“Let’s start with a lesson, because you’ve never been to Hawaii,” the softly-spoken chef Alan Wong intones. And so begins a lyrical tale of the history of the tropical island state, a saga of Biblical proportions.
“Imagine no one was there, and very little was there,” Wong narrates. “The first migration was the Polynesians that came by canoe and discovered Hawaii. Then the next migration – I call it the tall ships. Besides Western explorers, missionaries and Portuguese whalers came as well.
“Along with the tall ships came disease, the rats, the mosquitoes. So of the original Hawaiians, two-thirds of them died – they just didn’t have the immune system. And when your workforce dies, you have to go and look for help. The first place they looked was China – they hired Chinese men to work for three years. After that, some of these Chinese men stayed and became merchants. And some got married.”
Suddenly, the story takes a turn for the mundane. “Imagine this Chinese man marries a Hawaiian girl. The Hawaiian girl only knows how to cook Hawaiian food, but the Chinese man doesn’t like Hawaiian food, so the man tries to teach the girl to cook Chinese food. Then you have to give and take a little bit – so maybe you end up with Hawaiian food with Chinese flair or Chinese food with Hawaiian ingredients.”
So it was a couple’s tiff, Wong thinks, that led to the birth of the eclectic cuisine of Hawaii. And this food has become Wong’s life’s work – he’s one of a group of 12 chefs who in 1991 coined the term Hawaii Regional Cuisine, defining the area’s unique culinary culture for the first time.
“The phrase Hawaii Regional Cuisine on purpose says Hawaii, not Hawaiian,” Wong explains. “Hawaiian refers to an ethnic race, like if you were to call some Tahitian, Fijian, Samoan – and they have their own food. So it would be a mistake to think that Hawaiian food is Hawaii’s food. Hawaii’s food is the food of Hawaii today, which is very culturally diverse. At a backyard barbecue it’s possible to see on one table something Japanese, something Korean, something Filipino, something Hawaiian.”
Wong serves up Hawaii Regional Cuisine in two restaurants in the state capital (Alan Wong’s Honolulu and The Pineapple Room), and at the tail end of 2015 opened Alan Wong’s Shanghai and announced the opening of a restaurant in Macau’s new Studio City casino complex. His outposts in Asia are sure to attract some high-profile diners, especially since Wong’s restaurants in Hawaii are famous for having very powerful patrons.
“Obama used to come to the restaurant when he was a senator,” Wong recalls. “In fact, people used to say about him, ‘That’s going to be the next president of the United States.’ He now takes a vacation in Hawaii every Christmas. He always comes to the restaurant at least one time during his vacation. He has a special table.”
But, not content with his annual visit to Alan Wong’s Honolulu, Obama once flew the chef and his team to the White House for a particularly special occasion. “In Hawaii, when you have a child it’s traditional to celebrate their first birthday. So after his first year in office, instead of having a congressional picnic, Obama had us go up to the White House and create a congressional luau. So we cooked dinner on the south lawn for about 2,300 people; all of Congress and their families were there. From the lawn, you look out to the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. It was the experience of a lifetime.”