(love to eat)
BY JON LETMAN
Outside of Hawai‘i the idea of getting married in the islands is, for many, something of a dream. Visions of swaying palms, a manicured lawn dotted with plumeria trees and smiling guests in colorful Aloha shirts showering the newlyweds in fragrant jasmine blossoms are stock images that make a Hawaiian wedding so desirable. But anyone who has ever planned a wedding in Hawai‘i knows that, like anywhere else, it can be as challenging as it is fun. Venues must be chosen, invitations prepared and food selected. The wedding reception’s menu helps set the tone for the day and, with a dizzying variety of food options representing the many cultures of the islands, a Hawaiian-inspired menu makes for an unforgettable experience.
One important consideration when planning a wedding in the islands is to remember that Hawaiian wedding receptions tend to be large. Really large.
“At a minimum, 400 guests,” says Manuel Cabral, owner of Pupus Etc., a family-run catering business in Hanapēpē on Kaua‘i’s west side. “That’s minimum. I’ve done weddings up to 1,200.” Cabral says that when a family member gets married, everyone comes—but knowing the families personally helps him better anticipate how many guests might attend.
Cabral has catered weddings on O‘ahu and as far away as Las Vegas. He says that even among the Hawaiian Islands, ingredients and preparation methods vary considerably.
In August 2009 Cabral catered his own daughter Shantell’s wedding on Kaua‘i’s west side. Going all out, he oversaw the preparation of more than 40 different items served at food stations set up around the Kekaha Neighborhood Center. Rather than serve a traditional Hawaiian plate, Cabral says he tried to incorporate all different ethnic culinary traditions together under one tent. To do that, he prepared three types of poke, wontons, chicken hekka, fried ika, marinated char sui, edamame, shrimp and fish tempura, mac salad, hot seafood salad, ocean salad, noodles, pork and peas, adobo, kalua pig, chicken kelaguen, lomi salmon, shrimp patties, pasteles, chicharrón, fern shoots, Spanish rice, Guamanian red rice, poi, huli huli roast pig, vegetable platters, lumpia, spring rolls, kimchi cucumber and chicken wings.
Relying on local fisherman and divers, Cabral also served deep sea fish like onaga and grey snapper and reef fish like akule, palani, manini and ‘opihi, raw crab and baked uhu (parrot fish) with Portuguese sausage.
(Ono)Pop goes the wedding On O‘ahu last June food writer Catherine Toth took time out from her nonstop blogging (The Cat Dish) to marry her fiancé Derek Taira. They invited some 200 people for the reception, which was held on the grounds of the Honolulu Aquarium. They set up food stations representing half a dozen vendors from around the city, selecting some of her own favorite places—Alicia’s Market (Kalihi), Tanioka’s Seafoods & Catering (Waipahu) and vegetarian chili from Rainbow Drive-in (mauka of Waikīkī).
“It was important for me to use local vendors and family-run businesses that had a good reputation,” says Toth.
Toth’s own hand-picked menu included local favorites like garlic chicken, Spam musubi and huli huli chicken from Hoku BBQ (Kalihi). They also had made-to-order sushi from Masa’s Sushi in Chinatown. “I knew my guests were going to be all local and that if we offered local favorites it would be a hit and still within our budget.” For sweets, Toth ordered blue and white “wavy” frosted cupcakes from Aloha Cakery with white sugar “shells” that reflected the bride and groom’s love of surfing as well as the aquarium venue, which remained open during the reception for guests’ private viewing. One unorthodox addition to Toth’s reception menu were Hawaiianstyle popsicles from OnoPops, which is known for its original and distinctly Hawaiian flavor combinations like Pineapple Li Hing, Guava Tamarind and Kula Strawberry Maui Goat Cheese. “I had an assortment brought in and people could grab what they wanted. It was perfect for a really hot day and definitely the highlight for a lot of people,” Toth says. “It was pretty rad.”
Toth points out that “when you go to a venue that doesn’t have any catering on the premises, it opens it up for whatever you want. I had so much more control over the food I wanted to serve and, for me, it wasn’t any more expensive than if I’d gone to a hotel or venue that had a caterer.”
Some of this, some of that Nathan Kam, a public relations executive at McNeil Wilson Communications, says he is always intrigued by what people serve at wedding receptions.
“You might have something your auntie on the Big Island made special for you. If you have connections you might have ‘opihi or the marlin your uncle caught.” Kam speaks of a cross-pollination of cultures as people serve favorites like poke, raw tako (octopus), edamame with something typically American like fried chicken or scalloped potatoes alongside Korean bulgogi, Filipino pork blood, Hawaiian taro or breadfruit chips and sushi or roast pig. One of Hawai‘i’s best-known chefs and restaurateurs who caters weddings is Chai Chaowasaree, owner of the popular Chai’s Island Bistro (now closed; his new restaurant Chef Chai at Pacifica opened earlier this year). Chef Chai subscribes to a health-conscious style of cooking that emphasizes fresh, local and organic ingredients. When hired to cater a wedding, however, he says the client is king and he’s prepared to serve whatever they want, be it Asian-Fusion, vegan, local Hawaiian-style or anything else.
Chef Chai, who caters weddings mostly on O‘ahu (Kāhala and the North Shore are popular settings), says one thing that makes his catering stand out is the fact that he personally oversees events himself and he and his staff cook everything onsite rather than in a remote kitchen.
It’s important for Chef Chai to know his clients well and understand who their guests will be. Are there a lot of vegans or are they die-hard carnivores? Will they be ravenous poke eaters? Will they be receptive to small plates of fresh ahi katsu with mango salsa and wasabi curry or should he stick with something like his deconstructed beef tenderloin Wellington dish?
Chef Chai’s wedding favorites include chocolate haupia mousse cake and a dramatic signature kataifi and macadamia nut–crusted jumbo black tiger prawns—dishes that reflect the blending of cultures and ingredients typical of Hawai’i‘.
And although his job is preparing food, Chef Chai says a wedding reception’s setting and decorations create the overall mood. With so much else to worry about, Chef Chai tells his clients that once the menu is selected “the food is taken care of.”
“We cook everything onsite so the food is hot and fresh. Our veggies are bright and green and that makes us different,” says the Chef Chai. “Everything must be perfect—this is the most important day of your life.”