"It felt destined to happen," said Graham Elliot, the chef known for his judging roles on "MasterChef" and "Top Chef," an award-winning Chicago restaurant and distinctive, thick-rimmed, white spectacles.
He was not actively looking for a new gig when he moved to Oahu during the pandemic. Elliot's father was in the U.S. Navy and he moved around a lot as a child, including a six-year stint in the Ewa area of Oahu.
"I would go diving and spearfishing with my dad," he said. "And that idea of pulling something out of the ocean and taking it home and preparing it for dinner, that's really what turned on my love of cooking."
He regularly visited Hawaii as his culinary and television career took off, including participating in the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, but when Covid-19 struck he decided the time was right to make the islands home again. Upon his return, he connected with Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) executive chef Felix Tai and mentioned he was looking to keep his "hands in the fire" with culinary projects.
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Not long after, Tai reached out to say the center was looking for a chef to take the reins at Pounders, a restaurant in the PCC's Hukilau Marketplace known for its burgers and pizzas cooked in the flames of its kiawe wood-fired brick oven.
"I met with [PCC manager of food services] Greg Maples, and we got along famously," Elliot said. "Together we decided there were a lot of opportunities, not just at Pounders, but throughout PCC to push in a different direction with food."
In July, he was named executive chef at Pounders, and immediately got to work revamping the menu to showcase creative takes on local favorites, such as huli-huli chicken and the restaurant's signature burger, while also better representing the diversity of cuisines and cultures found in Hawaii. He is also seeking out more partnerships with local farmers and purveyors to spotlight locally sourced ingredients, while also sourcing produce from the restaurant's own garden.
Chef Graham Elliot has introduced several dishes to the Pounders menu that put a new twist on classic dishes using locally sourced ingredients, like this pineapple fried rice. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Polynesian Cultural Center
"We have beet poke that has the same ingredients and flavors of a poke bowl, but we're using slow-roasted beets," Elliot said. "It's plant-based, but the same color and texture as ahi. I want to put little twists on these well-known dishes. The goal is to make food that is delicious, but also put a little spin on it and showcase the ingredients in a different way.
Other menu items include New Zealand mussels, crispy whole sunfish, braised beef short rib, and Hawaiian mango pizza.
Elliot's role has already evolved in the first few months, and now he is officially the PCC's culinary director, collaborating with the rest of the team on innovations and adding new food and beverage options across the outlets and sites at the North Shore attraction.
The Polynesian Cultural Center is divided into villages with programming reflecting different Pacific island nations and cultures: Aotearoa, Hawaii, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti. Moving forward, the center is looking to expand its culinary offerings, and each village will have its own representative food item. Other plans being discussed include special dinner events and culinary classes.
"I'm at Pounders five days a week cooking lunch and dinner," he said. "I'm not on the mainland consulting on the menu, and then once a year I show up to check on things. We can pivot and change daily if we want to. We want to be a food destination."