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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Top grinds

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

"Top Chef" judges Gail Simmons, left, and chef Tom Colicchio, with host Padma Lakshmi, practice the two-finger poi dip in tomorrow's episode, filmed on the Big Island and featuring lu'au foods.

NBC Universal photos

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Two-part segment airs 8 p.m. tomorrow and Jan. 31, Bravo (Oceanic Cable Channel 40, digital cable Channel 560)

Repeats of previous "Top Chef" episodes air throughout the day; check listings

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It is no accident that Bravo's highly rated "Top Chef" filmed its much-awaited two-part finale, airing tomorrow and Jan. 31, in Hawai'i. The Islands in the form of the Hawai'i Visitors & Convention Bureau and its public-relations agency, McNeil Wilson Communications went after the show.

"We see the cuisine of Hawai'i as unique and distinctive, and of a standard that's worthy of promoting," said Jay Talwar, senior vice president of marketing for the bureau. "And we saw the popularity of TV reality shows and cooking shows. And at the bureau, we're trying not just to get more and more visitors, but more of the right type of visitors. So we said, 'Let's go for a home run, let's go after the bigger shows,' and 'Top Chef' is definitely the one."

HVCB's Darlene Morikawa coordinated a team to woo the producers of "Top Chef," hosting show officials on a series of top-secret scouting trips in June, August and October.

The producers visited O'ahu and the Big Island, met with local culinary experts such as chef and restaurateur Alan Wong, master sommelier Chuck Furuya and food writer Joan Namkoong, toured farms and the Honolulu Fish Auction, dropped in on the "Taste of the Hawaiian Range" food festival and ate at local restaurants.

Despite the Islands' allure, the campaign wasn't a sure thing, by any means.

"Everybody wants to come to Hawai'i, of course," said Talwar, but the producers had to be convinced that Hawai'i's culinary infrastructure, so to speak, was up to their high standards.

Andy Cohen, senior vice president of programming and production at Bravo, said that after the scouting trips, they realized that "not only is Hawai'i a fantastic tourist destination, it has a unique culinary heritage that is largely unexplored on the Mainland. We knew it would be a picturesque and dramatic spot for our finale and would allow us to expose our viewers to a different style of food and the freshest ingredients."

The producers chose the Big Island and headquartered at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, which offers an exceptionally spacious back-of-the-house and many restaurants and meeting rooms.

But, said Talwar, "we could have told the same story on any island."

Part of the appeal, of course, was the scenic beauty here.

"I can't tell you exactly what they did, but they do get out of the kitchen. They got up in helicopters. They went to some very special places and were extremely well hosted by some very special people on the Big Island," said Talwar, who, like others involved with the shooting swore to keep details of the segments confidential until air time.

On TV tomorrow, the four remaining contestants will prepare their version of lu'au foods, with Wong as guest judge.

Next week, two remaining contestants will cook for a tough crowd: Michelle Bernstein of Michy's in Miami, Wylie Dufresne of New York's WD50, Scott Conant of New York's L'Impero and Alto, Hubert Keller of San Francisco's Fleur de Lys and Hawai'i's own Roy Yamaguchi.

Yamaguchi was delighted to see the Islands recognized as a culinary destination.

But, he said, "I didn't really expect (the contestants) to be as good as they were. I thought the personality would be there, but I didn't think they were going to be able to deliver on the food. But they were right on. The flavors were great. I was actually shocked."

"These chefs are very creative. They are truly in tune with who they are and how they want to express themselves."

He also saw something else: "The ability to communicate under pressure that's where many people falter, and that's where the chefs were particularly compelling. Talk about pressure!"

But for Yamaguchi, as for Talwar, the real star of these shows is Hawai'i. "We're able to really show the world what we can do."

Yamaguchi and other chefs have spent the last 20 years partnering with local food producers to reduce the Islands' dependence on imported products and increase agricultural diversity.

"To have a show where you have the beautiful landscape, and combine that with Hawai'i food, that was definitely a great thing for the state," Yamaguchi said.

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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