The long list of Chef Sam Choy’s accolades seem endless as he has starred in his own cooking show, appeared on various Food Network Challenges, written 16 cookbooks, and won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Pacific Region. But as far as we’re concerned, his greatest achievement – as the leading authority on authentic Hawaiian cuisine, is bringing a taste of the islands to the mainland with Sam Choy’s Pineapple Express. Offering “more hula for your moolah,” Sam Choy’s style of Hawaiian comfort food reflects the melting pot and heritage of the Hawaiian islands. But what is Hawaiian comfort food? We asked Chef Sam Choy and heard it straight from the horses’ mouth.
1) How do you define authentic Hawaiian cuisine?
To define authentic Hawaiian cuisine it is important to look at the history of the Hawaiian Islands. Being surrounded by the ocean, seafood is a major component of Hawaiian cuisine – when the islands were developing, we did not have access to the open ocean, and most of the fish we caught were reef fish. We also are lucky to have a great climate for growing vegetables, and I see both as true indicators of Hawaiian cuisine. And of course, we love to cook food utilizing hot rocks, drying and salting (using only local sea salt!) and an underground oven we call an Emu.
2) How does your menu depart from traditional Hawaiian food?
Pineapple Express always has one or two dishes cooked in the traditional style – whether in an emu or on hot stones – but the flavor we impart really takes it to the next level! I like to think that we embrace authentic ingredients through a modern approach. Because Hawaii is an amalgam of many different countries, Hawaiian food has a very unique flavor. I’ve always explored new flavors of food but have never changed my cooking style throughout my career.
3) What was your favorite Hawaiian dish growing up?
Poke! It is something that I’ve always liked, and you don’t want to mess with it. It is healthy, fresh, and it’s an important dish to my cooking style. I want poke to be viewed on the same level as sushi and sashimi, and I feel we are starting to see it reaching that appreciation and understanding just now.
4) As an Island State, I’m sure there is some emphasis on self-reliance. I see that you grow your own organic fruits and vegetables, does this in any way reflect your experiences growing up in Hawaii?
You wouldn’t believe it but 85% of all food today is still shipped into the Islands. Our local food industries work hard to be educated by farmers, and as chefs we help to educate them as well. I am steadfast in my purchase and use of local and organic products, and our mission is to decrease the number of imported foods annually. Our climate and weather is perfect for growing year-round! It’s great to watch how sustainable solutions are beginning to take root on the Islands, and see the public begin to care about knowing what varieties of fruits, vegetables, and even fish are available during the seasons.
5) Is there any one emotion/feeling you would like to impart on your patrons after their experience with Pineapple Express?
I want everyone who visits the truck to feel like they are being transported to Hawaii and to enjoy the food as an extension of the Islands – to feel the Aloha Spirit!
Follow Pineapple Express on Twitter@PineapplXpress1 to find them on the road.
Interviewed by Natalie Woyshner.