For a Modern Luxury Hawai‘i assignment, I was lucky to be able to interview three chefs participating in this year’s Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival, happening Oct. 14–30 on three islands and with more kitchen and bar talent than ever before. I figured most media would be mobbing the new names—especially returning local heroes Chung Chow of New York’s Noreetuh and Ravi Kapur of Liho Liho Yacht Club in San Francisco. So I selected three veterans to find out what they think of the islands’ signature food event and see what they’re up to.
At the top of my list was Bruce Bromberg, half of the fraternal team (with his brother Eric) behind the Blue Ribbon restaurant group. Some of my seminal food education moments happened in Bruce and Eric Bromberg’s pioneering Blue Ribbon Brasserie and Blue Ribbon Sushi, both in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. The Le Cordon Bleu–trained duo are the people who made bone marrow a thing in the U.S. at Blue Ribbon, where the dish is still on the menu (and still under $20!) 24 years later. Open til 4am, Blue Ribbon was and is a post-work spot for cooks.
I thought Bruce would call me from New York. Was I surprised to learn that he had moved to Hawai‘i Island last year. The place had made such an impression on him when he cooked at a James Beard dinner there in 2013, that he and his wife and daughter relocated to the Kohala area—not far from the Hilton Waikoloa Village where he’s one of seven culinary stars cooking at HFWF’s Hot Lava, Hotter Cuisine Oct. 22.
Food festivals are everywhere now—and I see you were on the culinary advisory board of the Life Is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas. What spurred you to participate in the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival?
My wife, daughter and I moved to Hawaii last year. We are living on the Big Island and have been really amazed by the growing culinary scene. Not only in the restaurants, but also with the level of diversity and world-class products that come out of the rich Hawaiian soil. We have met many farmers, ranchers and restaurateurs who are extremely passionate about their island’s capacity of sustainability and the future of Hawai‘i as a leader and great example of how proper stewardship of the land can bare better communities; a concept that lies at the heart of the Hawaiian culture. This passion has resonated with me since the first time I visited the island and found myself wanting to be a part of this amazing food culture—so the festival is a perfect match.
Do you know yet what you’ll be serving? If yes, how do you decide what to make for a festival? Do you take local ingredients and audience into account, or just make whatever you feel like making?
I don’t yet know what I will be making but I have forged many new relationships with the local farmers and ranchers so there is a myriad of options to pick from. I will definitely keep the Hawaiian culture and traditions in mind when crafting the final recipes
When you attend food festivals, do you actually do some of the cooking, or do you bring a team with you?
It always depends on the situation but I will certainly be cooking at the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival. I live just down the road from the event so I will be intimately involved in every step of the execution of the dishes.
What inspired your move from the Big Apple to the Big Island?
I came to the Big Island for the first time in 2013 for a James Beard dinner that I did with Jonathan Waxman, Nancy Silverton and Aaron Sanchez on the stunning Kohala Coast. Before we even left that week, my wife and I knew that we had found our new home, we fell in love with the island, her culture and ‘ohana and knew that this was were we wanted to raise our little girl. Hawai‘i is a very powerful yet gentle place. Whenever I leave her shores for the mainland and beyond there is always a strong urge to return. Her honesty and purity of ingredients, the warmth of her sun and from the Hawaiian people, and of course our home is what draws me back the most.
As one of the country’s most successful restaurateurs, what do you think of the Hawai‘i restaurant scene?
I am really impressed with where the food scene is heading on the islands. I think that there is a trend to work with what is local and fresh and it directly relates to the change in farming and butchery. Years ago the islands were able to produce a vast variety of products and nourish the inhabitants without importation. When the pineapple and sugar cane crops took over the islands’ farms we lost this independence. I feel that we are at the cusp of something really great on the islands, and that the return to diversity and cooks and chefs alike are reveling in this newfound freedom and direction. I truly believe that the Hawaiian food scene will be at the forefront in our country.
Besides being marketing and money-making tools, what purpose do food festivals serve—are they a good thing?
I think that there are all types of food festivals and they are made for all sorts of reasons; some good, some less good. I believe at the heart of any good food festival is the desire to bring people together to learn about what that specific place has to offer, its people and to celebrate the joy of breaking bread together. I started a festival in Las Vegas a few years back that was built on those principles, we wanted to make something really different, remove the chefs and participants from the common box that they are put into and really let them be creative and tap into what made them chefs and involved in the culinary world in the first place. When that festival took a turn and it became more of a marketing and bottom line–focused event I stepped away, food and the celebration of it is far too sacred for me and it just didn’t feel right anymore. Here in Hawai‘i I believe that we have an amazing opportunity because it truly represents the Islands, her bounty and her people as the stars of the event. I am incredibly proud to be a part of this event and hope to be able to be a part of the food culture of such a magical and unique place for many years to come.
I was an editor at the Time Out Eating & Drinking Guide in the late 90s, early 00s, so am familiar with the cult of your Blue Ribbon bone marrow. Was the dish inspired by your time in Paris? Taking off from pot au feu?
Amazingly the original dish, Beef Marrow & Oxtail Marmalade was inspired by staff meal at Le Recamier Restaurant in Paris where both Eric and I apprenticed in Paris! It was not an uncommon late afternoon break when we would all sit down to a few bottles of the previous night’s leftover red wine, a crispy baguette, a bowl of oxtail scraps and some unctuous beef bones from the rolling stock or that night’s stew. It obviously made quite an impression on me and my brother as we have been serving that same dish in our restaurants for nearly 25 years!
Bone marrow is riding another crest of popularity—restaurants here such as the Pig & the Lady and Sushi ii serve it. As the country’s bone marrow pioneers, what do you think when you see it on a menu today in a trendy restaurant run by youngsters?
We love it! Who would of thought that lowly bone marrow would achieve, if not surpass, foie gras status in the good ‘ole US of A!! When we put it on the menu all those years ago we could barely get it! Once we explained to our butcher what it was and how we wanted the bones to be cut and cleaned he had no idea how much to charge us. We haggled a bit and arrived at .19 cents a pound (the same as stock bones back in those days)! Well, those days are long gone and bones are, unbelievably, on par price-wise with a nicely marbled piece of meat!
It always make us happy to see others cooking with a product that we perhaps introduced and popularized to this country, but my best moments are seeing all the different pairings and procedures being applied to the relatively humble product by very talented people, however I am not sure any surpass the original combo of succulent oxtail, salty parsley, toasted challah and pristine golden beefy marrow thanks to the team at Le Recamier all those years ago.