Sam Choy was in the middle of describing the offerings at his new food truck during the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival this past weekend when Wolfgang Puck parted the crowds and approached. The affable Hawaiian chef half-hugged the food festival’s grand Poobah and implored him to try the dish Choy was serving at his booth.
“Are you making Spam and eggs or vot?” Puck said in his accented English.
Choy could have been offended at the stereotyping joke, but there’s something you don’t know about Sam Choy. SAM CHOY IS THE MAN!
I don’t think I would have cared a fig about cooking if I hadn’t picked up his Island Flavors cookbook back ’round the turn of the century. The flavorful recipes, which use Hawaiian cooking as a starting point but dart all around global cuisine, were easy for a young man to get his head around, and I felt like a serious chef every time I executed one of his dishes. Before we were interrupted by Chef Wolfgang, I mention this to Choy.
“I’ve had thousands and thousands of people tell me, ‘You’re my hero because I’ve cooked these dishes in my home for friends and family, and guess what? They think I’m the genius. But I’m not, it’s your book, Island Flavors,'” Choy tells me.
He may be exaggerating, but maybe not. I dusted off the 1999 cookbook just last night and made a snapper with tropical salsa and Cajun seasoning dish — the recipe, Choy states in the book, is meant to show how flavors from different cooking cultures can complement each other. A quick dice of tropical fruits, a roll in some honey and soy sauce, plus paprika and cayenne, then six minutes of cooking. That’s all it took to create a truly delicious main course. Brilliant.
So why isn’t Choy more famous? He was at LA Food & Wine to help publicize his new LA food truck, Pineapple Express, his first real foray onto the mainland, and for now his only one. It’s his commitment to Hawaii, he thinks, that’s hampered him.
“I think that’s one of my major problems is that I like that island lifestyle.” Still, he notes, he’s working on celeb-chef-like projects, a deal with American Airlines here, a frozen foods line there. “I’m just trying to bring people to the islands to work with me.”
He’s also, thankfully, working on a follow-up to Island Flavors. “But with more rustic plantation food,” he explains, continuing: “the history of food on the islands, what made Asian so much of an influence, what did the Europeans bring to the islands. Those are important things to in the DNA of Hawaiian food. When you think of Hawaiian cuisine you think of luau, but there’s a lot of great food in Hawaii.”
And more than just SPAM too. Back in the booth, Choy goaded Puck to try his dish, a gourmet take on the classic Hawaiian Loko-Moko; Choy was serving the bun-less burger and rice mashup with wagyu beef patties, caramelized onions, a shiitake mushroom sauce and a sunnyside-up egg on top.
“You have chili sauce,” Puck asked-slash-demanded. “Without spices I can’t eat.”
Puck took a bite, nodded a bit and said, “This is like a girlie dish!”
I’m sure Puck was just taking the piss, but man, give Sam Choy some respect. And men, if you’re not cooking yet, pick up a copy of Island Flavors and get down with Sam Choy.
I asked him what inspired him to write the book back then, and his answer made me glad that I’d tracked him down after all these years.
“I was born and raised in the islands, and my style of cooking didn’t stray too far away from my parents’. They gave me the feeling that this is great food; I need to let the world know. And since I started cooking I never strayed away from the flavors and island-style dishes. When you look at Hawaii, that’s where east met west, right in the islands. The front porches of our homes, it faces continent USA—where they bring salt and pepper to the table—and then continent Asia. That’s when life and food gets real exciting. And that’s why the island flavor is so important to me. And I just want to share that with the world. It’s very tasty.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it once more: SAM CHOY IS THE MAN!
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