“I want our guests to taste Hawaii,” says Alan. “How do you define that? You take fish from our waters, fruits and vegetables that were grown here, meat from our ranches. Then you look at our immigration and plantation past.”
Whole Tomato Salad, Hamakua Springs Tomato, Li Hing Mui Vinaigrette (photo courtesy Alan Wong)
Each of Alan’s creations is a tribute to the ‘aina, an edible salute to the islands he calls home. It goes beyond taste, and into the realm of a culinary journey, with every bite delving into the history, culture, and land from which the ingredients came. When he speaks about his food, Alan often brings up terroir, which he interprets simply as “tasting the land.” It’s in the sweet burst of juice from a Hamakua tomato, the crisp aliveness of a leaf of freshly picked Manoa lettuce, and the smooth aftertaste of a bite of Big Island goat cheese. When Alan and his chefs bring these flavors together in a single meal, it means experiencing Hawaii through the palate in a way that’s at once innovative yet familiar, surprising yet deeply satisfying.
Using locally grown ingredients has always been the cornerstone of Alan’s cuisine. He was fostering close ties with farmers, ranchers and fishermen long before it became trendy to do so. Giving guests a ‘taste of Hawaii’ also means raising their awareness and appreciation of where the ingredients came from. Putting diners in touch with the people who produced their food is a vital part of Alan’s approach to cuisine, and the quarterly Farmers Series Dinners at his restaurant are the perfect venue for diners to connect with food producers on a personal level and ‘talk story.’
“What sets Hawaii apart is our own personal stories and experiences,” says Alan.
When you can trace your food from your plate to the soil or waters from which it came, you develop an appreciation for the environment that gave it life and the people that brought it to the table. In this way, the meal goes far beyond filling the stomach; it can impact a diner’s mindset, lifestyle, and awareness long after the last bite.
Richard Ha of Hamakua Springs Country Farms and Chef Alan Wong during the Alan Wong's Restaurants annual Farm Trip. (photo courtesy Alan Wong)
A popular feature of these dinners is the ‘side by side’ blind tastings. The concept is simple: diners get unidentified samples of a locally produced ingredient, as well as its commercially available version, and choose which one they like the best. Whether it’s Kuahiwi ground beef or Kona Cold lobster, ninety nine percent of diners say the locally produced ingredient tastes better.
Yes, eating local often means spending more. But through these tastings Alan aims to show guests that it also means eating tastier, fresher, and safer. It means building a bond of trust between consumer and producer. It means reversing the scary statistic of Hawaii importing 80% of its food supply. It means putting your money back into the local economy, sustaining an industry that keeps our soils fertile, and our traditions in tact.
Ginger Crusted Onaga, Long-Tail Red Snapper, Organic Hamakua Mushrooms and Corn, Miso Sesame Vinaigrette (photo courtesy of Rae Huo
Alan sees local agriculture as reaching a critical point. Farmers need our support more than ever in order to create a climate that fosters the next generation of food producers. “If the sons and daughters of farmers see their parents struggling to do something that’s not financially rewarding, why would they take over?” Alan’s passion is evident when he talks about the farmers, ranchers and fishermen he showcases in his Farmers Series Dinners. He has seen them sweating through harvests and rounding up cattle. He knows how important it is to keep their businesses going, not just for them, but for us. They are the ones who will put us back in touch with the land and the sea. They will be the ones to ring the warning bells when the impact our lifestyles prove too much of a burden for Mother Nature to carry.
By being conscientious consumers, we can make a decision with every meal to keep our islands not just alive, but thriving. And if that means eating food that tastes better, what’s not to love?