BOSTON — JEAN-MARIE JOSSELIN frowns just a little at the subject of Hawaiian stereotypes. Tourists in flowered shirts and muumuus attending luaus, wearing plastic leis, and doing the hula. Little umbrellas in drinks. Lots of pineapple and coconut. Roasted pig and poi.
"I know that it's not all that, so it gives me a chance to explain to the people and to make them understand that yes, there is the pineapple, the little umbrella, and the pig, but there's so much more," he says.
Mr. Josselin is chef and owner of A Pacific Cafe in Kapaa, Kauai, the Hawaiian island northwest of Oahu. Born in France and educated at the Culinary School of Paris, he has embraced the foods of his adopted home of Hawaii and come up with a contemporary version of its cuisine. In addition to running a successful restaurant (another is on the way), he has come out with a colorful cookbook: "A Taste of Hawaii" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang: $35).
What a lot of people don't think about is that Hawaii is truly a "crossroads of the Pacific," says Josselin in French-accented English during a Monitor interview in Boston. Hawaii's geographic position has not only made it a vacation and food paradise (tropical fruits and vegetables, seafood), but also a home for many people from many countries. In addition to native Hawaiians, there are Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, Portuguese, "mainlanders," and others, says Josselin.
What this means for the culinary scene is a concentrated and still-simmering stew of food traditions. Different groups came to Hawaii and added their bit to the stewpot, and a distinct cuisine has evolved. "It was quite interesting to see people had created some kind of taste that was nowhere else," says Josselin, a jovial gentleman who seems almost as Hawaiian as he is French.
"Basically what happened along all these years is [that] people started to mix the different techniques and different tastes together without really any fears," he explains. People would meet at a luau (actually more of a picnic than the events tourists attend at hotels), for example, and exchange ideas. "Slowly, they kind of fused the cuisines together to what is Hawaii today," says Josselin.
The multifaceted, contemporary cuisine of Hawaii hasn't enjoyed much exposure because, like many "ethnic" cuisines, it has traditionally taken a back seat to haute cuisine - cuisines deemed refined by popular perception. Until about 10 years ago, the locals didn't really consider their food "cuisine," Josselin explains. "They never say, `Oh, come and taste my food,' they always say `Oh, it's local food, you aren't going to like it,' because maybe it's not sophisticated or maybe it's not what they think p eople want." But Josselin is brushing the sand off that type of thinking.
Although the description "Pacific Rim" might apply to Josselin's cookery, it is a label he tries to avoid. Nowadays it seems to connote a fad more than an ethnic cuisine, he says. So he and 13 other chefs in Hawaii got together to agree to use "Hawaiian Regional Cuisine."
But the cuisine of Hawaii encompasses more than certain foods and techniques, Josselin points out. He cites "island style," where much emphasis is put on outdoor cooking and entertaining, elegance and beauty, hospitality, family, and friends. "I think people have a lot of tradition. People go to church a lot, they go fishing, they spend time with their family," he says.
Josselin hopes that the contemporary cuisine he's helped bring to light will establish Hawaii in the culinary world and open people's eyes to a new way of cooking, one he describes as "intense" and "explosive," much like Hawaii's natural surroundings.
Part of his mission is to take some of the mystery out of the islands' food, such as the more than 70 species of bananas, hundreds of different kinds of avocados, fruits like lychee nuts, lilikoi, and others, says Josselin. Many find the names of native fish mysterious as well, he adds, such as mahi-mahi or opah.
"People ask `What is that?' " says the chef, laughing, then explains that it's the Hawaiian name for moonfish. "It's almost like you have to stretch your mouth to say it: `OH-pah.' "