Big Weekend: 2012 Hawaii Food & Wine Festival

Clockwise from top left: Iron Chef Morimoto; landscape of He'eia; Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa; laulau pua'a; the scene at Enter The Modern Dragon.

When you go to Oahu for the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, there are two things you can be sure of: you're going to eat a ton of insanely fresh fish and you're going to hear the Hawaiian version of "Over the Rainbow" roughly 4,000 times.

I was lucky enough to be invited down to Honolulu by the Oahu Visitors Bureau to experience the event, and I asked every chef I came across why they decided to attend. They all gave the same answer: you can't turn down Hawaii. Unlike other festivals, where the theme is just "small portions of food from big name chefs," Hawaii Food & Wine aims to spotlight the sense of place that's so integral to Hawaiian culture. With sold-out events like "Mix with the Masters" — where attendees could check out a fresh Hawaiian fish demonstration with Ming Tsai and Morimoto as well as a seminar on the culinary history of Hawaii through various bowl-centric foods like poi and pho — it was easy to get some learning in with your eating. Here's a look at some of our favorite events of the weekend:

Enter the Modern Dragon: Morimoto & Friends

In Waikiki, where most of the festival was located, it's impossible not to notice that Honolulu is dominated by Asian tourists. The history of Hawaii itself is massively influenced by a variety of Asian cultures, so it makes perfect sense that an entire event was devoted to Asian food and drinks. Iron Chef Morimoto and some of the world's biggest Asian chefs set up shop poolside at luxury hotel The Modern Honolulu to showcase the Pacific Rim's influence on Hawaiian food. And yes, as always, Morimoto was dressed completely in white like an angel of sashimi.

Local favorite Chai Chaowasaree had the longest line from the moment the night started until he ran out of food. At first I thought he was serving pie tins with pictures of naked cheerleaders in the bottom à la Revenge of the Nerds, but then I tried his Kona baby abalone with Hamakua mushrooms in chili garlic sauce and immediately got back in line for another plate. It was that good.

Ming Tsai charmed the crowd with a ruby red ahi sashimi on top of foie gras fried rice while Korean celebrity chef Edward Kwon seemed completely out of place with a ginseng chicken roulade that everyone seemed eager to ditch after the first bite. As the sun set over the marina across from the hotel, the floating dragon sculpture in the pool started breathing smoke out of its nose. I have to assume he was pissed that nobody bothered to save him any abalone.

From Farm to Table: A Makahiki Festival

Every big food festival has a grand tasting event and Hawaii Wine & Food was no exception. You may know the drill: every chef gets a table and then long lines form to grab a plate from each. At Saturday night's signature event, however, I saw something that I had never seen before. Those that paid for VIP access not only got early entry, they got tables and, more importantly, family-style table service of all the event's offerings. It's a brilliant innovation and was only slightly awkward for the hoi polloi (sounds Hawaiian, but it's actually Greek) that had to walk around like suckers waiting in line while balancing plates and wine glasses. It really did a pretty good job of alleviating lines and allowed those willing to spend the extra cash to sit down and enjoy the evening.

Outside of logistics, Man vs. Food's Adam Richman did a great job emceeing the event while his mom watched proudly from her first row table. James Beard Award winners were everywhere, with heavy hitters like Jonathan Waxman, David Burke and Todd English offering their best spin on Hawaiian cuisine.

I pulled English aside in the middle of the night to see what he thought of his Hawaiian experience and he was most impressed by the eclectic merging of all the cultures on the island. "You really do use indigenous ingredients and I love that," he said. "I even love Spam. Not that I want to eat it all the time."

Neither do I, although it found its way into some of the higher-end dishes of the festival, including English's own coconut Spam fried rice with salt-crusted monchong. Boston chef Ken Oringer took advantage of the local ingredients, too, with a crazy good kampachi tostada topped by thick, fatty slices of kampachi sashimi slathered in chipotle mayo on a Hawaiian made tortilla. Fresh doesn't even begin to describe it. Even the chefs who weren't working the event showed up in full force. Hubert Keller and Dean Fearing strolled through the crowds together while Nobu Matsuhisa himself palled around with Hawaiian legends Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi.

Makahiki means harvest season in Hawaiian, and this tasting was meant as a tribute to the future of Hawaii sustainability. After seeing such a successfully organized event, I'm happy to say that even if the island's sustainable future is in question, the event's future is on solid ground for years to come. Aloha from Honolulu.

Kamehameha Schools Presents: The Bounty of He'eia II

Unless you're an expert in Hawaiian geography, chances are that you're not familiar with He'eia. For $100, this daylong exploration of the region was happy to fill you in. He'eia is an ancient ahupua'a, or land division, that starts in the Ko'olau mountains and runs all the way down to Kane'ohe Bay. You can think of Oahu as a pizza and ahupua'as as the slices. The amazing thing about the ahupua'a is that it's one of the world's first sustainable food systems. Everybody living there would work together to create a food chain from the fish caught in the now 800-year-old fish pond to the taro grown up in the mountains.

The whole ecosystem became a hands-on learning experience for all festival goers as we went to work. The first task involved cleaning and gutting moi (a small fleshy whitefish), a task that didn't seem to appeal to one group of ladies in tacky peacock-colored pantsuits, who claimed they didn't want to know where their food came from. Wrong seminar, ladies. After learning how to make poké and poi, we were all treated to an extravagant feast with traditional Hawaiian foods like laulau pua'a (ti leaf-steamed pork) and haupia (coconut cream pudding). It made all the fish guts worth it.

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