AU ABROAD

Tripp's Travels: Introducing the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival

This is the first in a series of articles sharing my favourite travel destinations featuring music, food, exotic drinks, great accommodation and wondrous attractions from around the world. I’ve spent 40 years in the music industry of the US and Australia and ten of those was managing production of major music festivals in America as well as babysitting rock, jazz, blues and R&B artists globally as their tour manager.

Over 33 years I’ve gladly spent in Australia which includes four years of semi-retirement in Coffs Harbour on the NSW North Coast, I’ve been fortunate enough to combine travel writing for major newspapers and magazines with representing South by Southwest Festivals and Conferences in Austin Texas over 12 years. These two avocations give me the ability to travel for long periods of time and get paid for it.

But the place I’ve been to most in the world is Hawaii with over 60 trips logged there since the early 70s when I stage managed the Kool Pacific Jazz Festival over three days in the Waikiki Shell. It was in Honolulu in an outdoor amphitheatre with gorgeous grounds and three stages featuring Muddy Waters, Herbie Hanccok, Al Jarreau, Dizzy Gillespie, Ramsey Lewis and a number of Hawaiian stars who I was totally unfamiliar with. Being immersed in their music was a baptism of tropical sounds including my first encounter with Slack Key Guitar that is another volume in its own.

Fast forward many trips to all the Islands of Hawaii and I didn’t really spend time in Honolulu, viewing it more like The Gold Coast, Miami Beach or Las Vegas in terms of culture and beauty and so crassly commercial. So I spent my time on the Big Island with the volcanoes, crystal clear scuba diving and lush mountains as well as the magic isle of Maui, the rugged cliffs and rainforests of Kauai and the tiny pineapple island of Lanai. I revelled in the local culture, traditional cuisine and soaked up all the music I could, bringing back hundreds of albums, more than a few hundred Aloha shirts and recipes for Hawaiian delicacies with their ingredients that could not be purchased in Australia.

But my avoidance of Honolulu and Waikiki Beach was destined to change when I discovered a new culinary movement on top of working with some Hawaiian artists. A revolution in Island cooking was happening.

I honed my chops in the 90s by following some of the original Hawaii Regional Cuisine chefs, a dozen of whom established this culinary movement that inventively blends Hawaii’s diverse ethnic flavours with the cuisine of the world featuring the freshest and purest island ingredients from exotic fruits and vegetables, spices, mountain pasture grown meats and the bounty of seafood that is endemic to the Isles. An excellent article on this movement is here http://www.coffeetimes.com/may97.htm

There was Sam Choy from Kona who specialised in comfort food and evangelised the raw fish concoction of marinated Poke. Oahu’s George Mavrothalassitis (Chef Mavro for short, http://www.chefmavro.com) brought French influences. Maui’s Bev Gannon and The Big Island’s Peter Merriman were also leading lights. But the two rock star chefs were Alan Wong (http://www.alanwongs.com ) and Roy Yamaguchi (http://www.royshawaii.com ) who managed to create mini-empires of restaurants with Roy’s brand having 28 outlets at its peak.

Which leads me to my next trip when I will take in the 4th Hawaii Food & Wine Festival in Honolulu September 3-7 and the Ka’anapali Fresh Culinary Experience on the beachfront of Maui. Five years ago, Roy and Alan had a vision for bringing together the best chefs in Hawaii and promoting them along with some of the world’s top culinary stars and creating evening outdoor events with wineries and craft beer makers as well as daytime seminars and tours. And the real brilliance was to spotlight local creators of fine produce in the recipe.

It was a bold move and guaranteed to lose them money in the first year as sponsors hemmed and hawed, media were cautious in getting behind it, ticket sales were slow and other first time rigors forced them to pony up for the costs and to pave the way for a second year and beyond. To their credit, it came off seamlessly and over the past three years has earned the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival a spot as one of the world’s greatest of this kind of event. http://www.hawaiifoodandwinefestival.com

Now a fixture for the first weekend of September, it has also expanded with the previous Sunday at the end of August being the tail end event of Ka’anapali Fresh—a similar fest with evening grazing and daytime seminars or tastings. And this year, it launches its first edition in the Kohala Coast beaches region of the Big Island August 29.

My first year started with a gala opener at The Modern Hotel curated by Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto who operates a restaurant in this hipster heaven with its own artificial beach (http://www.morimotowaikiki.com/). His specialty is Japanese delights with Western ingredients and his sushi bar is heaven. Here he was hopping around as the grand host and personally serving attendees as well as posing with his army of foodie fans.

The format was about two dozen stands, each featuring a chef and their team as well as wine booths offering fine drops from US and foreign wineries. We were given a wine glass and a bamboo fork and allowed to graze around a spectacularly lit pool with an equally stunning sunset in the background of the marina.

My first stop was Chef Chai Chaowasaree (http://chefchai.com/ ) whose eponymous restaurant has kept me coming for 25 years. His was an abalone dish with lemongrass and seaweed that electrified the tastebuds for the lap around the pool to other chefs’ booths.

Next was Roy Choi of Los Angeles who is one of the founders of the food truck movement with his Korean cuisine starting Kogi BBQ Taco. His pork belly was smoky, sweet, spicy and almost erotic. I had to return later for a second try. (http://kogibbq.com).

But the best surprises were the cocktail bars scattered around the marina pool and an upper level pool’s faux beach. Local liquor distributors unveiled their magic potions and explained each as the ingredients were assembled. Highly dangerous. And the mixtures were just heavenly as well as complex.

Now this was just the first night with the second being a $1000 a person dinner at the luxe Halekulani Hotel (http://www.halekulani.com ) which I couldn’t afford to attend but which was sold out anyway. But I did get a peek in to the back kitchens as some of the world’s greatest chefs prepared their best plates.

This was because I was hanging with our own Tetsuya who was accompanying me to the Big Island after the proceedings here to fish for marlin and taste local produce from abalone to lobster to farmed kingfish and seaweed.

Instead of the grand ballroom, I opted for the Eat the Street monthly Food Truck Rally (http://eatthestreethawaii.com) that takes place the last Friday of each month in a massive one block vacant parking lot circled by vendors with a thumping music soundtrack from the sound truck.

My two faves were the Soul Patrol truck with an array of Southern BBQ and vegie dishes and the Filipina comfort food station with equally artery clogging fare. Then up for air with an exotic OnoPop palate refresher.

During the day, the food media were bussed to a variety of tiny local-style restaurants en masse after opening the morning just past dawn at the KCC Farmers Market (http://hfbf.org/markets/) in the shadow of Diamond Head.

Here’s where you will find the freshest fruit and vegetables grown locally, flowers galore, little food stalls with Styrofoam trays open to show their wares (the famous Hawaii Plate Lunch with Two Scoops of rice). I especially loved the Madre Chocolate stand which offered tastings of their bars as well as selling cacao nibs.

After winding through the swarms at the Market, the bus took off first for classic 50 year old diner The Rainbow Drive-In (http://rainbowdrivein.com/) which is a junk food paradise. Their top dish is Loco Moco (fried rice or plain topped with a burger, fried onions, a fried egg and ‘Gravy All Over’). Chili, burgers, saimin noodle soup and more plate lunches are the standard fare.

From there we toured a series of small, hole-in-the-wall takeaway joints, mini-restaurants and specialty shops. Most of them were so small they had space for only six or so people at a time to order from their hot steamer cases or cold seafood cabinets and also didn’t have or need a website. They are where the locals go and I’ve got a map with a dozen of them at http://goo.gl/maps/LEXxV.

First there was Gulick’s Delicatessen which is Japanese, not Jewish and with fast food choices shovelled into a styro container that never was more than $10. Teriyaki chicken, macaroni salad, Korean fried chicken, long rice noodles and Mahi Mahi fish were the local’s picks as the lines went out the door for 30 metres, but put through quickly.

From there to Alicia’s Market where an 85 year old woman ran the combo grocery store, deli counter, pupu (snack) bar and Poke temple. Poke is the Hawaiian national dish consisting of all marinated seafood types but the best is ahi or yellowfin tuna in soy, sesame oil, seaweed, pepper flakes, nuts and green onions. The Poke counter at Alicia’s has over 30 varieties from various fish styles, octopus and clam to crab and eel.

From there it’s a blur—manapua steamed dumplings at Helenas and Lenards with sweet potato chips and hot sauces at Kilaueas--but the next day we were able to clean up our act by going to local farms across the island where lush fields of organic greens, trees groaning with savoury fruit and rows of berries beckoned. At the Naked Cow, we watched cheese being made as well as butter and sampled our hearts out in this cholesterol-rich attraction.

Then it was back into town for another feeding frenzy with more than a dozen chefs’ dazzling arrays of dishes and more wine, more beer, more cocktails. It seemed to be never ending. The hosting hotel was the Hilton Hawaiian Village with the Grand Lawn holding several hundred revellers—some VIPs at tables, most though just grazers roaming among the stands.

Next morning, up early for Girls Got Game brunch at the Hyatt Regency pool and balcony overlooking Waikiki which paired the greatest female chefs with local food producers for a staggering and inventive series of plates, but light on the cocktails and wine. Thankfully.

That Sunday evening though was the finale, about 50 kilometers from Honolulu on the grounds of the Aolani Resort where Disney meets the South Pacific.

This time right on the sand with tables and chairs immersed in the beach, band playing as the sun sets and another 20 or so chefs show off with cascades of fine wine, pools of craft beers and of course the ubiquitous cocktails.

Five major dinners, incredible seminars including my favourite on the history of Tiki cocktails such as the Mai Tai, culinary tourism at its best with visits to the food producers and their rich tradition of organic foodstuffs. After three of these Festivals, I’m ready to be the Public Stomach again for you with a blog starting up in mid August on the way to the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival v4.0 http://www.hawaiifoodandwinefestival.com

Stay Tuned to AU Abroad for more of Tripp's Travels.