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Cuisines of the Sun returns

October 29, 2017 - 12:05am

WAIKOLOA — The Hawaiian regional cuisine movement was birthed, at least in part, on the Kohala Coast in the early 1990’s with the advent of Cuisines of the Sun — an event series that ran for more than a decade and highlighted the culinary fashions and commonalities of warm climates around the globe.

The identity of Hawaiian cuisine and its evolution were celebrated in spectacular fashion at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort and Spa Saturday evening at the Return of Cuisines of the Sun — the Big Island’s portion of the seventh annual Hawaii Food and Wine Festival and an homage to the genesis of the Hawaiian regional cuisine movement.

Chef Alan Wong, one of the four original Cuisines of the Sun participants and a co-founder of the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, explained the importance of the event series that helped springboard his career.

“The most important thing was it brought media, which got exposed to all the ingredients and product that we grow here on the Big Island and in the state of Hawaii. So it was the beginning of Hawaii gaining recognition,” Wong said.

“When you look back to Cuisines of the Sun, it was the beginning of planting the seed that there was a new cuisine happening in Hawaii,” he continued. “And the chefs coming here brought that credibility, not only to the event, but to the state of Hawaii.”

Wong also credited the event series, the first installment of which was held at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, as the predecessor to the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival itself.

Now in its seventh year, the festival continues a focus on the work Cuisines of the Sun started — bringing attention to the local product of Hawaii and transforming it as a gateway to island culture and the people it represents.

It’s a culinary mission Wong said is still vital.

“There are people in the world that still think we put pineapple on a burger, pineapple on a pizza and we call that Hawaiian food,” he said. “We don’t eat like that.”

Wong, who prepared Saturday’s first course featuring Big Island abalone, was joined by another of the first four Cuisines of the Sun chefs at the retro event.

Robert Del Grande, a James Beard Award winner and popularly dubbed the “Father of Southwestern Cuisine,” highlighted slow roasted Hawaiian Berkshire pork in the night’s fourth course.

Before whipping up a southwestern dish full of Hawaiian ingredients, the Houston-based chef reminisced Friday night at a media event on his first foray into the world of Hawaiian cuisine almost 30 years ago — back when he and Wong were both “young and skinny.”

“It was a chance where you didn’t just cook to cook good food, you cooked to become friends with people,” Del Grande said.

George Gomes, executive chef at the Sheraton Keauhou, was just ramping up his career when Wong and Del Grande highlighted the first Cuisines of the Sun.

“I was actually a part of that, I was a cook at the Mauna Lani way back, so it’s kind of cool to see it come back,” he said. “It’s about camaraderie, it’s about all the chefs getting together and highlighting the local products. An event like this is awesome to me.”

Del Grande said Hawaii was the perfect venue for the initial event series because of the culinary canvass it provided for young professionls discovering who they were as chefs at the same time as greater Hawaiian cuisine was beginning to establish its own identity.

“All great cooking is circumstantial in the end. What do you have at hand, in other words?” Del Grande explained. “I extend it to even say it’s not just the product, but it’s the climate, it’s the lifestyle, it’s this sort of the feeling.”

“Hawaii was ripe for that because you never get off the plane here and say this is like everywhere else. It’s not,” he continued. “The air smells different. This is a (unique) place.”

Wong said the work of the second generation of chefs focused on Hawaiian regional cuisine is just as important as the first.

They will be responsible to carry on the unique culinary stylings he and a handful of others worked so hard to promote, and which came full circle Saturday night on the Kohala Coast, just a few miles down the road from where they were hatched almost 30 years ago.

Bonita Lau, owner of Laulima Food Patch in Kona and a private caterer, is a member of that next generation of chefs and was featured at the precursor event to the Return of the Cuisines of the Sun Friday at Mai Grille.

“Being a chef doesn’t mean just cooking good food,” she said. “It takes so much more than that.”

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