Royal Kona chef combines local ingredients, global influences

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"If you don't travel as a chef, it's hard to know other cultures," says George Gomes Jr., executive chef of the Royal Kona Resort.
"If you don't travel as a chef, it's hard to know other cultures," says George Gomes Jr., executive chef of the Royal Kona Resort.

George Gomes Jr. was born on Oahu and raised on the Island of Hawaii, where he has spent much of his life and first developed a passion for cooking. So when he was hired as the executive chef at the Royal Kona Resort in 2018, Gomes built his strategy around local products and his connections on the island.

"I'm of Portuguese descent but was born and raised in Hawaii, and food was a main part of what we did growing up," he said. "A lot of occasions and moments were celebrated around food and the dinner table. My father and I went hunting every weekend, and we made sausages and cured our own meats."

By age 15 Gomes knew he wanted to be a chef, and he took many of the lessons of his childhood into his training at Hawaii Community College Culinary Program and later into professional kitchens.

"We would hunt wild pigs, and my father was a really good hunter," Gomes said. "He taught me to respect the pig and to use every part of it, and the pig will feed the whole family. And that's how I still cook today."

Gomes is busy these days revamping the menus at Don the Beachcomber Restaurant and Don's Mai Tai Bar, in addition to preparing for the Don's Mai Tai Festival on Aug. 17.

Despite Gomes' deep roots in Hawaii and love for the islands, he made a point of exploring other cultures and cuisines during his early training.

"I do believe chefs are born and not made, but training is important," Gomes said. "If you don't travel as a chef, it's hard to know other cultures. ... I worked in Taiwan, Tokyo and other places, and each time I tried to indulge in the culture and eat what the locals were eating. That's how you get a sense of place."

Back in Hawaii, Gomes worked at various resorts and restaurants prior to landing at the Royal Kona, including Merriman's Restaurant on Maui, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, and Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort on Hawaii Island.  

"I'm passionate about sourcing from local fishermen and farmers as much as possible," Gomes said. "The bounty dictates how much I cook -- whatever is available on the Big Island at the time. I like to let the ingredients speak with simple dishes, and I think simple is a hard thing to do well."   

In August, Don's Mai Tai Bar will unveil a new menu featuring tacos, burgers, fresh fish, poke nachos and Kalua pork sliders.

"We want to highlight what Kona has to offer," Gomes said. "We have a POG -- passion fruit-orange-guava -- barbecue sauce and we make all of our own dressings, like the lilikoi and green goddess, in house."

Gomes works with a farm co-op called Adaptations accepting regular deliveries of seasonal goods from a network of local providers, and plans to change the menu monthly to reflect the best available ingredients.

Next up, sometime in the fall Gomes plans to debut a new menu for Don the Beachcomber. The signature kiawe-smoked prime rib will still be there, in addition to fresh catch of the day, new seasonal items, and fresh takes on Hawaiian classics. Gomes has also worked to update the culinary offerings at the popular annual Don's Mai Tai Festival, which features a mai tai and barbecue competition.

"We are building it up and going all out for the reception, including homemade gnocchi station, smoked meats and an outdoor kitchen," Gomes said. "The event is growing, and we want to take the food to a different level, as well."

He's also started using the outdoor kitchen for the resort's weekly Thursday evening "Legends of Hawaiian Music" concert series at Don's Mai Tai Bar (free and open to the public), with an oyster bar, homemade tacos, chicken skewers and other items. Performers include prominent Hawaiian artists such as Henry Kapono, Ledward Kaapana, John Keawe and Brother Noland.

Additionally, Gomes is revamping the banquet and wedding menus to reflect his style and approach, which typically comes back to his passion for the best locally available ingredients.

"Honestly, one of the things I'm most excited about is these local vine-ripe tomatoes from Wow Farm," Gomes said. "Good tomatoes can be hard to get on the islands and expensive, and maybe they aren't even ripe. These fresh, local tomatoes are great on burgers and salads."

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