Hawaii Insider: Hawaiis celebrity chefs

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When my family and I moved to Hawaii in 1971, the quality of local cuisine did not figure large in our attraction to the Islands. I had been working in Europe for tourism guru Temple Fielding, who two years prior had made the cover of Time magazine as the arbiter of travel for peripatetic Americans.

Although Fielding had made sure that I experienced some of the best restaurants on the Continent, he utterly failed to turn me into an international gourmet.

In any case, here in the Islands we found relatively unexciting popular dishes.

Spam was a local favorite, although restaurant cooks sometimes stretched their imaginations to include sticky rice, teriyaki chicken, mahi mahi, macaroni salad and, of course, poi.

This was still true six years later, when the first edition of my own Hawaii guidebook was published.

But sometime in the late 1980s and early 90s, the restaurant picture began to improve.

A group of hotel chefs began to experiment with fresh local produce, including some products virtually unknown outside the Islands.

The combination of tropical fruits, nuts, vegetables and fish came to be known collectively as Hawaii regional cuisine, although some called it Pacific Rim, Hawaiian fusion or other names.

These chefs eventually began opening their own kitchens, each varying their approach somewhat to reflect their ethnic and cultural backgrounds, such as native Hawaiian, Japanese, Thai and Korean. Today, theyre known as Hawaiis high-profile celebrity chefs.

Many akamai -- or knowledgeable -- visitors follow these chefs to the dining rooms theyve established.

Heres my personal list of the current top 10 wearers of the white toque in the Islands:

" Sam Choy is without a doubt the most widely known and widely visible local chef. Weighing in at just under 400 pounds, the jovial Choy can be frequently found on TV as well as at his restaurants on Oahu and the Big Island. He is known especially for bringing traditional Hawaiian fare, such as poke, a raw fish salad, into wider acceptance.

" George Mavrothalassitis, the chef with a French accent and a Greek name, is known by the same moniker as his attractive stand-alone Honolulu restaurant: Chef Mavro. One memorable dish: Red snapper baked in a rosemary-and-thyme, rock-salt crust with a fresh herb and seaweed sauce. 

" Roy Yamaguchi started his first Honolulu restaurant in the far-out residential neighborhood of Hawaii Kai in 1988. Today there are 30 Roys, including six in Hawaii, several on the mainland and two in Tokyo. The New York Times called Yamaguchi the Wolfgang Puck of the Pacific.

" Although Alan Wong holds court on the fifth floor of an undistinguished Honolulu office building, he has no trouble keeping elevator hoppers eager for some of Oahus best seafood specialties.

" Russell Siu is the owner-chef of 3660 on the Rise in the Honolulu residential neighborhood of Kaimuki. Diners there find prize-winning, innovative dishes blending Asian, Hawaiian and European specialties.

" Chai Chaowasaree has two restaurants, one devoted to Thai cuisine and the other, Chais Island Bistro, specializing in Hawaii regional fare. The Bistro is downtown, next to the landmark Aloha Tower, and often features live Hawaiian entertainment.

" Over on Maui, Beverly Gannon has established her rustic Haliimaile General Store with husband Joe. Locals, along with the rich and famous, find their way there for specialties like Gannons blackened ahi wrap with sweet Thai chili sauce.

" Mark Ellman, also on Maui, sold famous eatery Avalon and now shepherds the super-hip Mala -- an Ocean Tavern. Ellman has created some delicious small-plate offerings for lunch and dinner, including some innovative Mexican flavors.

" Peter Merriman claims his Big Island restaurant is the birthplace of Hawaii regional cuisine. His operation also includes visits by patrons to some local farms prior to dining in his stand-alone Kamuela restaurant.

" Amy Ferguson-Otas Oodles of Noodles restaurant is found in a modest shopping mall on the Big Island. Ferguson-Otas talent had been praised by Julia Child, and she offers a variety of dishes, most involving noodles in one clever way or another.

Robert W. Bone has been writing travel articles and books from his Hawaii home for the past 35 years.

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