Hawaii Food and Wine Festival spotlights state's flourishing culinary scene

The Hawaii Food and Wine Festival has grown from a Waikiki-only affair, to include events on three islands and 120 chefs.
The Hawaii Food and Wine Festival has grown from a Waikiki-only affair, to include events on three islands and 120 chefs. Photo Credit: Kris Labang

When the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival launched in 2011 under the leadership of co-founders Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, two of the fathers of modern Hawaiian cuisine, it was a three-day festival held in Waikiki.

Today the festival is the largest annual culinary event in the Aloha State, welcoming more than 150 chefs, winemakers, mixologists and other talent from around the world for three weekends of events on three islands with over 10,000 attendees.

The festival is put on by the nonprofit Hawaii Ag and Culinary Alliance with the mission of highlighting and promoting the Islands' products and dishes. Since its inception, the festival has given $2.4 million to community organizations that support sustainability, culinary programs and agriculture.

The roots of the festival go back to when Yamaguchi put on an annual dinner to support the Hawaii Farm Bureau, according to Denise Yamaguchi, executive director of the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival and Roy's wife.

"That's where the initial idea came from. It was started to help farmers, ranchers and fishermen, the people bringing these great products to market, and I think my husband and Alan saw the potential to do more," Yamaguchi said. "I don't know if we envisioned it getting as big as it is today, but Roy said from the beginning that he hoped we could really impact the state of Hawaii by creating this as a legacy for the community. ... He always thought it could be something really big."

The festival attracts national and international attention to Hawaii's culinary offerings by inviting a roster of local, U.S. mainland and international talent who are all tasked with highlighting the state's tropical bounty. This year's invitees include Robert Irvine, Masaharu Morimoto, Jonathan Waxman and Michael Mina.

"The key thing that differentiates the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival from all the similar events out there is that the invited talent from all over the world are asked to make dishes using locally grown, caught or raised product," Yamaguchi said.

For the first time ever this year, the festival has created an event to coincide with the Honolulu Pride Week. The Drag Appetit brunch at Blue Note Hawaii in Waikiki on Oct. 27 will feature cocktails and drag performances along with dishes crafted by a team of local and California-based chefs. 

The festival kicks off this year on Oct. 5 with its only Island of Hawaii event. The state is known for its particular mix of cultures and the food they brought with them, including a sizeable Portuguese and Spanish population. "From Portugal to Spain: An Iberian Feast" will highlight contemporary interpretations of the classic dishes like paella and roast suckling pig. The sit-down dinner paired with wines is led by a half-dozen chefs from around the United States.

"When we started thinking about doing the festival in 2010, there was a lot less interest in chefs coming to the Islands," Yamaguchi said. "There has been an explosion in talent of chefs opening restaurants here and a ton of interest in what Hawaii's food scene has to offer. I think it's had a huge impact spotlighting the culinary aspects of the Islands. Now you see poke taking off on the mainland, our local produce on menus ... they're all making their way across the ocean."

There are cocktail-focused events on both Maui and Oahu, each with 13 chefs serving up bites to go with the libations. The Valley Isle event (Oct. 19) is themed on the Wizard of Oz-inspired musical "Wicked," and the Honolulu one (Oct. 24) is playing off the recent popular movie "Crazy Rich Asians." Other events include a barbecue and brews event on Oahu at Victoria Ward Park (Oct. 23), and the festival closing Halekulani Culinary Masters Gala in Waikiki (Oct.27), where guests enjoy six courses with wine pairings prepared by a team of Michelin-starred chefs from around the world. 

"My advice is to take a hard look at the event list and decide what it is you're really coming for," Yamaguchi said. "If you're all about the food, look through the chef lineup to see who you want to see. If you are specifically interested in beer, wine or cocktails, we have events featuring all of those. You can pick."

While the festival is mainly for guests 21 and older, there are two children's events: one on Maui with Duff Goldman from the show "Ace of Cakes" (Oct. 20) and another in Honolulu at Ward Park with "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro (Oct. 27).

"We are building a sort of fake street with facades, 'Treat Street,' so kids 10 and under can safely trick or treat," Yamaguchi said. "We'll have games, fitness activities and a Hawaii-made marketplace." 

The Hawaii Food and Wine website lists several hotel, flight and other travel discounts for attendees and special bundles. For those planning ahead for the 2020 event, the 10th anniversary of the festival, the talent and schedule announcement are typically released in April or May, Yamaguchi said.

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