Hawai‘i’s culinary moment with Pacific Rim Cuisine may have peaked, and it’s fair to ask what impact it leaves for everyday diners. Traditional local foods like chop steak and stew have made way for chicken katsu and poke bowls, but are we actually eating any better? And who is doing the cooking? HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports.
Talking with Frank Gonzales and Chef Grant Sato was so informative, it really made me feel my position in the local food chain. You'll find inspiration to cook and to eat better in this extended version.
“Chefs the industry, we’re very aware of where people’s comfort foods and taste buds are at.”
And it’s a bit of a frustration, actually, for those in the culinary business like Frank Gonzales, Culinary Arts Continuing Ed Coordinator at KCC. He helped organize last week’s workshops for DOE high school culinary teachers like Kat Dichner from Kalāheo High.
“The students like to cook what they like to eat. Salsa, pasta, pizza, last year they were really excited about Eggs Benedict, and that was great because they could make it for Mom—and mac and cheese.”
Hollandaise is nice to have in your repertoire but the others do not a proper diet make. That’s a problem, Gonzales says, with everyone in the family working and unhealthy food options everywhere.
“Basically over the last couple of generations, I think, a lot of the basic cooking skills and knowledge have just dropped.”
That’s why cooking now has to be studied, and Hawai‘i chefs and farmers are hoping what you eat will also change. The whole past week, public school teachers were learning to cook with minimal salt, fats and sugar.
“Probably not,” said Melinda Korinaga. She and Tracy Hatanaka are from Farrington’s culinary program.
Iasked how they would even introduce food options like the appetizer they were making: zucchini fritters with a dollop of ceviche on top. They also learned how to bake a fish en papillote, how to make an Asian salsa, a fresh salad dressing, lavosh, and much more.
“With our students especially, it’s so much easier to spend your money at McDonald’s, right? It’s going to be a major culture change. That’s why i was thinking, if we just start with this, with them not even knowing it’s healthy, maybe…” But it’s not just the kids.
“When Pacific Hawai’i Regional Cuisine hit its peak, still 80% of our restaurant patrons were looking for volume and low price versus high quality items.” That could kill your fight as a creative chef, but Chef Grant Sato sees a little hope on the horizon—it lies in Hawai‘i’s ability to grow amazing produce. Sato maintains high quality produce means less salt, sugar and additives needed to get flavor.
“And the only way to stay ahead of the game or to be one step ahead of all the other chefs, is to be the first one to find a product or to use that product.”
That’s why chefs work so closely with farmers now, who bravely seek new flavors and textures. Sato’s point is that everyday cooks can help those unique items get established here, with progressively lower prices—if they’ll just try buying them. He’s slicing a piece from a tiny pineapple, a sugar loaf, bred by Frankie at Frankie’s nursery in Waimānalo for sweetness..
“You can’t tell me that is just an average pineapple. Once you try the product and you see the difference you can understand, ok.” That little pineapple would cost $18 if you could even find it to buy. But it was flavorful, sweet, and Sato says you’d be guaranteed that quality every time.
“But $5 for two tomatoes is hard,” I whine. “Maybe we could all eat less, to be able to afford the good stuff?”
Chef Grant is tough, but he’s probably right: “We have to find a way to get people to try, to experiment, and to also learn that a proper meal is not what they think it is.”
Chef Grant says, rationally, human nutrition does not require the quantities we consume. He also insists taking a cooking class is the best way to start the journey toward controlling your own food. In about ten minutes of a class I sat in on, he dropped a handful of great kitchen tips like how to get all the juice from a lemon and that cilantro stems are way more flavorful than the pretty leaves.
Hawai‘i grows the highest quality produce why don’t we eat it? Try it! And there’ll be more! Chef Grant says the best place to shop is farmers’ markets or in the local produce section of your usual store. It turns out encouraging local, diversified agriculture goes hand in hand with eating cheaper, healthier food.