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Sit-Down Dinner at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel Kicks off Hawaii Food & Wine Festival

October 3, 2021, 6:30 AM HST
* Updated October 2, 5:13 PM
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Chefs and foodies alike celebrated the return of Hawaiʻi Food & Wine Festival at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Autograph Collection, on Friday, Oct. 1.

Approximately 140 people attended a sit-down dinner at the resort’s luau grounds for the festival’s first event, Pele and Poliʻahu. Treated to a six-course meal, the menu offered a variety of local cuisine.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced festival founders to cancel the event in 2020. However, they were able to bring it back for its 11th year on a smaller scale. On Friday evening, CEO and Co-founder of the event Denise Yamaguchi said she felt this year’s festival remained true to its mission in spotlighting local agriculture and promoting sustainability.

“We’ve always been committed to that,” Yamaguchi said. “When we talk about Hawaiʻi, we want it represented in the right way.”

The pandemic, Yamaguchi said, brought a focus to the festival of mālama ʻāina (caring for the land). By doing this, they decided to partner with nonprofits that put an emphasis on caring for the land and the Hawaiian people.

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The festival’s events kicked off with chefs from across the nation learning about the cultural significance of kalo (taro). To do this, the five chefs visited the five-acre taro patch Kapapa Loʻi o Kealiʻikuaʻāina in Waipiʻo Valley. The patch is owned and operated by the nonprofit Kū A Kanaka.

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“Being able to slow it (festival) down and take a deeper dive in showcasing sustainability and culture meant a lot,” she said. “We’re very happy with how it turned out.”

Chef Michael Ginor presented the evening’s third dish, “Torchon of Hudson Valley Foie Gras.”

Ginor has participated in the festival since its inception. This year was different in the fact the COVID-19 pandemic continues to loom over everything, forcing last-minute adaptations.

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Originally, Ginor said he was scheduled to create a dish for a walk-around event for 500 guests. It was whittled down to a sit-down dinner for 140.

What makes the Hawaiʻi Food and Wine Festival special is not just the location, but the founders, Roy and Denise Yamaguchi, Ginor said, adding they find different ways to engage the chefs with the Hawaiian culture.

“Coming to Hawaiʻi is a huge cultural and educational experience,” the chef said.

Ginor said it’s unique for a food festival to get past five years. He attributes the success of the event to the co-founders.

“These events allow us to interact with each other,” Ginor said. “It allows us to come together and share thoughts and ideas.”

At the end of the night, the chefs were brought up and introduced to the dinner party. Chef Robert Del Grande, of Houston, Texas, created the second dish of the evening, Hawaiian Octopus.

This was his 10th year attending the festival. When he comes to the annual event, he said, he likes to marry his Southwest cuisine to Hawaiʻi’s.

Like Ginor, he was also excited the festival was rescheduled, amid the looming pandemic.

“When things are difficult, it’s always good to come home,” Del Grande said, adding, “Every time I come here, I feel like I’m coming home.”

Chef Jason Neroni, from Venice, Calif., has attended the festival for five years now. He created the night’s fourth dish, BBQ Hawaiian Prawns.

“It’s a pleasure and honor to come to Hawaiʻi and show what we can do,” Neroni said.

The California chef believes the Hawaiʻi Food & Wine Festival is one of the best food festivals in the world.

“Back home, it’s become a tradition to come here with our family,” Neroni said.

Chef Edward Lee, of Louisville, Ky., delivered the fifth dish of Beef Kalbi Jjim with Taro and Hōio. This was his first time at the festival.

“I haven’t taken a vacation in a year and a half; I’m here and I may never leave,” Lee said.

The festival organizers abided by the stateʻs COVID-19 health and safety guidelines put out by local and state officials.

Two local chefs also participated in the event. Ryan Brannigan, chef for Manta at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, presented the first dish that focused on Hawaiian kanpachi and Kona abalone.

The final dish was a dessert and created by Michael Moorehouse, chef for Mauna Kea Resort. Guests were treated to a Citrus Pavlova.

Officials said guest safety was a top priority as well as being mindful of audience sentiment, particularly with Gov. David Ige’s new extension of restrictions on Friday.

Click here for schedule of events throughout the festival.

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