excerpts from “The Boys are Back in Town” by Martha Cheng, Honolulu Magazine June 2010
“When we [Chong and a handful of other Hawaii cooks], all left Hawaii we were all saying we don’t want to do this Pacific Rim stuff,” Chong says. “That’s why we went abroad, to learn other things.” In his time away, he worked his way from “the bottom of the bottom”—cooking for the chef’s dog at Le Cirque in New York—to opening a Le Cirque in Mexico at age 26 and supervising a brigade of 60 cooks.
As soon as he got married, he returned to Hawaii, and for the past five years, he’s been Chef Mavro’s chef de cuisine, bringing global flavors to Hawaii Regional Cuisine. These days, he says “some dishes may have Moroccan, some Indian, some maybe Vietnamese, Korean or French.” Is it Pacific Rim? An escabeche of abalone with Manchego cheese croquette, serrano ham and sundried tomato sauce, inspired by time spent in Spain, is not. The betel-nut kurobuta pork loin with green papaya salad and lemongrass pork jus, with its Vietnamese flavorings, is. For Chong, now 33, experience, a Vietnamese sous chef and Chinese pastry chef have tempered his disdain for Asian fusion. “I love Pacific Rim,” he now says. “It’s just how you interpret Pacific Rim.”
Do all paths in Hawaii lead to Asian fusion? Will all chefs succumb to the tyranny of Pacific Rim? Sure, it’s delicious, but isn’t a little variety good? Even Chong concedes that he might wish for a “real Italian trattoria” in Honolulu, perhaps of the sort his best friend Tony Liu, also a local boy, helms in New York, Morandi.
Chong says, “Cooks from Hawaii have a good reputation in New York. We work harder, we’re the first ones in, last ones out … We didn’t travel all that way to fail.”
“As soon as I got married I decided to resign and go back to Hawaii,” Chong says, “because Hawaii is more laid back, people are more laid back. In the restaurant business it’s not as chaotic and competitive as New York and other countries. I thought I would have a heart attack every day working in a big brigade, big kitchen, with 60 cooks. I’ve reached my goals and now it’s time to do what I want.” He finds his position at Mavro ideal: “I really touch the food and cook.”
The current menu at Mavro is mostly free of Asian flavors—instead, offering up Indian vadouvan, Basque espelette and Middle Eastern tahini in dishes that are still grounded in Hawaii via their use of local products.
Chong believes in a bright future for Hawaii chefs and cooks, particularly those who travel, work outside of the Islands, and return. He sees their Pacific Rim-educated palates as one of their greatest assets: “Cooks from Hawaii have the best palates because they know Japanese and Vietnamese cuisines, [which have] a balance of flavors: sweet, salty, sour, umami, bitter … [and] not just a balance in flavors, but in texture and temperature, cold, hot, crispy, soft.” This sort of food culture, coupled with work and travel to master classic techniques and taste new cuisines, gives Hawaii cooks a strong foundation. “They should come back and produce what they learn and mix things up,” Chong says. “When I ask some cooks from Hawaii on the Mainland: You ever plan on coming back to Hawaii’? It’s ‘No, there’s nothing there.’ What do you mean there’s nothing? If you want to do things differently, you do it.”

Kevin Chong succeeded in the trial-by-fire kitchens of New York City, then returned home to become Chef Mavro’s chef de cuisine. Photo: Olivier Koning