The Food and Wine Convergence: Chefs and Somms Meet for Hawaii’s Biggest Annual Food and Wine Festival

Does your ideal vacation entail sipping a vinous beverage on the tropical shores of a beautiful Pacific Island, with picturesque scenery and world-class cuisine? Of course it does, and Hawaii has just the festival for you. The Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival, now in its seventh year, is a preeminent epicurean destination event definitely worth exploration. Celebrity chefs, prestigious vineyards and skillful mixologists collide in a melange of flavor and excitement. This is unequivocally the most impressive and renowned food and wine event in Hawaii.

Given the festival’s prodigious reputation, it is difficult to fathom that nearly a decade ago Hawaii did not have a major wine event. A small band of food professionals and enthusiasts, including local celebrity chefs Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, sought to remedy those unfortunate circumstances. The result is a festival spanning three islands and featuring over 100 esteemed master chefs, culinary personalities, and wine producers in an accord of culinary traditions that are certain to impress any palate. With significant support and momentum, the festival now dazzles attendees at some of the most beautiful locations in the islands. Luxury and style meet for the ultimate food and wine experience.

This year, the festival commenced on Maui and traveled to the Big Island before making its final destination on the shores of Oahu. I was privileged to cover events held in Honolulu as a photographer and writer. This post is a summation of the events I attended and my overall experience. For certain events, particularly the wine seminars, I will write more detailed [i.e., wonkish] posts exploring wine science, terroir and viticultural practices of Bordeaux and Rhône Valley. Stay tuned!

For now, onto the events!

Musings by the Glass - Hawaii Food and Wine Festival - Tyler Wines at Hawaii Food and Wine Festival

Spice Market

Glitz, glamor and grandeur were on full display at the wine festival’s Spice Market, hosted on the extravagant multi-floor pool deck of The Modern Honolulu. Cuisines and cocktails emphasized the diversity and vibrancy of flavors found along the Silk Road, an ancient network of land routes connecting Asia with the Mediterranean and Europe. Along this road we find the world economy's oldest and most aromatic roots.

We may not be inclined to pontificate much about spice, given its broad accessibility in the modern world. But this was not always the case, and to understand food, one must be well-acquainted with spice. Many spices possessed ritualistic and medicinal traditions, and historically could only grow in a region spanning from Southern China to Indonesia as well as southern India and Sri Lanka. Affording flavor, health benefits and diversity to a dish, the importance of spices cannot be overemphasized. I fully appreciate the festival’s dedication of an event to the subject. From Sichuan peppers to Thai curries and even spice-infused cocktails, the Spice Market was full of flavor and vibrancy. There was plenty to please the palate while I took in the beautiful sunset over Kewalo Basin. I cannot think of a better ending to the day.

The Spice Market additionally showcased a great diversity of winemakers, from Napa giants like Joseph Phelps and Silver Oak, to small boutique artisan wineries like Columbia Valley’s DeLille Cellars. Regardless of size, they were all eager to discuss their wines, regions and viticultural philosophies. My favorite memories throughout the evening hearken back to the wine stands and chatting with the passionate oenophiles intimately involved in the winemaking process. There was an abundance of wisdom to be shared, provided you were willing to seek it out. I was, enthusiastically.

Uncorked

One of the marquee events of the festival took place on the rooftop terrace of the Hawaii Convention Center, where sensational dishes were presented by twenty of the world’s top culinary masters. To pair with these dishes, twenty world-class wineries poured their flagship wines for attendees to sip and swirl while chatting with the winemakers and vineyard owners.

Sensitive to the situation unfolding in Northern California, the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival donated a portion of proceeds from the event to wildfire relief efforts in Napa and Sonoma counties. Many attendees, including myself, are extremely blessed. Wine brings joy to many of us, and we enjoyed lavishly on this night in celebration and fellowship with friends. Wine is a catalyst for an event filled with festivity, merriment and conversation.

The Hawaii Food and Wine Festival reminded us, however, that each glass represents communities with proud traditions and heritage. People who were here with us, pouring for us on this evening, and sharing their stories and wines with us. The Hawaii Food and Wine Festival stood with those in our broader wine community when they needed it most. I was proud to stand with them. 

The food again was terrific, with celebrity chefs on hand to ensure that the senses were mystified and satisfied. The majority of my time, however, was spent amongst the winemakers, telling stories and gaining wisdom concerning viticultural lessons learned along the way. Among the many conversations, my chat with Dick Grace of Grace Family Vineyards, a cultishly followed vineyard in Napa Valley, was most memorable. I immediately resonated with Dick, an energetic personality with a heart to match. Recounting tales from his adventures with the Dalai Lama and projects serving poor children in Asia, I immediately ascertained the fortuitous nature of the conversation. This gentleman was worth my devoted attention. As a storyteller and photojournalist passionate about the Asia-Pacific, I clung to Dick’s stories, enthusiasm and fervor for philanthropic work in Asia. I commenced my blogging journey in part to seek out narratives such as Dick’s, that venture beyond winemaking to find greater purpose in our work and lives. I sincerely hope to have the privilege of expanding upon his adventures, and to find other similarly-inspiring narratives along the way.

 Dick Grace of Grace Family Vineyards recounts his adventures with a master chef.

Dick Grace of Grace Family Vineyards recounts his adventures with a master chef.

From local to celebrity, chefs thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company, were excited to see what colleagues were creating, and were extremely approachable for anyone who wanted to mingle. Chefs who were not cooking for a particular event roamed the stalls like any other attendee, conversing, laughing and storytelling. Any why not?! The food and wine was not to miss, and these chefs knew it better than anyone. Boldness on this night paid off. As chefs, winemakers and sommeliers roamed the rooftop, I eagerly inserted myself into conversations, always finding these culinary patrons to be extremely approachable and willing to impart their knowledge and stories on this curious passerby. As a takeaway from the festival more generally, these chefs, winemakers and sommeliers, regardless of their celebrity status, were eager to chat and share their stories and knowledge.

Steamy Bowls

There is no better way to enjoy life than to embark on a culinary soup noodle adventure through the various street stalls and pushcart peddlers of Southeast Asia. Aroma-infused broths, fresh herbs and a variety of meat and vegetables collide in a wonderful accord of flavor, vibrancy, and excitement. Without hesitation, this is my favorite region for a steamy bowl of noodles and cold, crisp beer.

Musings by the Glass - Hawaii Food and Wine Festival -  Wine Glasse with Food

But a sojourn through Southeast Asia misses a host of other wonderful, global steamy bowls. Noodles have also become synonymous with Japan, with artisanal hand-made soba and ramen becoming culinary obsessions in Tokyo as an authentic, hand-crafted comfort food. Traverse thousands of specialty shops for unique and perfected ramen recipes that venture far beyond food into culinary obsession and popular culture. And tasty noodle soups are certainly not reserved for Asian audiences. Fideo, a humble pasta with origins in Moorish Spain, has become a shining star in Mexican sopa de fideo noodle soups.

The Hawaii Food and Wine Festival brings all of these steamy bowls into one glorious after-party indulgence on the terrace of Waikiki’s Hyatt Regency Beach Resort and Spa. Occurring immediately after Uncorked, and due to my introverted tendencies, I was operating on low energy during my commute to the Hyatt Regency. The excitement of the venue and beat of the music, however, was more than sufficient to fuel my soup noodle partaking after hours. And, of course, the noodles … oh the noodles! There couldn’t be a better theme for this guy. Honolulu soup noodle standard The Pig and the Lady was my favorite (perhaps due to local bias), but other noodle stalls, such as Akira Back’s Yellowtail Japanese Restaurant & Lounge, rounded out the evening in glorious fashion. After a long evening of drinking, nothing hits the spot better than a steamy bowl of noodles.

Wine Seminars

The Steamy Bowls after party, lasting well into night, made the Saturday morning wake up call more challenging than usual. On this day, however, I had places to be. Specifically, the wine seminars beach side at Halekulani Hotel in Waikiki, commencing bright and early. A quick shower, cup of coffee (or two) and I was out the door and onto the day’s events. Saturday was packed with three consecutive seminars, that satisfied the very wonkish of tendencies, with horizontal and vertical tastings that explored terroir and winemaking traditions from the Southern Rhône Valley, Champagne and Bordeaux. In Hawaii, these experiences are rarely available, so I had these events earmarked from the very first moment I perused the festival lineup. They surpassed my [high] expectations, in every way.

Musings by the Glass - Hawaii Food and Wine Festival - Wine Seminar Notetaking

The first and second seminars were designed to provide a tasting experience that demonstrates the diversity of Rhône Valley’s terroir and the effects of time and vintage on a particular wine. The panel, consisting of three master sommeliers and Daniel Brunier, the winemaker from Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, was a perfect balance of intelligence and wit. The third seminar was a vertical tasting of one of Bordeaux’s most famed Châteaux, Cos d’Estournel. Etienne de Nantes of Cos d’Estournel eloquently presented a history of the Châteaux combined with information on vintages, terroir, and the Bordeaux appellation more generally.

Musings by the Glass - Hawaii Food and Wine Festival - Seminar Tasting

All of the seminars, packed with winemakers, sommeliers and wine geeks like me, provided extraordinarily useful information that was made pertinent through the comparative tasting experience. Inebriated sensory analysis, the best method of education. These seminars were a great opportunity to experience the wines of France in a scholarly and enjoyable environment. For a wine wonk like myself, these seminars were the highlight of a festival filled with highlights. More on these events later, as I intend to use them as a foundation to write on the effects of terroir and extended aging. Stay tuned!

The Hawaii Food and Wine Festival is the premiere food and wine event in Hawaii, and definitely worth exploring for locals and tourists alike. For locals, there are few events in Hawaii that showcase world-class wines and epicurean talent, and we should ardently take advantage when they are presented. For tourists, this is most certainly a destination event around which you should plan your next vacation. Incredible food and tasty vinous beverages in a tropical setting? Sounds like a festival made in paradise that is not to be missed. Hope to see you there in 2018!

Cheers!