IN his glass-walled office at the rear of Halekulani Hotel kitchens, executive chef George Mavrothalassitis explains why he never wanted to be a chef in Hawaii.
``In the mid 1980s, every hotel was serving the same menu ... smoked salmon, shrimp cocktail, and mahi-mahi with macadamia nuts,'' he says with a quintessential French accent. ``Hawaii had a terrible reputation for cuisine ... [you had to] either hold your nose while eating, or leave your tastebuds at home.''
But when the management of the Halekulani - one of the island's most upscale hotels - pressured him to take a closer look, he was pleasantly surprised.
``I couldn't believe the number and quality of delicious fresh fish, the local herbs, and fruits. It was a cornucopia of possibilities just waiting to be exploited,'' he says.
Now with a half-dozen years behind him at Halekulani (Hawaiian for ``house befitting heaven''), Mr. Mavrothalassitis is part of a regional movement that has swept Hawaii, putting it on the world culinary map. Still known more by locals than tourists, especially those seeking out the latest in innovative cooking, the movement made up of 12 chefs calls itself ``Hawaiian Regional Cuisine'' (HRC).
The idea for such a group began percolating about 1988, when a handful of chefs consulted local farmers and fisherman about cultivating and harvesting special vegetables, fruits, herbs, local game, and exotic reef fish.
A local cottage industry developed as the chefs brought their classical techniques from cooking schools on the mainland and overseas and began ``classing up'' local recipes with European and Asian sauces relying on local ingredients, special searing methods, woks, and mesquite-wood ovens.
HRC formally merged in 1991, when the state's top chefs banded together to trumpet the best of what the island paradise had to offer: not only its variety of unique local ingredients, but also preparations drawing on the rich mix of cultures here - Hawaiian, American, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, Thai, and European.
In just a few years, HRC has become known for elevating Hawaiian cuisine to a high level of sophistication.
``Every top food magazine in the world has come in here in the last two years and left talking about the transformation,'' says Nadine Kim, food writer for the Honolulu Star Bulletin.
Kaui Philpotts, food editor of the Honolulu Advertiser, is also exuberant about the much-improved quality of island food. ``Hawaii has been elevated from an impossibly bad situation into a world of unique cuisine to be proud of,'' she says. Ten years ago, ``you could throw all the menus of Hawaii up in the air, and it didn't matter which restaurant owner caught which menu - they were all the same. Now original things are happening.... ''
Last spring, the 12 chefs came out with a cookbook titled, ``The New Cuisine of Hawaii'' (146 pp., Villard Books, $29). Also, many more chefs are following in the footsteps of HRC, and they're helping make prices more affordable to the average pocketbook.
``At this stage everything is excellent,'' says renowned teacher, author, and food historian Madeleine Kamman. After a recent visit here, the director of Beringer's School (in California's Napa Valley) for American chefs praised the many influences introduced by the HRC chefs, raved about the superior quality of local fish, and acknowledged that a trend is emerging.
Instead of frozen mahi-mahi, flown in from Taiwan and Fiji Islands - because many tourists didn't know the difference - restaurantgoers on five islands have more than a dozen places to sample such exotic local fish as kumu, ono, onaga, and opakapaka. Iceberg lettuce with canned pineapple has been replaced with more unusual options such as pohole (fiddlehead) fern salad with Waimea tomatoes and Maui onions.
Potatoes and rice have been replaced with side dishes of Puna goat cheese, Ka'u oranges with lemongrass dressing, papaya salsa or bisque. Desserts are now an abundance of mango custards, lychee-ginger sorbet, or coconut-papaya tapioca.
HRC is not so much a style as a philosophy. Each of the 12 chefs brings a unique inspiration.
At Roy's in Honolulu, for instance, Japanese-born Roy Yamaguchi melds his classic European training - emphasized by light sauces - with spicy Asian flavors such as curry.
His approach reflects his study of Zen Buddhism: ``My most important goal is not letting culinary ego get in the way of what the customer loves,'' says Yamaguchi, sporting a blue-beaked cap, emblazoned with Mickey Mouse. ``I'm not sitting in the back of my restaurant dreaming up incredible dishes to impress myself.''
Texas-born Amy Ferguson Ota blends Cajun and Southern ideas into her fare. Peter Merriman, who most say was the primary catalyst for HRC, tries to preserve country methods of braising and roasting that he feels are forgotten in many contemporary restaurants.
And back at Mavrothassalitis's own Orchid's Restaurant, George ``Mavro'' talks of plans to show off Molokai-grown fennel, lemon-grass from Maui and local, Oahu-grown watercress, which he says has a subtle yet peppery flavor like no other food in the world.