A native Hawaiian friend of mine used to say that just a few decades ago, if you wanted good food in Hawaii, you had to bring it with you. During much of post World War II, SPAM was it’s own food category and “fresh, organic and sustainable” were just not part of the island lexicon. Slowly but surely, resorts and tourism grew, bringing with them chefs who saw the potential of utilizing the bounty of local ingredients.
“The Big Island of Hawaii is a real example of how the state has developed. They are so proud of their farming, their fish industry and on their meat industry,” said Hans Lentz, Executive Chef at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, the first world-class resort on the Big Island of Hawaii. Mauna Kea is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the oldest hotel on an island whose volcano continually makes the newest land in the U.S.
The resort was created when Laurance Rockefeller saw a perfect, crescent shaped beach, arguably once of the most beautiful in the world, and built a modern hotel and Robert Trent Jones golf course in the middle of a black lava field. The hotel opened in 1965, five years before there was an even an international airport. First and foremost on Rockefeller’s agenda was to employ Hawaiians and create food that could stand up to the most exacting culinary standards with local ingredients grown by local farmers and caught by local fishermen.
“In Hawaii you have strong cultures of Korean, Chinese, Filipino, and American, but then also the independent movement of Hawaiian products themselves, “ Chef Lentz said. “This is a very unique place where every cuisine breaks apart and what is created out of it is Hawaiian cuisine. “
By the early 1990s, the Hawaiian Regional Cuisine that got started at Mauna Kea became part of the greater menu of the Pacific Rim. Today many island restaurants proudly name the farms or island where each ingredient was grown. “You go to many restaurants in the world and on the menu is the catch of the day, but it’s not that a real fisherman just went out and caught a fish. Here, it still is literally THE catch of the day!” Chef Lentz said.
The huge stainless steel expanse of a kitchen at Mauna Kea services several restaurants, luaus, weddings and room service. There have been several chefs and many pots and pans in the kitchen over the last 50 years, but one constant for the last 30 of those years has been Polly Pagdilao, who started as a steward at Mauna Kea and worked his way through all the kitchen ranks to become Executive Sous Chef.
Chef Pagdilao’s experience and knowledge of what guests like has been a constant barometer for when and how to update and change menus. “Different chefs come and go and they like to change things throughout the years. I always learn from them, but also some things people want to stay the same,” Chef Polly said, noting that almost 50 percent of the resort’s clientele are repeat guests that still look forward to eating classic dishes when they return. Two favorites of the hotel’s former Batik restaurant that hotel guests have enjoyed and requested since the ’60s are Island Curry and Steak au Poivre. The recipes have remained the same, but the presentations got a 2015 makeover:
Basic Curry Sauce
This recipe originated at Batik Restaurant in 1968 and is updated by Executive Sous Chef Polly Pagdilao.
1 1/2 Cups chopped onion
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
1/2 Cup salad oil
4 Cups chopped tomato
2 Tablespoons ground cumin
2 Tablespoons ground turmeric
1/2 Cup curry powder
1/4 Cup ground coriander
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground clove
3 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 Cups coconut milk
2 Cups chicken stock
Heat salad oil in a pan and add onions. Let simmer over medium heat until onions are transparent.
Add garlic, ginger, cumin, turmeric, curry powder, coriander, cinnamon and clove. Let cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add tomatoes and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Let it simmer for 45 minutes stirring occasionally. Add lemon juice and coconut milk. Season with salt and puree in blender.
Sauté protein, if desired (shrimp, veal, lamb or chicken). Add to sauce with tofu and/or diced vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and celery. Simmer until tender.
Serve with condiments including peanuts, raisins, shredded fresh coconut, sambal and mango chutney.
Steak au Poivre – Pepper Crusted Steak
4 Tournedos of beef, each 6 to 7 ounces
6 ounces olive oil
1 Cup black peppercorns, ground or cracked
1/2 Cup Brandy
1/2 Cup white wine
1 Cup whipping cream
salt, to taste
Rub the beef with oil and coated with ground black pepper.
Heat medium sautéed pan until smoking hot.
Add steak to pan turning every 15 seconds.
Turn down the flame to medium (6 min. Med Rare, 8 min. med, 10 min. well).
Final second of cooking add brandy. Tilt the pan over the flame (stand back when you do this).
Transfer steak to a heated plate.
Stirring pan constantly, add wine to deglaze the pan.
Simmer for 10 seconds.
Remove the pan from the heat (season with salt if needed).
Spoon the sauce over the steak.