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.