Eating Around: Integrity and Consistency Matter

Jul 8, 2019

Eating Around -- we all do it! It’s time to take stock of what we’re eating and how we can leverage that to work for us, economically and culturally. In this episode, we see what made Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine important, and a chef/educator throws down the gauntlet to the new generation.

Chef Alan Wong is not endorsing anything in this picture. He had a bag of dried marungay leaves on his desk, and noted that the nutritional content in this leaf, used primarily in Filipino cooking, is very high.
Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio

Chef Alan Wong is one of the original dozen Hawai'i Regional Cuisine chefs, intent on changing Hawai‘i’s food landscape with our first calculated food movement in the Islands.  After attending KCC’s culinary academy, Wong graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, then distinguished himself at a beloved New York French restaurant, Lutece.  At Lutece, historian Sam Yamashita says, Wong was given the daunting task of preparing dinners for Chef Andre Soltner, who became his mentor.

Wong returned to Hawai‘i, and got his break in 1989 when he moved to the Canoe House at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel on Hawai‘i Island. Two years later, Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine was launched. In 1995, Wong opened his own restaurant in Honolulu on King Street, winning a James Beard Award the next year.  Chef Wong says he wants people to taste Hawai‘i’s land and history in his food.

This was called a "bouillabaise" on the menu of one fine dining establishment in Waikiki. The seafood was overcooked, the crostini a bit stale, and the sauces were unremarkable at best. At $57, or any price, not something for Hawai'i to be proud of.
Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio

“When I was growing up in the industry, you chose a place and you worked for years and you were hoping that you learned.  Today, if you want to learn to make a dish, you go on Youtube and it teaches you anything.  The problem is, when you go on Youtube, it doesn’t tell you if it tastes right or not. You deny yourself the opportunity to be mentored.”

Mastering techniques requires knowing what the result should taste like. For example, do you need to serve Duck a l’Orange today? Few do, but Wong maintains the techniques involved are important to learn.

“It’s about making a gastrique, incorporating fruit with a protein.”

Chef Wong is talking about technical skills that are the basis for cooking as an art. Not everybody has to cook like an artist, but those who do, tend to be pioneers for the rest of us  

Alan Wong is cagey, he’s smart, and he’s actively looking for What’s Next.

Want to know what was on his desk?   A bag of dried marungay leaves---calamungay, moringa--the new “superfood.”  What if Hawai‘i were famous for delicious food with augmented nutrition?

Wong is also really into Moro miso, which has half the sodium of table salt, and umami to boot.  He’s working it into dishes you would never suspect: Poke?

While I was there, Paul Matsumoto, Alan Wong's Chef du Cuisine, asked Wong to taste a proposed nairagi appetizer (photo above.) Each preparation was quite different; the crudo was citrusy, Wong called the poke a little fishy, and the carpaccio had a light mustard flavor.  ( I was videotaping Wong tasting each preparation and he turned away! You could see his brain working.) Wong recommended Matsumoto find a way to merge the first two preparations and present it as a finished whole. I found that interesting, considering the many times one gets dollops of distinct, even unrelated things on a plate these days.

In the 1990’s there was international buzz about Hawai‘i’s cuisine. People were  interested in coming to Hawai‘i to eat, and big international publications were sniffing around.  Grant Sato has won awards both as a chef and as an educator at KCC’s Culinary Institute of the Pacific. He remembers that period.

“When we had the big three on the island: Roy before he expanded, and you had Alan, and you had Mavro (Chef Georges Mavrothalassitis of Chef Mavro), they stuck to their guns and their goals and they pushed each other to greatness.”

“With the advent of social media. All the copy cat artists have lost their identity focus.  They are too afraid of what the world will say. Back in the day, it was the Wong way or the highway. You do it how Alan wants to do it or you don’t associate with him at all.” 

Grant Sato has won awards, both as a chef and as an educator, at KCC's Culinary Institute of the Pacific.
Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio

“That’s the right way, because you’re getting the soul of the chef.  There is an identity.  When you don’t have that strict rigidness in the kitchen, it’s however the employee of the day wants to do it.”  

Chef Sato asks, when was the last time you really ate something you loved?  Something so good you had to go back and have it again ASAP--he said it happened to him over Napples at Zippies

Recently I told him, Oh I found a place I love, I’ve been three times in two weeks, was  he happy for me?  Not really. He said, I hope it’s consistently great every time.

That’s a test!!!!!! 

How do you assure consistent quality? Here’s Alan Wong.    

“My simple definition of cuisine: Cuisine is when the cooks begin to taste their own food.”

Wong says he’s reduced cooking to three simple things: Salt, execution, and balance.  How do you know what that is supposed to be like? Wong makes it clear.

“You always gotta taste, you always gotta eat.  So if you’re making a pan sauce, I might say to you, before you plate that, you give me every plate, I want to taste the food.  You start getting it, then it’s every other, then it’s every third.  Eventually I take the training wheels off, Okay, good to go. I taste your stuff maybe once a night, two times a night. That’s the way I am.”

That is the answer to consistency.  Everybody has to calibrate to him. Makes sense but how many people would go to these lengths? 

I’ve heard his place called Alan Wong University for what people learn working there.  Wong attended KCC Culinary Institute when it was on Kapi‘olani Boulevard, and a lot of KCC students have passed through his kitchen.  

This arrangement was done for Chef Sato's lesson on chicken and duck galantine. The bamboo decoration and holder for the tarragon mayonnaise were all cut from one zucchini.
Credit Grant Sato

If you’re wondering what’s up with KCC’s Culinary Institute of the Pacific?  Parking, water, gas, electrical are in. The advanced pastry lab and the restaurant are still ahead.  Fundraising continues. There are currently two cooking labs in use for BA courses.

Chef Sato looks forward to more teaching labs, loading docks and classrooms.

To what end?  Sato wants Hawai‘i’s unique cuisine to be a beacon in the Pacific. He wants people to come here because they really want to taste what we’ve got.

“If you look at our industry now, even though we have good chefs out there they’re all the copy-cat artists, which means they’re trying to change their style of cuisine to what is most popular now.”

“We have to have a new vanguard who’s going to step up and basically say, “Hey, if you want to be a respected chef, step up with your game!”

Asked what that would take, Sato responds, “It takes someone who is going to stick to their idealisms. You have to be someone in the private sector, someone who has enough moolah to stand on your own and not worry about what other people think about you.  Do it, the way you want to do it and only do it that way. If you can maintain quality doing it your way, then you’re going to build followers.”

Sato maintains that if you look at the top restaurants in the world, they are not outstanding because they branched out or because they’re great innovators.

“They’re the best restaurants in the world because their integrity never changes.”

I really love applying these words to the food we eat: Integrity.  Care. Consistency.  Mom used to provide that!

And it’s not all high end---Chef Sato has his favorite L&L, Market City. He says they really care.

If you care about food in Hawai‘i, if you’re a budding chef, definitely check out the extended interview with Alan Wong posted here.  Regarding Grant Sato, we will have him back because he’s throwing down the gauntlet and calling the next vanguard of chefs to step up.