Born in Japan, chef Alan Wong’s earliest memories of food are simple: tamago gohan (a Japanese egg and rice dish), miso soup, a man who sold sweet potatoes out of a cart, and frozen tangerines his mom purchased at a train station.
It’s visceral memories like these that Wong hopes to preserve here in Hawaii through sustainable food practices. It’s a crucial necessity, he notes, especially when you consider that the state imports more than 85 percent of its food supply.
“We define sustainability as making decisions today so that our grandchildren’s children can enjoy what we enjoy today, tomorrow,” he says.
“Imagine New Year’s Eve with no sashimi.”
He points to bigeye tuna and other fish in jeopardy of disappearing. Dairies, as another example, no longer exist on this island, where there once were four. And though he grew up eating locally sourced meats like pork, it no longer exists or is a rarity.
It’s a passion Wong continues to support as a chef and in the community.
In 2011, for instance, Wong partnered with University of Hawaii-Hilo to establish Adopt-A-Beehive with Alan Wong. Intended to raise awareness of the vital role honey bees play in food production, the program offers scholarships to student beekeepers.
“In the end, it’s about encouraging more younger people to become farmers, encouraging chefs to use local products and helping our own economy,” says Wong.
It’s a plight that Wong, who last appeared on MidWeek’s Aug. 31, 2011, cover, is optimistic about. Now, more than ever before, he sees locally sourced products. All you need to do is look at the amount of farmers markets today. This, in turn, has given chefs — even those who may cook only at home — a greater opportunity to buy local.
But beyond this devotion to Hawaii’s food sustainability, Wong also is very involved as a teacher. It is, after all, one of his two desires as a chef (the other being his creative process).
“I really enjoy seeing younger culinarians especially, who possess the right attitude, embrace a commitment to work hard to become better,” he says. “I like teaching that kind of person, and it makes me really happy to see them grow and evolve and excel.
“When you think about giving back,” he adds, “we’re giving back to the community a cook who makes better decisions now.”
Many, he says, have worked in his restaurant and moved on to even greater things.
It’s a reflection that comes at a particularly nostalgic period for Wong. This year, Alan Wong’s Honolulu, which he opened on South King Street in 1995, celebrates its 20th anniversary.
“I’m still amazed that we made 20 years,” he says. “I never imagined that we would even make it to 10 years or 15 years.”
Outside of the kitchen, Wong may be found golfing, traveling, reading taking photos or gathering with friends over a hibachi, when he gets the chance.
“That’s how I got into this business, and it reminds me of that,” he says. “So I always enjoy that.”