Hawaiian 'summer camp' for food lovers

Sure, Hawaii has sun, and surf, and hula dancers. So what else is new? Haute cuisine, that's what.

Doubt it? Listen up.

For four days in July, the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows opens its kitchen and Sub-Zero freezers to some of the top chefs anywhere.

And you, too, can come. Cuisines of the Sun is a sort of a summer camp for foodies, a chance to rub elbows and shake whisks with the who's who of culinary wavemakers.

Last summer, six red tents and dozens of tables were sprawled across the sweeping lawn, and 300-plus guests gathered as the sun began to get snuffed out by the blue Pacific.

Beneath the tents, top US and international chefs gathered to demonstrate just why they're the best in their field.

"Under the Ginger Moon" was the theme on the first evening. Six chefs, each with a battery of assistants, set up kitchen and serving tables in the flapping tents.

Finally all things were "go," and the crowds headed for the tents like iron filings to a magnet.

Peter Gordon, consulting chef at London's Sugar Club (named Britain's best modern British restaurant and best Pacific Rim restaurant), was putting the final touches on his Duck and Lime Leaf Wontons With Spicy Tamarillo Chutney, and Smoked Venison on Green Tea Noodles With Shiitake Mushroom and Ginger Dressing.

Meanwhile, others flocked next door where Rocco DiSpirito, of New York's Union Pacific Restaurant, was feeding the masses. Everyone was going ballistic gobbling down Kobe Beef With Charred Spring Onions and a Galangal Glaze, one of five choices. Food & Wine magazine named Mr. DiSpirito America's Best New Chef, and Gourmet magazine, which put him on the cover of a recent issue, hailed him as America's best chef.

(Are you beginning to get the picture of the food quality here?)

People queued up at Alan Wong's tent to sample his Pomegranate Molasses Barbecued Shrimp With Chili Lemon grass and Kabayaki Foie Gras With Banana Pineapple Chutney.

Forks flew and eyes rolled as stomachs filled. And this was just the first night. Each night four different chefs took turns cooking in the tents.

And days held little relief.

Hands-on cooking classes and lectures were given by one or more of the guest chefs in the mornings.

Cuisines of the Sun started modestly in 1990. "It was very small then, less ambitious," says Janice Wald Henderson, the event's coordinator and creator. There were only four chefs, including Alan Wong [a local and internationally acclaimed chef], and about 75 guests. And there were no hands-on classes.

"[Guests] get to travel the world through foods," says Ms. Henderson. "The range of cuisines is phenomenal. Still, it's a small event, a boutique event.

"The chefs ... are very accessible. The environment fosters that," Henderson continues. "It's not at all snobby. First of all, it's Hawaii - and it's relaxed. Still, it emphasizes education in a fun way."

Henderson also mentioned that while other big cities around the country have their own food events, they're much larger and more impersonal.

Although the four-day feast draws mostly fun-loving foodies, less food-minded family members can skip the daytime goings-on, and loll on the beach, play golf, or bask in the endless sun.

You don't have to be a human to eat well at this hotel. Kids save lettuce from their lunch salads and feed it to the endangered Hawaiian green sea turtles on the grounds. For 12 years, Mauna Lani has had a raise-and-release program for these rare turtles.

Laurence and Kiyomi Lueck have been coming to the event since its start. "It was a revelation," says Mr. Lueck. "Other [food events] are nice but disorganized. This one blows the others out of the water. There's no comparison. This is magical. I've even learned a lot about Asian cooking."

"I can't boil water," his Japanese wife admits in a shy whisper.

Look for the Luecks to return to Cuisines of the Sun this year: "I'm coming for as long as I can eat," he adds.

Another couple from New York plans to make it a yearly event. "You really can't put a price on it," says a gentleman who asks not to be named. "Imagine Jean-Louis Palladin in the kitchen cooking for us. We ate at his restaurant once and paid $30 just for an appetizer."

Lorraine Lim from Oak View, Calif., came with her beau, Glenn Fout, for the first time several years ago.

Mr. Fout was a correctional officer at a prison. He was so taken with the event's quality and excitement that he went back to California, quit his job, married Ms. Lim, and they now run a catering business together.

And all this from the land that gave the world poi, and tops the country in Spam consumption.

This year's Cuisines of the Sun theme is "Adventures in Paradise: The Sizzle of a Summertime Celebration." The culinary extravaganza runs from July 21-25. For more information call 888-424-1977 or see www. maunalani.com/dining.cuisines.asp.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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