Visiting celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman isn’t shy about his love for Hawaii, which started to bloom in 1972.
Waxman, then a musician who talked endlessly about food, was performing in the band Lynx, and when the band broke up, he was left stranded on Maui with no cash. It wasn’t a terrible predicament to be in, especially since Waxman said he was surrounded by raw beauty and air that smelled delicious. He fondly recalled the scents of burning sugarcane, overripe mangoes and sweet plumeria — “the perfume of paradise.”
His friends, most of whom were surfers, revealed his only two options: sell drugs or work in a restaurant. He chose the latter and was introduced to the culinary industry through Kaanapali’s Rusty Harpoon. One fish fillet at a time, he earned his fare back to California and also discovered his love of cooking.
Since those days, Waxman said Hawaii’s cuisine has “grown up” from “silly, gimmicky luau foods” and ubiquitous lunch plates to “wonderful things filled with vibrant, bold flavors and fresh ingredients.” He attributed the revolution in part to forward-thinking chefs like Roy Yamaguchi and Peter Merriman who blended classical techniques with Hawaii ingredients while creating food that reflected the islands’ unique geography, history and melting pot of cultures. Whether those in the industry are applying creative or traditional approaches, Waxman likes what he sees, adding, “You can taste the love and pride of what farmers, fishermen and ranchers are producing.”
Waxman, the owner of Barbuto in New York, was eager Thursday to get a first-hand look at the Big Island bounty with his other well-known colleagues participating in the third annual Hawaii Celebrity Chef Tour. They visited Hirabara Farms and Waimea Middle School’s Malaai Gardens to select ingredients for a special dinner and oceanfront soiree before embarking on a fishing charter.
For Waxman, Thursday’s adventure was “like being a kid in a candy store” because he’s tasked with making the vegetables. As “a vegetable whisperer,” his tactic was simple: “Wander around and see what produce speaks to me.”
The Hawaii Celebrity Chef Tour is a chance for the public to get up close and personal with some of the biggest names in the culinary world while enjoying their takes on island-style cuisine. It celebrates local farmers and puts the abundance of seasonally driven produce grown on the island in the spotlight.
The tour also benefits the James Beard Foundation, which preserves America’s culinary heritage and diversity through scholarships, publications, food and beverage industry awards, and maintenance of the historic James Beard House in New York as a venue for special culinary events. Since 2004, it has raised more than $1 million for the foundation.
A first-time visitor to the Big Island, Aaron Sanchez said he’s participating in the tour because charity is a major component of the event. The co-star of Food Network’s “Chopped” and “Heat Seekers” thinks it’s important to give back to the foundation, which is “a pillar and has set many benchmarks for the industry.” Sanchez is also looking forward to cooking with friends, all of whom have “distinct food languages and styles, as well as tremendous passion and respect for food and cooking.” One of the country’s leading contemporary Latin chefs, Sanchez plans to put a Mexican spin on the main entree, braised lamb, for Saturday’s dinner. Hint: enchiladas with mole negro.
The tour opens at 5 p.m. tonight at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel with the Grey Goose Oceanfront Soiree, featuring creations from international award-winning cocktail mixologist Manny Hinojosa and Hawaii’s culinary ambassador, Sam Choy, as well as live entertainment.
At 6 p.m. Saturday at the resort’s Canoe House restaurant, Waxman, Sanchez and Choy will be creating a six-course, family-style dinner with Nancy Silverton of Los Angeles’ Osteria Mozza and Bruce Bromberg of New York and Las Vegas’ Blue Ribbon restaurants. Joining them are Mauna Lani Bay Hotel executive chef Clayton Arakawa and Mauna Lani Bay Hotel chef de cuisine Allen Hess. Each course will be matched with Rodney Strong Vineyards wines or Hinojosa’s special cocktails using local fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs.
It costs $100 for tonight’s soiree, $250 for Saturday’s dinner or $300 to attend both events.
A successful chef, restaurateur and author, Waxman has graced prestigious kitchens, as well as participated in the popular reality competition show “Top Chef Masters.” He’s earned the nicknames “Obi Wan Kenobi” and “the Eric Clapton of Chefs.” Waxman thinks it’s a good thing celebrity chefs exist because they’re a means to communicate, share and educate, generate more interest in the farm-to-table movement, and to give back.
“When I started cooking, everyone was using and wanting the same tomato, and ignoring the individuality, the specialness, of the ingredients,” he said. “Now people are realizing this is as much about the farmers as it is about the chefs. They’re expanding their palates and there’s this fervor for food, from source to plate.”
What Waxman wants this weekend’s attendees to take away is “the importance of breaking bread together, talking about food and wine rather than politics.” He also would like them to feel inspired to cook or be more confident in the kitchen, including conquering two common fears: using ovens and sauteing. Among his favorite Hawaii products are opah (moonfish), rainbow papaya, emerald jewel-like avocados and “the perfect pineapple.” With the latter, Waxman said he never tires of roasting it and said putting it in a rotisserie would be “a bit of heaven.” His No. 1 tip to cooks of all levels: Always taste and smell your food.
To purchase tickets or for more information, visit celebritycheftour.com.