Talks About Rules, The Perks Of Big Hotel Cooking And Secret Ingredients
Chef Adam Hightower arrived in Honolulu less than a year ago as chef du tournant for the Hilton Hawaiian Village–one of the only culinary positions that could possibly offer him even less sleep than his previous gig at the Ritz-Carlton, Naples–the brand's flagship hotel. Eighteen hour days working for certified master chef Lawrence McFadden gave him the drive he needed to work all 9 Hilton restaurants; but the courage to demand the chef spot at Bali By The Sea--the hotel's esteemed fine dining venue–came from within. Fresh off a feature in Honolulu Magazine that has turned the spotlight on this 28 year old, we caught up with Hightower to see how his dream job has been panning out... quite literally.
B on Hawaii: You studied under two certified master chefs, worked in countless kitchens during a one-year pilgrimage through Europe, have been a national trainer for P.F. Chang's, worked country clubs and Ritz Carlton's: Why here, why now"
Chef Adam Hightower: My father was born here, and my parents used to bring us out to Hawaii from Michigan every summer as kids. At 11, I told them this is where I would live some day. They never believed me. I was coming towards the tail end of my "10 states in 10 years" goal when a call from Hawaii came. It was time.
B: So you were ready to settle?
AH: I figured I'd already lost one fiance to working the chef lifestyle, so if I ever wanted to find another I knew I would have to settle down somewhere I know I would love living. I'm certainly not going to work any less--I'm a perfectionist.
B: Let's talk food. There's a rumor that independent restaurant owners and chefs can meet with local fishermen, while the larger operations--like a hotel restaurant--has to use whatever the hotel can get through corporate supplier relations. Is there any truth to that statement?
AH: I try to get as much whole fish as possible, so there's no way to hide it's freshness. You've got the color of the gills, the eyes, the smell and the touch. They're all variables that I can see plain as day, so I can control what comes in my kitchen. If I have to get fillets, then I can get them from anywhere. I have a deal with the Hilton--if they can't get me what I want, than I can go anywhere. But we work well together, as we have an awesome purchasing team. For example, I needed something that had to be imported from France; I had it on my desk in 3 days, no questions asked.
B: Really. What was it?
AH: I was making a Hawaiian version of a famous dessert--it's not on the menu yet, so I don't want to fully announce it--but it called for this specific pear ingredient. I already found Hawaiian grown vanilla bean, and I imported Bosch pears from Japan. But the compound I needed only came from France. It's like a syrup crossed with a liquor, with an indescribable taste.
B: Sounds like it could be a delicate relationship. Ever feel like you're pushing it?
AH: It's my job! I need to keep things creative, just as they need to keep the numbers down. We make it work. It's a fun game.
B: Any issues with getting ingredients locally? I've heard all the pluses: You run in to any problems?
AH: Almost all of our fish comes from the local auction. But unfortunately there's been quite a bit of over-fishing--here and everywhere. You won't find a menu in Waikiki without Opakapaka on it, yet because it's such a popular dish, we have to get a lot of it imported from Australia. You won't see it printed on the menu as so, but that's another issue. We haven't united as chefs and said "Hey, maybe we should let it come back." It's something I would like to organize, down the road, when I find time.
B: Wow, didn't know about the Opakapaka from down under. Any other "foreign" fish varieties that are often cloaked as "local" that would surprise readers?
AH: A surprising number of the Mahi Mahi are from elsewhere as well. You can tell by the pricing. It can double or triple, depending on how far it came from. Believe it or not, the lesser expensive Mahi on many menu's might be the freshest, as it's been caught locally. Not always, but sometimes.
B: What other local growers do you use? Are you impressed with the quality of product that is grown here, as compared to other places you've cooked?
AH: I use almost everything Hamakua Farms will send me. The "Bali Mushroom Mix" on the menu is actually all from Hamakua. Nalo Farms in Waimanalo has some of the finest green product I've ever worked with. Awesome stuff.
B: Let's talk about your culinary roots. How deep do they run? A lot of younger chefs are known for straying far from their tutelage, attempting to carve a name for themselves as something completely new and different. What's your stance?
AH: Wow, you're really getting in there! No one's asked me that before...
B: Welcome to "B on Hawaii"
AH: Thanks, honored. Anyway, I do tend to use a lot of European technique, as that's my predominant background. I pair that with what's indigenous to Hawaii, and using a different approach is hopefully enough to create a little buzz here at Bali.
But you absolutely need to have a set of rules, that I firmly believe. If there's no black and white--no standard--then you get in to some problems.
If you call something a beurre blanc, it's got to be beurre blanc. You can put your own twist on it–call it a mango beurre blanc because you're in Hawaii–but if it doesn't have that foundation, and you're not following the principal rules, then what's the point in sending these kids to culinary school? It's useless. You have to have some kind of control. There needs to be a base in which to launch your experiments from. There will always be variables, but you can't do it without that base. That's the magic of it.
B: What about special dining events, and so on?
AH: I would like to do more chef's table type things. Sit people down for 6 or 7 courses over 3 hours, pair wines, and really get in deep with a theme. A lot of guests are, or consider themselves "foodies" these days. It would be great to offer them something that really held their attention, gave them something to talk about when they returned home.
B: How often would you do these?
AH: Once a night, if I could, over the course of 6 weeks. I would go out and talk to the table–which I do anyway, as it's my favorite part of the job–but really talk to people about the dishes.
B: Talk a little bit about something that surprised you when you moved to Hawaii. A style of preparation, an ingredient, a restaurant--something that you weren't expecting that has changed your cooking at Bali.
AH: Well, I hate cooking at home–as you can imagine–so I don't do it. I love heading to Sansei, Haleiwa Joe's on the North Shore, even Hiroshi. But one place that has blown me away is Daiei. That market has so many ingredients that I have never heard of before, it's like a candy shop. There's so much to play with.
B: Tell me something interesting you found there?
AH: I found a few different kinds of eel that I had never seen before. I paired them with foie gras at Bali, and the dish was awesome. People really had no idea what to expect, and it was very well received.
B: Do you think this is a widely accepted philosophy within Hawaii?
AH: I don't know, it always boils down to the chef. But I know Chef Mavro would agree. I've dined at his restaurant, and he's definitely following a set of guidelines. I like his experimenting a lot.
B: How do you maintain that solid foundation at Bali?
AH: We just did an extensive session with the waitstaff. I want them to know the words that are on my menu: Gastriques, julienne, gnage--they have to know what all these things are. They are European based, but I'm using them with products that are indigenous to Hawaiian. That's my spin--but the staff has to know the backgrounds in order to understand where I'm going out on a ledge.
B: Tell me a little bit about some of the noticeable changes you are making at Bali By The Sea"
AH: I want to add more healthy and lighter dishes to the menu. There's nothing wrong with Bernaise and all that--it's been done for hundreds of years, and there's nothing wrong with seeing it on the plate from time to time. It's classy. But I only appreciate it once in a while.
We're in Hawaii--so why not enjoy the bounty of this place. I like to use lighter ingredients, natural sauces with less butter, cream and fat. You get a better sense of the main feature in the dish.
"There needs to be a base in which to launch your experiments from. There will always be variables, but you can't do it without that base. That's the magic of it."