Moorea - One of the islands Paul Gauguion visits
I love Tahiti, but I'm prejudiced. I got engaged there. Those islands ooze romance. Lush green mountains framing white sand beaches. Balmy breezes and turquoise water. The pristine beauty shocks the senses before lulling them into a state of perpetual bliss. Little can top the splendor of the Tahitian Islands - except, maybe, the arrival of Alan Wong. This Hawaii-based chef is sailing on Paul Gauguin's July 27, 2013 roundtrip Papeete, Tahiti cruise.
I first met Alan Wong in 1989. He was the opening chef of The Canoe House Restaurant, the Hawaii-inspired signature restaurant at The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows on the Big Island of Hawaii. At that time, Hawaii was a lovely state serving not-so-lovely cuisine. Fine restaurants primarily offered Continental cuisine prepared from ingredients shipped frozen from the mainland and Europe. Those were what European chefs knew, and they were the ones running the fancy hotels and dining rooms for decades.
Then along came a younger wave of chefs, like Alan Wong. Many were homegrown guys who studied cooking on the mainland and were aware of the trend sweeping the United States - the development of modern American cooking prepared with local ingredients that reflected the region in which the chefs lived.
Wong and other bright young talents founded a movement called Hawaii Regional Cuisine in 1991, devoted to establishing Hawaii as a culinary destination, and to celebrate the riches of the state's ocean, rivers, farms and ranches.
I'm proud to say I'm one of the mainland writers who first noticed the creation of this cooking style - a melting pot cuisine reflecting the ethnicities of Hawaii's residents - and subsequently wrote about it for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine and other publications. Not long after, the Hawaii Regional Cuisine chefs asked me to tell their story by writing their cookbook, The New Cuisine of Hawaii.
I got to know Alan Wong well, both by writing this tome, and also by working with him at Mauna Lani Bay for about a decade, where I was the co-creator and co-host of an annual international culinary event called Cuisines of the Sun. Wong was the star chef of the event and helped create the ever-changing theme.
When I first tasted his food at Mauna Lani, I was blown away. The freshness of ingredients. The kaleidoscope of colors. Flavors as bright and vivid as the Hawaiian sky. And such finesse. Finesse only achievable through innate talent and superior training. Wong had managed to fuse classical European culinary techniques with Hawaii's ingredients and culture to create an unprecedented cooking style.
Chef Wong had apprenticed at the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, and then trained at New York's legendary Lutece restaurant, where he was mentored by Andre Soltner. (Chef Soltner occasionally guests on Crystal Cruises.)
With talent this rich, Alan Wong shot to fame at The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows. Media gobbled his cuisine and raved like groupies in publications nationwide. Wong won the James Beard Award (food world's equivalent of an Oscar) for best regional chef in 1996. He cooked on the Today show. He was a guest judge on Bravo's hit series Top Chef. In 2003, Bon Appetit magazine hailed Wong as a culinary legend.
By now the noted chef had left the hotel world and was at the helm of his own eponymous restaurant in Honolulu. It, too, has received countless kudos. All the top food publications have bestowed it with awards. Even President Obama is a fan. He reportedly dines there when he is visiting Honolulu. In 2009, Chef Wong cooked a luau at the White House for the annual White House Congressional Picnic.
Alan Wong's Restaurant is also a mecca for visiting and local celebrities, and for traveling foodies who deem the eatery a bucket-list destination. Wong is also chef and owner of the more casual (but equally delicious) Pineapple Room in Honolulu, and only recently opened two restaurants at Hawaiian hotels.
Despite all the acclaim, Alan Wong keeps it humble. He has never lost his focus, which is to create superb cuisine everyday. He hasn't opened 20 restaurants, put his name on everything from soup cans to frozen dinners, nor does he make endless guest chef appearances. His eye is on the real prize; taking care of his guests, maintaining the highest standards at his restaurants. Staying on top of his cooking game.
Sailing with Alan Wong on the Paul Gauguin should be priceless. I know this chef well enough to say that he's not coming onboard to ogle beaches and soak up rays (of course, he can do that in Hawaii). He will share his passion with a cooking demonstration, lecture and question-and-answer session.
He is planning to demo a dish from his latest cookbook, Blue Tomato; ahi poke (poke -pronounced po-kay - is raw marinated tuna) stack with avocado, crispy won ton and wasabi soy.
When Wong is not the star of the show of this cruise, magical islands like Bora Bora, Moorea and Raiatea will headline, instead. Barbecue lunches, Polynesian entertainment, ancient temples and glass-bottom boat rides - and just drinking in Tahit's startling beauty - will more than charm guests.
If you do sign up for this cruise, be sure to buy his cookbooks, New Wave Luau and the above-mentioned Blue Tomato. I wrote the forward for New Wave Luau and can testify to the deliciousness of his innovative recipes.
Tell Alan Wong I told him to make you his famous pineapple martini. Wong infuses the vodka with fresh pineapple to create the signature cocktail. It's arguably the world's greatest martini. Try one and let me know. (pgcruises.com)