Listening to Chef Alan Wong talk about his memories of growing up the son of a single mom and remembering his days working on the pineapple plantation, you get lost in the fact that you are speaking with one of the most highly decorated chefs and one of the strongest advocates for local and sustainable culinary practices in Hawai‘i. Born in Tokyo and brought to Hawai‘i at age five, his mom moved his sister and him to Hawai‘i so her children could receive an American education and a chance at the “American dream.” Little could she have known that her son would one day apprentice at the illustrious Greenbrier Hotel, become a James Beard award-winning chef, be the guy who cooked a lū‘au at the White House, and play a major role in the Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine movement that ultimately changed the way Hawai‘i eats.
What are some of your early memories surrounding food and cooking?
I was raised on my mom’s cooking. A lot of times we had babysitters when we were small, and she had to go to work, but I remember her making meals for us before she left for work. When I went away to the mainland to work and would come home to visit, my mom would always make my favorite foods. They were simple family dishes like gyoza (pan-fried dumplings), chawanmushi (steamed egg custard), kinpira gobo (stir-fried and simmered burdock root) or okara (seasoned tofu pulp).
What are some fond memories from your days working on the pineapple plantation?
I was about 15 or 16 years old when I started working on the pineapple plantation. It was really hard work, but it was cool because we would all bring our lunches in kau kau tins where the bottom compartment was filled with rice and the top part had okazu (a Japanese dish that accompanies rice). You tended to share with everyone else so you would have a variety of things for lunch. You would have people who were Portuguese, Filipino, Japanese, or Chinese and you would share your cultures by sharing food.
“It is the idea that the more you see, and experience something new, even if it’s a culture, a city, or new ingredients, you cannot help but change.”
- ALAN WONG
With decades of experience and acclaim for creating dishes that reinvent classics, please share a little about your philosophy toward food and cooking.
I think each year you get older, you change a little bit. I think the more you cook, you change a little bit. I think the more you travel around the world, you change a little bit. It is the idea that the more you see, and experience something new, even if it’s a culture, a city, or new ingredients, you cannot help but change. An example was when we were opening a restaurant in Shanghai. We had some workers who came from very challenging backgrounds. When you see that, be with them, it influences your perspective. Eventually, it impacts my perspective on cooking too.
Why is choosing local ingredients important for you?
We import over 85% of our food to Hawai‘i. You might wonder, how do we dial that back even one setting? The answer is you buy from the farmers, from the fishermen, from the ranchers. At one point, we couldn’t buy ōpakapaka, onaga, and the other bottom-feeding fish because their numbers were dwindling and fishermen were catching smaller-sized fish. They said there was a ban for three months to give the fish a chance to multiply and grow. Well, three months grew to six months, and we kept buying tilapia, farm-raised Kona kanpachi, and farm-raised moi as alternatives because the irresponsible thing would be to keep fishing a species until they are extinct. The biggest reason to make responsible decisions is so our grandchildren’s children can enjoy what we enjoy today. We want to make Hawai‘i a better place instead of destroying it.
As one of the most highly decorated chefs, what has each award meant to you?
You know, each time I received an award, I would always recognize the staff. The awards were a way to validate the time and training we had spent with them and a way to validate the things they did daily. The awards would not have been possible without their work.
What is the origin of the Cuisines of the Sun event?
In 1989, I went from teaching culinary school on O‘ahu to the Mauna Lani Bay where I got the job as the CanoeHouse chef. The second year I was there, they created an event called “Cuisines of the Sun.” The first event was only four chefs, and I was one of them. They invited three other chefs from the mainland and four winemakers. The idea behind the event was largely created by Janice Wald Henderson and was to take all the warm, sunny climates around the world and have a four-day festival celebrating their food and beverages. You discover the commonalities and differences between the cuisines, and what kind of beverages they like in all these climates. It went a good 10 years, and I was fortunate enough to take part for all 10 years.
With the closure of your last restaurant in 2020, what are some things you are looking forward to in the future?
First, I hope everything related to the pandemic eases down. I hope some of the restrictions get better for businesses and tourists to come back—there are pros and cons to tourism, but it is the fuel that feeds our economy. As these visitors come, you will see more restaurants pop up, restaurants thrive, get busier...and maybe one of them will even be mine! In the meantime, I am consulting and want to help people by sharing what I have learned over the years.
Since the inception of the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival, Chef Alan has been one of the chefs contributing their time to benefit agricultural and culinary organizations in the state. What organically began as a five-course dinner held at Chef Roy Yamaguchi’s restaurant in Hawai‘i Kai has evolved to become the premier epicurean destination of the Pacific spanning three weekends to honor the food, beverage, and ingredients of Hawai‘i.
This year, Chef Alan welcomes a lineup of veteran chefs to his Cuisines of the Sun event held at the CanoeHouse at Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection. Returning to CanoeHouse is special for Chef Alan because it was here, in 1989, where he made many of his first connections with local farmers, fishermen, and ranchers. The event was special for Hawai‘i’s culinary landscape from the get-go. Chef Alan recalls the attention the event garnered as food writers began to see Hawai‘i in a new light—they were not only talking about the weather or the people, but about the food they ate and the farmers they met. Mainland chefs participating in the event discovered a love for local ingredients and would incorporate them into their menus upon returning home. These mainland chefs also invited local chefs to be part of their events, which generated synergy and culinary exchange drawing acclaim for the culinary landscape in Hawai’i.
Experience the Cuisines of the Sun on Saturday, October 29, 2022 at CanoeHouse at the Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection from 6pm to 9pm. To make the already special evening more memorable, upgrade your ticket to VIP to meet and mingle with the Culinary Heroes at a pre-dinner cocktail reception as well as VIP reserved seating. General admission is $350; VIP is $600. Visit hawaiifoodandwinefestival.com to purchase tickets or for more information.