest of the world's perceptions of Hawaiian foodJanice Wald Henderson's The New Cuisine of Hawaii: Recipes from the Twelve Celebrated Chefs of Hawaii Regional Cuisine. "In the 1980s, it was all canned pineapple and Spam," laughs Wong, casting his mind back. "The joke was, 'The best food you'll get in Hawaii is on the plane.'" In 1991, Wong teamed up with 11 fellow chefs to change that once and for alla collaboration that resulted in the publication of Henderson's book in 1994. The dozen chefs, including Roy Yamaguchi, Sam Choy and Peter Merriman, were beginning to work directly with local farmers, who were starting to produce astonishingly high-quality ingredients of all kindssweet corn, vine-ripened tomatoes, exotic lettuces like Lollo Rossa, livestock like lamb and beefthat greatly expanded Hawaii's agricultural repertoire. Furthermore, the chefs were experimenting with fusion cuisine that grew naturally out of this Polynesian land in the middle of the Pacific between America and Asia. Wong, for example, was creating hybrids like wok-fried tempura ahi with mustard-butter sauce and tomato-ginger relish, and lamb with macadamia-coconut crust, Cabernet Sauvignon jus and coconut-ginger creamtwo recipes that appeared in Henderson's cookbook. The chefs founded the Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC) movement to spread the word about both of those revolutionary aspects of the local food scene. It worked. Wong didn't notice the change until, one day, "I had an awakening on the loading dock at CanoeHouse. The lettuce guy drove up in a new Mercedes, and I looked at him and went, 'Life is good, huh? I guess we're buying a lot.'"
The purpose of our whistle-stop tour of the Big Island today is to revisit old Wong haunts and friends, find new ones and discover what the past decade's done to Hawaiian food and lifestyle (Hawaii is the name of this island as well as of the entire state). For the trip, 48-year-old Wong wears a pineapple-print shirt, accessorized by a cell phone. He's remarkably laid-back for a chef who has to oversee four restaurants: the two in Honolulu, one in Tokyo's Disneyland, plus the new one that brings him here today, the Hualalai Grille by Alan Wong, which he launched last December at the Hualalai Resort. Wong's cooking itself has evolved since the early days of HRC, and the Hualalai Grille's menu proves it: The chef has moved away from the fruit-based sauces he frequently used in the earliest HRC days, his palate having tilted toward more savory preparations. And he's taking advantage of some of the latest ingredients from Hawaii's farmers, incorporating, for example, local hearts of palm into a vibrant, chilled tomato-and-shrimp soup.
The southernmost and newest of the Kohala Coast resorts, the luxurious Hualalai Resort opened in 1996along with its affiliated next-door hotel, the Four Seasons Resort Hualalaiand quickly became one of America's most sought-after vacation spots. The property includes a spa, world-class tennis and golf facilities and lush, quintessentially Hawaiian landscaping, now firmly rooted in the black rock. The resort is a good fit for Wong, who, while not the most visible of HRC chefs (that would be Roy Yamaguchi, who now has 31 restaurants, or Sam Choy, who has eight), is one of the most influential. But that wasn't why he chose this yearand this methodfor his return.
"What drew me back to the Big Island was that the Hualalai said, 'We want you to mentor chefs.' I always wanted to teach," explains Wong. He has experience, having coached softball at the University of Hawaii at Manoa before he became a chef. It was not his shining hour. "We never won. They called the team Wong Way," he laughs.
When he saw that his future was not on the diamond, young Alan Wong took a post in the kitchen at the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel, washing dishes. After five years, when he'd labored his way up to restaurant manager, he enrolled at Kapiolani Community College to study Food Service Management. Cooking was not in the plan. "I couldn't boil a hot dog. I thought bread came out of a package." There were certain vegetables he refused to eat, and he had barely outgrown his grade school habit of hiding creamed spinach in his shorts pocket. "Every day at 3:30 p.m. I'd hear a scream: Mom at the washing machine. She still doesn't believe I'm in this business!" Then, in college, everything changed for Wong with a class called Cold Food Pantry/Baking. "I'm baking bread and cakes and making dressingand I'm freaking out. It was incredible, and I never turned back."
At the beginning of his career, Wong spent three years at André Soltner's Lutèce in New York City, which, in the early 1980s, was the last word in gastronomic glamour. He watched Soltner buy foraged mushrooms and other local ingredients from people who came to the restaurant's back door. It planted the seeds of an idea. "I wanted a restaurant like thiskeep it small, quality, respect for ingredients." Wong had an epiphany when Soltner confided in his young chef de partie how much he missed his native France. "He said, 'Think about it. You can be here for years, but when you go back home, you'll start all over again.' I thought about it. I went back to Hawaii."
Wong cooked in Waikiki, then Kauai, then taught cooking at his alma mater before getting his break in 1989 at the CanoeHouse, where "chef Piet Wigmans and general manager Charles Park gave me all the support I needed. I did specials, menu, the whole thing." This is when he began to forge relationships with the Big Island farmers and fisheries, encouraging them to grow or rear the products he dreamed of using. Being a true island boy, Wong didn't want to make some faux-French mishmash; he wanted to bring the classical techniques he'd learned to bear on local dishes, like Kalua pig (pig stuffed with hot rocks and buried in an imu, or underground oven), poke (raw fish mixed with seaweed, salt, chile peppers and roasted kukui nuts) and even the dread (by the rest of us) poi (steamed, mashed taro). And this is exactly what he did, with wit, balance and a sense of fun: He'd wrap Kalua duck in a taro pancake and top it with a poi vinaigrette, and he'd cook all kinds of things in the imu: lamb, beef, even turkey. Those ideas were the precursors of the experimental dishes he started creating when, two years after landing at CanoeHouse, he helped kick off HRC.
Appropriately, we start our tour with one of the first local purveyors Wong ever patronized, and still patronizes: Kona Cold Lobsters, now a favorite of Big Island chefs. Though he goes through 250 to 500 of these lobsters a weekusing them in dishes like butter-poached lobster tail with Thai curry lobster sauceWong hasn't seen his friend Joe Wilson, one of the owners, for two years. A good deal of ribbing and some hugging ensues before Wilson plunges a hand into a tennis court-size tank, wields a twitching crustacean the color of lava rock and challenges Wong to sex it by sight. Wong shrugs. "It's a new one on me." So we learn about the reproductive habits of this prehistoric creature and how the male has two penises. ("Twice the bang for your buck!" quips Wong.) We stay for a while, watching the lobsters as they happily skulk in their tanks, filled with ocean water pumped from 2,300 feet.
Kona Cold Lobsters opened in 1986 and is part of a facility called NELHA (Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority), which houses about 30 cutting-edge experiments in marine farming. Wong is also eager to visit another NELHA operation, Kona Blue Water Farms, and see the hamachi he's heard about. Sure enough, here's a cooler full of sparkling, freshly harvested specimens. Actually, they're not hamachi, they're Kona Kampachi, which Wong finds even more exciting. As he explains, reef fish, like the wilder siblings of these farm-raised Kampachi, are normally risky to eat, because of ciguatera poisoning. Kona Blue Water Farms' Kampachi, he says, is good news for chefs. In fact, NELHA is all good news for chefsand for tourists too. The lab, which has two visitors' centers, has just started offering more tours to the public.
A 20-minute drive from the lab is a more sybaritic destination: Kona Village Resort. Though this whimsical, paradisiacal enclave of billionaires' thatched cottages is Kohala Coast's second-oldest resort (it opened in 1965 after Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, which launched that same year), Wong has never been hereamazing considering its neighbors are the Hualalai Resort and the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.The Four Seasons' guests sometimes stroll along the beach to enjoy Kona Village Resort's luau, considered the best on the coast (reservations are a must). But the reason we're here is to visit mixologist Sid Kono at the Shipwreck Bara handy stop for Wong if he ever gets time for a cocktail. The bar is aptly namedpart of it is housed in the resort founder's wooden boat, which was dragged up the beachand Kono is proud of it. He must be: He's been here 32 years, having inherited the post from his father, Robert Kono. For Wong, he concocts a frozen coffee-Kahlúa drink, a cocktail and dessert in one. We sit in the sun and sip. The world slows way down for at least five minutes before we hit the road again.
The Big Island is big. Big enough to harbor 11 of the world's 13 climatic zones, plus five volcanoes, two of them active. Many locals live and work in separate climates, as did Wong. "I miss the commute. I got so much thinking done," he reminisces, as we drive across the island and climb toward the town of Waimea, 2,500 feet up on the slopes of Mauna Kea in lush cowboy, or paniolo, country. Driving past the green- and blue-painted houses set in emerald-green fields, Wong, who used to live in Waimea, gets misty. So does the air, as we cross the imaginary line onto the "wet side" and a bank of white clouds slides toward us and eats the car.
The first drops are light, but soon the rain is a monsoon, visibility is zero and we're late for the goats. We head up into the hills above the Hamakua Coast, through tunnels of vegetation looking one minute like rain forest, the next like Ireland, and pull into Hawaii Island Goat Dairy. Dick and Heather Threlfall opened for business almost four years ago as the Big Island's only goat cheese makers and already they've won an American Cheese Society award. Wong loves the stuff: "It's not real goaty, and the texture's just right. I can cook with it, make salad dressing out of it, use it in spring rolls." Though their farm isn't usually open for tours, the Threlfalls are delighted to meet Wong and, like every single person today, they tell him how much they love the Hualalai Grille. They let us pet a few goats and sample deliciously sweet, tangy cheese.
As we drive west again, past Waimea, the rain tails off and the vacation-blue sky reappears ahead. By the time we turn into the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel for a final cocktail, the sun is out again, preparing for its nightly show, the Kohala Coast sunset. Founded by Laurance S. Rockefeller and designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is 39 years old but looks better than most of the newer resorts.
Its soaring ceilings, rough stone walls and museum-quality collection of Asian and Pacific art and antiques have a retro-style glamour, James Bond circa Dr. No. A slack-key guitar player completes the impression of old Hawaii in jet-set mode, a fitting close to a day combining old and new. But there's one more thing to do before we go: Mauna Kea's general manager and chef want us to join them for a drink. Then I realize the pair in question are Charles Park and Piet Wigmans, who gave Wong his first showcase 15 years ago. Did you plan that? I ask Wong. "No," he says, his face lighting up. "But what a great surprise."