Chefs You Should Know

Chef Colin Hazama on Hawaiian Cuisine, Eating Local and His Passion for Spearfishing

Colin Hazama — the executive chef at Oahu’s historic The Royal Hawaiian, a Luxury Collection Resort, Waikiki — embodies Hawaii’s melting pot culture. He finds inspiration in the work of famed chefs around the world, including Paul Bocuse and Chef Jean-George in New York, with whom he trained, but he hasn’t forgotten his grandmother’s oxtail soup.

“She’d have star anise and lots of cilantro and ginger and cook it over a low heat so it would never get cloudy,” Hazama recalls. “It was more like a consommé than a traditional Chinese oxtail soup. I make her version — with my own twist — at The Royal Hawaiian.”

Hazama has taken home a pile of awards, represented Hawaii at the James Beard House, and drawn accolades for his table-to-farm dinners at his former post in the Islands, where he connected diners with local producers. At The Royal Hawaiian, he’s remixed that concept into his Fanta-Sea dinners, highlighting local seafood.

chef colin hazama
(Photo: Olivier Koning)

Marriott TRAVELER talked with Chef Hazama about his work at the classic pink hotel, the food of the islands and his hobby — spearfishing.

[NOTE: This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.]

You’re the executive chef at a historic Hawaiian hotel. As a local guy, born and raised on Oahu, you must have feelings about your role.

It’s iconic. There’s so much history. It’s humbling, and at the same time it’s very prestigious.

Landmark hotels have historically classical American food … Previous chefs [at the hotel] have done a good job of changing that, but my intent was to put The Royal Hawaiian on the map culinary-wise. I inherited talented chefs; it was a matter of using them more and showcasing 65 to 70 percent local ingredients.

With 90 percent of Hawaii’s products imported, it’s a big deal you’re serving 65 to 70 percent local. When you say local, what do you mean?

Oahu, Maui and the Big Island grow most of our ingredients. On Oahu, I work with Ho Farms in Kahuku, Twin Bridge Farms in Waialua. Their business was landscaping, but now they’re selling produce grown with aquaponics.

Wailea Agriculture (on the Big Island) grows clove, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon bark, cinnamon leaf, curry leaf and bay leaves. I use all their spices here at The Royal Hawaiian. On Maui, Waipoli Farms grows watercress and lettuces.

Eighty-five percent of our fish comes from Hawaii. We get our beef from Omaha, but we also use Hawaii rancher’s beef, raised on the Big Island, finished in California.

chef colin hazama
(Photo: Olivier Koning)

Hawaii cuisine typically falls into three categories — local, Hawaii Regional Cuisine and indigenous Hawaiian food. Are you on that continuum, or are you doing something else?

[A quick explanation: Hawaii Regional Cuisine — a movement started in the early 90s— uses Hawaii-sourced ingredients, but the chef sets the style. HRC may be California, fusion, Greek, Italian, Pacific
Rim, but the ingredients are from the islands. Local food reflects the
mashup of cultures that have come to Hawaii over time. Indigenous food
is the food of Native Hawaiians — fresh fish and taro play an important role.]

Hawaiian Regional Cuisine was more [about] the godfather chefs of Hawaii, Roy Yamaguchi, Sam Choy. I was mentored by Chef Roy Yamaguchi, but my food is more contemporary Hawaiian cuisine.

I take indigenous, historical ingredients like laulau, taro, wild fish and create more modern-day food. I exaggerate and highlight local ingredients for a more contemporary American cuisine.

Sort of a next-wave Hawaii cuisine.

Exactly. I call it “contemporary Hawaiian cuisine.”

chef colin hazama
(Photo: Olivier Koning)

What makes the food in Hawaii different? What defines it?

Here you can find similar flavors in Tahiti, Samoa, other tropical islands,
but the cuisine is different because of the people who came during plantation days. Japanese,
Filipino, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, and later, Vietnamese and Thai, influences merged with traditional Hawaiian culture. That’s what has made Hawaii — and Hawaiian food — the way it is today.

It’s also unique because of the ingredients. Ulu, or breadfruit. Fern shoots. Hearts of palm. Different types of dragon fruit, soursop, lychee and longon … you can get them on the mainland, but they taste so different when it’s grown in your neighborhood.

You have a background in visual arts. How does that play out on your plates? Are you aware of color when you’re designing your plates?

Absolutely. I’m looking at color, at placement, geometric shapes … sometimes I do designs and features on my plates because I see this visual, abstract look and feel.

chef colin hazama
(Photo: Olivier Koning)

When they’re not eating at your restaurants, where should visitors shop for food when they’re in Oahu?

Mari’s Gardens in Mililani has a market; they’re open six days a week. Red Barn Farmstand in Haleiwa sells asparagus, potatoes, tomatoes, and they help other farms sell their products. Ho Farms, you can buy their products in most supermarkets — Foodland, Don Quixote, Whole Foods.

Your Instagram feed is fun — and has pictures of you spearfishing. Did you learn as a kid?

Every summer I stayed on Maui with my uncle. He’d take me spearfishing and diving for fun, to look for octopus. As I got older, my friends would go night diving — fish are moving slower, they’re feeding or sleeping. The next step was diving in the daytime. I got hooked into going deeper, and it’s a lot safer in the daytime. It’s about 20 years now.

We don’t shoot just anything of any size, of any species. We end up with two to three fish each. When I do catch fish, we eat fish for the week. It’s a hobby, but it’s a way of living. I’m passionate about it because it helps put dinner on the table for my family.

Sometimes, when we’re diving, I get overconfident and miss. It’s a joke with my friends; they say, “Oh, how’d you miss? It was right there!” I miss because I’m already thinking the about dish I’m going to prepare.