2000s Archive

Real Hawaiian

Originally Published February 2000
Forget grass skirts—when Alan Wong throws a luau, he focuses on food and friends

There may be a prettier acre than Kurt and Pam Hirabara’s up-country farm on the island of Hawaii, where the damp, mounded earth and skeins of perfect lettuces glow like backlighted jade on a wet afternoon. But when the sun comes out and the mist melts away, and through a break in the clouds suddenly looms the enormous, brooding mass of Mauna Kea, the loftiest volcano in the world, it’s hard to imagine where that prettier acre might be.

Three hours before chef Alan Wong’s luau at Hirabara Farms, a party celebrating the relationship between the chef and the army of Big Island growers who supply the Honolulu restaurant that has been called the best in Hawaii, the tin roof of the Hirabaras’ long packing shed thrums with rain, and the thin, sweet voice of the late singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole slices through the moist mountain air. Wong’s kitchen manager, Jeff Nakasone, trims purply ropes of venison into medallions for the barbecue, and pastry chef Mark Okumura slaps frosting on a stack of coconut cakes as high as a small man. Lance Kosaka, who is the leader at Wong’s Honolulu kitchen, arranges marinated raw crabs in a big carved wooden bowl. Mel Arellano, one of Wong’s colleagues from culinary school and something of a luau specialist, reaches into a crate and fishes out a small, lemon-yellow guava.

“I’ve got to eat me one of them suckas,” he says, and he pops the fruit into a pants pocket.

I nibble on opihi, pricey marinated limpets harvested in Maui, and try to gather in the scene. Two of Wong’s younger sisters stir a big pot of the gingery cellophane-noodle dish called chicken long rice; Buzzy Histo, a local kumu hula—hula teacher—crops orchids, exotic lilies, and birds-of--paradise brought over from the farmers market in Hilo. A cheerful neighbor, Donna Higuchi, squeezes poi from plastic bags into a huge bowl, kneading water into the purple goo with vigorous, squishing strokes until the mass becomes fluid enough to spoon into little paper cups. She giggles as she works.

“Some people like poi sour,” she says. “I like it frrrr-rresh. Although most people would say I’m not really a poi eater. I like it best with milk and sugar—it’s really good that way.”

Her friend stops measuring water into the poi and wrinkles her nose. “Don’t listen to Donna,” she says. “You try your poi with lomilomi salmon.”

At the other end of the shed, on a stove so new that bits of packing grease still adhere to it, Steven Ariel, the chef at Wong’s new Pineapple Room, simmers young taro leaves into a thick, coconut-flavored gumbo so identified with the celebration that the ceremonial feast takes its name from the Hawaiian word for the leaf: luau. Pam Hirabara tucks dark squares of sugary taro pudding and pale squares of the coconut custard haupia into little serving boats fashioned from folded leaves. Even Wong’s mother is pitching in—she’s up to her elbows in a big mound of diced ’ahi, mixing the slippery mound of raw fish with the stringy seaweed and ground kukui nut that will transform it into a superior version of the Hawaiian dish poke, a briny, slightly gritty relish perhaps second only to sushi in the pantheon of the world’s great raw-fish preparations.

Everyone is here, in fact, but Alan Wong himself. He is still cooking at a wine tasting down on the coast, a twisting half-hour drive down the volcano’s steep slope from misty Waimea. He is not there to prevent his mother from scrawling “I Taught Alan Wong Everything He Knows” on a blank spot on the packing shed walls.

“Alan always says that his mom is a much better cook than he is,” says Pam. “But the thing is, she thinks so, too.”

Hirabara Farms has a special place in the universe of Alan Wong. Wong and Kurt Hirabara were childhood friends in Oahu, and it was Wong’s advocacy of fresh, local produce that helped former soil scientist Hirabara establish his farm a couple of years ago. Hirabara’s first farm, a few acres within sight of the occasional lava fountains of the extremely active Pu’u O’o vent, near Hilo, was a disaster: When the wind blew the wrong way, sulfuric-acid–rich “vog,” or volcanic smog, would blow over his fields, burning the crops and blistering the paint on Hirabara’s new Chevy pickup. (This is an agricultural problem that never seems to come up in Iowa.) His second farm, chiseled out of expensive residential land above Waimea, has worked out much better: The volcano that rises above it is extinct.

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