Sunday | November 29, 2015
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Chefs, amateurs slice the competition for the best poke

A quintessential Hawaii food was showcased Sunday at the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa, where more than 20 professional chefs, amateurs and high school students participated in celebrity chef Sam Choy’s Keauhou Poke Contest.

The competition was stiff and taste reigned inside the Ainakai restaurant. Featured were family recipes that have been passed down generations, as well as surprising new takes with a shotgun marriage of ingredients, flavors and preparation. The categories included traditional, soy sauce, cooked, non-seafood, spicy and sushi.

Choy said the goal was “to educate the public about poke’s origins and acknowledge those who carry on its traditions and its evolution.” He sees this annual event as “a vehicle for cultural preservation,” saying “it keeps the younger generations aware of where poke came from and that it’s food from Hawaii, before Captain Cook days.” Choy thinks this event also help raise poke’s reputation in the culinary pantheon of the best raw fish preparations.

“When it comes sushi and sashimi, they’re pretty much household names in the world today,” he said. “But when you talk about poke, it’s still a whisper out there, though the momentum is growing, especially as people become more adventurous eaters.”

Besides chefs and restaurants, Choy credits local grocery stores for helping make poke Hawaii’s soul food and available at every social gathering. He eventually wants to have “a throw-down” between the creators behind these grocers’ well-loved mixes.

Another major part of this contest is how the $5 admission benefits the $1 million Equip the Kitchens Campaign for the future Hawaii Community College at Palamanui. Choy said this cause is important to him because it will provide state-of-the-art equipment and tools for culinary students while also helping create more opportunities for them.

Over the past 10 months, more than $100,000 has been raised for the campaign through numerous events, said James Lightner, Hawaii Community College at the University Center in West Hawaii’s culinary arts program assistant professor and hospitality division chairman.

For the local students that competed Sunday, Choy hopes the contest was encouraging them that “the sky is the limit and everything is possible.”

Alakai Asing, a 17-year-old Kealakehe High School junior, thanked his teacher Karen Sheff for encouraging him to enter Sunday’s contest, which he called “a great experience.” He saw it as an opportunity to share a favorite family recipe and the story behind it, as well as his passion for cooking. Asing said the recipe he used was modified from one that belonged to his brother, Liko, “a talented chef who worked for the former Blue Sky Cuisine before getting into a bad accident.”

For his creation, named Gangnam-style Poke, Asing used excessive Asian flavors and kimchi because he wanted a nice spicy kick. As a first-time competitor, Asing enjoyed meeting the other chefs and poke aficionados. Among the contestants he was most impressed by were the Facebook chefs, who also visited his high school last week and revealed the workings of social network company’s enormous food operation.

At its offices, Facebook has several snack stations and cafeterias, where employees can eat free meals. To date, more than 5 million meals have been served, said Ezekiel Duru, a Facebook executive sous chef.

Over the years, Facebook’s culinary team has formed a friendship with Choy, who introduced them to “the wonders of poke” and invited them to compete in the contest, Duru said. “Sam’s the man,” he added.

According to Duru, Facebook’s chefs enjoy participating in events like Sunday’s poke contest because it’s a challenge that not only draws culinary inspiration, but also can result in fast decision-making because sometimes the ingredients they’re use to having are hard to find. Hamachi, coconut and poached Asian pears were some of the ingredients in his poke creation, which won third place in the Professional Division’s traditional category.

Most people have a favorite or hated food that they can recall particular moments of their lives. For Keoni Paoa, a 35-year-old Kona construction worker, he disliked fish since his first bite of sashimi. Then everything changed in the sixth grade. That’s the year Paoa said his parents introduced him to poke and his affinity for raw fish grew. Mouthful after mouthful, he fell in love with the balance between the perfectly seasoned cubes of fresh, raw fish and all the other local ingredients.

As a first-time competitor, Paoa hoped to get “the wow effect” by the judges with his creation, which included a kimchi base and furikake touch. He decided to enter the contest to try something new. He was also encouraged by loved ones and friends who have enjoyed his poke over the years at various social gatherings. He won first place in the Amateur Division’s soy sauce category.

Besides the competition, this year’s event also featured a Hawaii Island Marketplace, cultural demonstrations, a celebrity cook-off, poke-making demonstrations, poke tasting and entertainment. For more information, visit