While thoughts of tropical dining might stir imagery of orchid-garnished plates with a side of pineapple and proteins bathing in a sugar-sweet tropical fruit glaze, the island of Oahu is an untapped culinary mecca from poke to plate lunch, with a healthy dose of sashimi, ramen, udon, and, of course, fried SPAM sprinkled in. Over the past few years the island has whet its appetite for locally-grown foodstuffs, and new farmers markets and community-wide food events have sprouted as a result. So, with this increased focus on celebrating all edibles local, it comes as no surprise that Hawaii as a state has finally kicked off its first celebration of food and wine, the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival.
The festival's freshman effort was co-hosted by the fathers of Hawaiian cuisine, Chef Roy Yamaguchi, known for his seafood-centric Hawaiian fusion cuisine served at his namesake Roy's restaurants (31 spread throughout the world!), in addition to chef Alan Wong, another visionary in the realm of Hawaiian edibles, the owner of Alan Wong's and The Pineapple Room, both in Honolulu.
Festivities kicked off Thursday night with a mini tasting event titled Streets of Asia: Morimoto and Friends held at The Modern in Honolulu, followed by the more high profile 1st Annual Halekulani Master Chefs Gala Dinner Series where diners payed $1,000 for a formal seated dinner cooked by Vikram Garg (Halekulani, Hawaii), Hubert Keller (Fleur de Lys, San Francisco), Robin Lee (Nobu Waikiki), Yoshihino Murata (Kikunoi, Japan), Nancy Silverton (Mozza, Los Angeles), Alex Stratta (Stratta, Las Vegas), and Tetsuya Wakuda (Tetsuya's, Australia).
However, the weekend's main event fell to the grand tasting on Saturday night dubbed From Mauka to Makai which was set across a grassy expanse at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki Beach. There, 15 notable chefs from around the country set up shop to finger blast through blocks of ahi, break apart hearts of palm, and spoon pearls of tapioca onto 15 plates of tropical indulgence. Participating players included John Besh (Besh Restaurant Group, New Orleans), Michael Cimarusti (Providence, Los Angeles), Celestino Drago (Drago Restaurant Group, Los Angeles), Dean Fearing (Fearing's, Dallas), Michael Ginor (Lola, New York), Ed Kenney (Town, Hawaii), George Mavrothalassitis (Chef Mavro, Hawaii), Peter Merriman (Merriman's, Hawaii), Rick Moonen (rm seafood, Las Vegas), Michael Nischan (Dressing Room, Connecticut), Philippe Padovani (Padovani's Grill, Hawaii), Jeffrey Vigilla (Hilton Hawaiian Village), Marcel Vigneron (Los Angeles), Alan Wong (Alan Wong's, Hawaii), and Roy Yamaguchi (Roy's).
Prior to opening, at least 50 or so eager diners crowded around the festival grounds, and once the main gate finally opened, chef stations quickly packed lines. The tables drawing the longest queues appeared to be chef Roy Yamaguchi with his take one "Spaghetti and Meatball;" chef John Besh with his slow-cooked Molokai Shrimp and Andoiille over Baked Jalapeno Cheese Grits; chef Michael Cimarusti and his Kona Kampachi over Pearl Tapioca, Tomato, Shiso, and Smoked Sesame; BUT the longest line of the night, running at least 40 or so guests deep, was chef without a restaurant, Marcel Vigneron, who served Big Island Moi & Pork Belly Pineapple Poi, Sea Asparagus, Hon Shimeji, and Micro Shiso.
However, for a festival with only 15 participating chefs, more than enough food was available (you know how sometimes these tasting events run out of food within an hour? that did NOT happen here) for the full three hours of service, lines weren't too crazy (except for the aforemetioned) and moved rather quickly. Copious amounts of wine, beer, and even tropical cocktails were on offer as well.
Meanwhile, up front by the event's entrance, a little bit of drama unfolded. Apparently, someone snagged a bunch of 21+ wristbands (basically just a wristband that indicated you were 21+) and started to sell them for $20 a pop, telling people that the bands granted festival access. Supposedly a few people fell for the trap, and eventually the illegal wrist band seller was detained.
For an inaugural launch, the first annual Hawaii Food & Wine Festival was expertly organized, and attracted an impressive array of chefs who were eager to play with Hawaii's local bounty from both the sea and land. In short, a recipe for success.