How Chef Alan Wong Teaches Hawaii’s History

Alan Wong is synonymous with fine dining in Hawaii.

Chef Alan Wong
Photo from Alan Wong’s

Visitors who wish to experience the flavors, the products and the culture that Hawaii has to offer, they go to one of Alan Wong’s award winning restaurants. He is no doubt Hawaii’s superstar chef as he continues to teach the world about the islands’ food culture, publish books, make appearances on TV and cook for President Barack Obama year after year at his flagship restaurant.

Known fondly as Chef Alan in the local community, he is incredibly unassuming, gracious and well-spoken, his dialogue slightly sprinkled with the laidback Pidgeon accent and grammar inherent to anyone who grew up in Hawaii. With his Japanese, Chinese and Hawaiian lineage, he embodies the exceptional ethnic diversity and multiculturalism that characterizes the state of Hawaii.

Alan Wong was born in Japan and moved to Hawaii when he was 5 years old, after which he grew up in Old Waipio near central Oahu. In 1972 he started working at the restaurant in the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel as a dishwasher. Over the 9 subsequent years he worked every position available at the hotel from bus boy to cash clerk to waiter to host and finally to restaurant manager. Once he became a restaurant manager, they told him that he must attend culinary school in order to further advance in the restaurant industry.

Ginger Crusted Onaga, Mushrooms and Corn, Miso Sesame Vinaigrette
Photo from Alan Wong’s

Thus Wong enrolled in the prestigious Culinary Arts Program at Kapiolani Community College in Honolulu, renowned for producing the some of the state’s most legendary chefs (fellow Hawaii Regional Cuisine founder, Sam Choy, is also an alumni). It was there that Wong discovered how much he enjoyed creating and eating his own food.

The honest truth is I thought salad dressings came out of a bottle. I thought bread came out of a package. And all of a sudden I’m making this stuff and I’m eating it like wow, you can actually do this. And especially since it tasted good when you make your own, I thought ‘wow this is so cool,’ you know? I just want to learn more.

From there he completed an apprenticeship at The Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia and then worked at one of the best restaurants in America at the time, Lutece, in New York City. He describes these experiences as special and memorable but he always knew that Hawaii was his home and worked hard in order to go back.

I knew Hawaii was going to be my home, I knew that’s where I wanted to settle. That’s where most of my family is. So, like my chef in New York said, ‘you can stay here. You can stay for as long as you want because you’re a resident. But if you want to go home, you kind of have to climb your way home.’ So I did.

Photo of Chef Alan Wong taken by Nadia
Photo by: Nadia Cho

On April 15, 1995, Chef Wong opened his flagship restaurant, Alan Wong’s, on King Street in Downtown Honolulu. Only a year after opening, in 1996, it was nominated for the nation’s ‘Best New Restaurant’ by the James Beard Foundation. His restaurant has been ranked within the top ten of “America’s Best 50 Restaurants” in Gourmet Magazine and has been included in “The Go List of 376 Hottest Restaurants in the World” in Food and Wine Magazine. Alan Wong’s continues to win ‘Restaurant of the Year’ for the Hale ‘Aina Awards and ‘Best Restaurant’ for the Ilima Awards in Hawaii.

In 1999 Chef Wong opened another restaurant, The Pineapple Room, located inside Macy’s department store at Ala Moana Shopping Center. The Pineapple Room, modeled and styled in the breezy and laidback island plantation style, was created in need of a more casual dining spot where guests could also have breakfast and lunch, as Alan Wong’s on King Street was only open for dinner. At The Pineapple Room, guests can enjoy favorite local dishes with a gourmet twist, such as loco moco and ‘spong’—spam meets Wong—which is Chef Alan’s personal recipe for spam.

Alan Wong is not only renowned for his award-winning restaurants but he is also famous for being one of the 12 founding members of Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC). HRC was a new movement born out of the desire of Hawaii’s chefs to let the world know that there was a new distinct type of American cuisine emerging in the Pacific.

In 1991, 12 guys got together and we formed HRC Inc. And in 1991 we had 2 primary goals. One was to help spread the word that there was a new cuisine in Hawaii now. Hawaii has always been known for its beaches, weather, the surf, the sand, the people, the sightseeing. But people’s perception of food in Hawaii was not that good. They thought that you put a pineapple slice on a hamburger, you called it a Hawaiian hamburger. You put pineapple on a pizza and you call it a Hawaiian pizza. They thought that we put mahi-mahi with macadamia nuts and that’s Hawaiian food. Or we just eat spam. So we weren’t considered a culinary destination. So that was the first goal.

The second goal which was very important I think, was to help develop an agricultural network in the state of Hawaii. So what we had to do was we had to tell everybody and the Department of Agriculture, who we bought stuff from…So when you fast forward from 1991 to 24 years later, you see the most amount of farmers markets now. And if you’re a culinarian today versus back then, you have the most amount of product to cook with. In fact these farmers are like rock stars now…

It changed the way we eat today. It not only changed the way we eat but it changed the things we grow, it changed our social consciousness. There’s more talk about sustainability, there’s more talk about environmental issues. There’s more talk about healthier food options.

The Coconut, haupia sorbet in a chocolate shell, tropical fruits and passion fruit sauce
Photo from Alan Wong’s

And it’s true. Since the inception of HRC, Hawaii’s food culture has evolved tremendously thanks to fresh, organic produce from local farms and the creativity of emerging chefs, making Hawaii an exclusive and exciting destination to eat. Out of the 12 founders, Alan Wong is no doubt the most recognized in the international gourmet community. He continues to fulfill the mission of spreading knowledge about Hawaii’s cuisine while always keeping the long history of the Hawaiian Islands in mind.

There were 3 very important migrations of people that came to Hawaii. The first people came by canoe from Polynesia. On the canoe they had things like breadfruit, they had taro, they had food. So the Hawaiians now have arrived.

The second migration of people I’m gonna call tall ships. On these tall ships were missionaries (Europeans), they tried to change the religion of Hawaii. They had traders, they had explorers and they had whalers. So the Portuguese whalers came, when the winter seas were rough they came to shore. These sailors, they brought things like bacalhau which is salt cod, the salt salmon, salt beef which is also meat. They brought the chili pepper. So they all had culinary contributions to Hawaii.

Now on one of these boats they had sugar cane, so now the plantation was born. Hawaii was born out of agriculture. First there was the pineapple. So who did they hire to work the plantations? The Hawaiians. Now also on the boat came the rat, the cockroach, the mosquito and disease…Their immune systems could not fight the disease that was coming. It’s chronicled in history that at least 66% of the native Hawaiians died, massively…

So when you’re a plantation owner and two-thirds of your workers are dying, how you gonna get help? And was the 3rd migration was born. They went to China first. Then they went to Japan. The Portuguese came. The Puerto Ricans came, Koreans, Okinawans and last the Filipinos. The Chinese men were brought here to work for $6 a month for 3 year contracts. The thing with the Chinese was they stayed here after the 3 years… So way back then during plantation time, we had this exchange of culture and food is a big part of culture…

you grow up with all of these ethnicities and we grow up eating all these things: kimchee, adobo, manapua, teriyaki meat, plate lunch, spam. And so how can that not influence you if you’ve let it influence your lifestyle?

Chef Wong is careful to distinguish between Hawaiian food and Hawaii Regional Cuisine, as Hawaiian is indicative of the culture and traditions of that specific ethnic group. He wrote a book, Alan Wong’s New Wave Luau, after carefully researching how the first Hawaiians ate and prepared food. In order to stay true to Hawaiian traditions outlined in his book, when he was asked to cook a luau for President Obama’s birthday, Chef Wong jokingly told the staff that in order to have an authentic luau they would have to dig an imu oven (a fire pit) in the ground on the White House lawn—to which they said he wasn’t allowed to do as the location is a national monument. He also comments that President Obama is an adventurous eater who’s not very picky, as he always orders the tasting menu whenever he comes to Chef Wong’s restaurant.

With a new restaurant in Shanghai in the works as well as plans for opening restaurants in other international destinations, Chef Wong has his hands full with developing, training and traveling. Some of his favorite places to travel include Japan, Southeast Asia and The Mediterranean. He invites people wherever he goes as well as everyone who visits the islands, to “Taste Hawaii.” That’s the experience he strives to create for the guests at his restaurants.

I want them to taste Hawaii. That means enjoying what is produced and raised here in Hawaii. I want them to feel like they’re in Hawaii, that the menu has a sense of place. Like when I travel I like to eat what the local people like. I like to eat what the local ingredients are, so I wanna eat what the local restaurants are serving. To me, that’s a sense of place, feeling the place. And also service and hospitality wise I hope they feel the Aloha spirit.

There’s no doubt that every guest can count on getting that experience whenever they go to a restaurant of Chef Alan Wong, one of the world’s most prominent ambassadors of Aloha.

Nadia Cho

Communications Associate

As the empowered female behind the blog: International Women of Mystery, Nadia reps Team JST traveling the world in search of exclusive features on hidden gems and cool hotspots. You can find her exploring metropolitan cities or lounging on tropical beaches.

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