Spotlight On St. Croix: An Interview With Sam Choy

Chef Sam Choy is one of the founders of the Hawaiian heritage cooking movement, and has spent his career highlighting the island's most culturally significant and sustainable foods. In 2011, the chef opened Sam Choy's Kai Lanai in Kailua Kona, followed later by two food trucks, Sam Choy's Pineapple Express in LA, and Sam Choy's Poke to the Max in Seattle. Choy is the recipient of the 2004 America's Classics Award for Sam Choy's Kaloko, and is the author of several cookbooks. In St. Croix, chef Choy will join the Sunset BBQ team with Facebook chefs Dean Spinks & Tony Castellucci and be a guest judge at A Taste of St. Croix.

When did you start cooking and what are your earliest food memories?

My parents primed us at an early age to enjoy cooking. My dad was Chinese and an artist in the kitchen, always cutting up fresh vegetables and braising things. My mom was German-Chinese, and coming from Europe, she was always making big roasts, big turkey dinners, sauerkraut, and spaetzle. It was like a big international showdown in the house.

Wednesday was family restaurant night, when my siblings and I would get to explore the menu and order for ourselves. The message there was 'whatever you order, you eat.' On Sundays, it was a real big thing to go to church, the movies, and then have a nice Chinese dinner. It was my dad who always told me, 'Be a person who knows how to prepare ingredients, because it's the prep that makes good food.'

It was a no-brainer to become a chef, and even now when people invite me over their homes, you'll find me drifting through the kitchen.

After culinary school, I applied to a brand new hotel and was hired as a cook's helper. When I got there, they didn't have my name on the list, but they had openings for pot washers. I went home thinking there was no way I would just wash pots. Then I talked to my mom and she said, 'This might be a good foundation for your career.' Then I started thinking, 'I guess it's one foot in the door.' Moms sometimes say the right things, you know?

What defines Hawaiian heritage cuisine and what is some of the history behind its development?

When you think about what Hawaiian food is, there's not that much. It's a lot of different types of seafood like tuna, mahi, and ono. For produce we have sweet potatoes, grapefruit, and whatever else came to Hawaii on a canoe crop from the South Pacific. Our history comes from the planations: the Chinese were brought here because they were good at moving water, the Japanese laborers harvested sugarcane, and then there were the Portuguese and Spaniards who came to work. All of those cultures are responsible for Hawaii's whole circle of food.

How do global food trends influence Hawaiian food and vice versa? In recent years, have you seen more cultural crossover between Hawaii and the States?

I'll give you an example. Poke is one of the most exciting dishes of mankind, but it has different names around the world. You can trace the trail of poke, although sometimes it's called fish tartare or ceviche. In Lima, Peru, it's ceviche, and then in Tahiti you'll finally see raw fish dishes without limes or other things to cook it. What matters is that people are starting to like it, and ask fishmongers about it.

Do you see similarities between Hawaiian and Virgin Islands cuisine?

We're all island chefs so we cook on the grill. Hawaii is ahead in terms of sustainability, but we have many of the same types of fish and produce. For competitions, I go there and do serious damage. I apply my methods to ingredients that are indigenous, and I think about how to shop for and pair ingredients. When you go shopping for clothes you think, 'that's nice, that's my color, or those shoes would be perfect with this outfit.' I do the same thing when I cook.

What's on your menu for the St. Croix festival?

I'm cooking lots of island seafood, poke, and I'm making smoked pork with sweet onions and guava jelly. I'm making four or five different kinds of poke, and so far I have planned a Mediterranean style poke, an island flavored poke, and one that is a Tahitan-style poisson cru. When you go to these big events, you gotta deliver it.