An HRC chef looks back–and ahead
Roger Dikon is one of The Twelve. Not the apostles, but the Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC), chefs who came together 20 years ago and created a movement that was key in birthing today’s rich Island food landscape. The historic first gathering took place at Dikon’s then culinary home, the Maui Prince Hotel, and it was he who linked these energetic, experimental young chefs with a customer and friend, rock promoter Shep Gordon, who helped them get serious.
The chefs pooled their lists of suppliers, wrote a book (“The New Cuisine of Hawai’i,” with Janice Wald Henderson; Villard, 1994). And the press descended. Farmers and other food producers flourished and grew.
Dikon left Hawai’i in 1995 to “retire” at age 45 to his wife, Mary’s, native Ecuador. But, though he’s not a native Islander (he’s from New Jersey by way of Vermont), he missed “home.” Now he and Mary are back.
When you came here, what did you know about Hawai’i?
Nothing, I knew nothing. … I was working at a steakhouse in San Juan Capistrano and Hans-Peter Hager hired me over the phone to open the Kapalua Bay Resort. … But when I got here, Kapalua wasn’t ready to open, so he sent me over to the Mauna Kea (Beach Hotel) for three months. I loved it. I was living rent-free on the ocean, working at one of the great hotels of the world and one of the chefs had a boat and we’d go out fishing three times a week and sell the fish to the hotel. Hager called and I said, ‘I don’t want to go back,’ but I had a contract … (Working the resort’s lu’au operation) I began to learn about local food and I really liked it. We had this Japanese-Portuguese butcher who was teaching me about everything. That’s how it started.
What was the highlight of that time for you?
Doing the James Beard House (in 1993). I remember some big to-do in the Hawaiian Airlines hangar with the 12 of us cooking and Alan came up with his tomato water ‘opihi shooter and I was doing my flank steak poke ceviche with. Those were sooooo good. Anyway, we got picked to do the James Beard House and somehow I got to do the menu and I told Alan, ‘Sorry, but you gotta do the shooter.’ They put us up in the Waldorf, they flew all the Aluli ladies over (the singing group Puamana), we had an open charge account at Zabar’s. It was crazy: five chefs in this tiny kitchen, cooking all day going out every night to some famous chef’s place. Good fun.
Why’d you leave?
Mary decided she wanted our children to know her home country. We’d made a lot of money, Ecuador’s cheap, we decided to retire. So we packed up three houses, shipped like 10,000 pounds including 1,500 cookbooks, that took six months to get there and we went to this beautiful valley outside of Quito. … The markets and the street food were just unbelievable. That was the high point of my day, going out and getting their version of a plate lunch for $1.You never knew what you were gonna get, maybe it’d be catfish soup or liver or some kind of chicken. Cilantro was a penny a pound. fresh fish was 15 cents a pound. (Make a long story short, he got dragged back into the restaurant business, the economy and the Ecuadorean political scene went nuts, they decided to move back to the U.S. where he served as executive chef at two prestigious Florida resorts.)
You made the decision to come back after the 20th anniversary HRC celebration and your induction into the Hawaii Cooking Hall of Fame. Why?
Just to come back and feel the aloha spirit, not only people we knew welcoming us back but the overall feeling of aloha in Hawaii is so strong. We had such a good time; we came THIS CLOSE to moving to Hana. Mary wanted to get into planting and gardening and I thought about doing a food truck. (After a presentation at Maui Community College, MCC culinary program director) Chris Speare chased me out to the parking lot with an application to teach there. Suddenly, we just wanted to come back so bad.
What are you doing now?
Executive chef at Roberts Hawaii (not just a bus company; they operate Ali’i Kai Catamaran Cruises and the Magic of Polynesia Show and cater 800-1,000 meals a day; Roberts Hawaii president Percy Higashi was food and beverage manager at Maui Prince during Dikon’s tenure). I’ve changed the menu to incorporate as much local food as I can (fresh fish, local vegetables and rice, noodles OR potatoes).
And what does it feel like to see what happened?
We just planted the seed. I am so happy to see the success everybody is having, not just the chefs I knew but it’s multiplied so much. You can go anywhere in Hawaii and get a great meal. What I’m doing now is tourist food, yes, but it’s more local and they’re cleaning their plates.