World-class dining comes to Oahu’s North Shore with the introduction of Graham Elliot as Executive Chef at the Polynesian Cultural Center’s Pounders Restaurant
Posted July 15, 2021 – LAIE, OAHU, HAWAII
His easy smile is the first thing you notice. That and his signature white eyeglasses. Sitting down for a meal at Pounders Restaurant, my granddaughters catch sight of him immediately – both of them squealing and laughing as they fluctuate between trying to catch the man’s attention and trying to crawl under the table out of embarrassment.
Who could create such a response? An actor in one of the myriads of teen shows on television? A lead guitarist in one of the current grunge bands? A famous surfer boy?
No, no and no. Their gleeful outbursts are for a man whose fame comes from his amazing kitchen skills, and his instinctive understanding of social media.
His name is Graham Elliot, professionally trained at the prestigious Johnson & Wales University, recipient of multiple awards beginning when he was still a fresh, young face in the competitive world of fine dining, and globally recognized Master Chef and restauranteur.*
A few days after this chance meeting we sat down and had a great discussion about what brought him here, how he came to accept the position at Pounders Restaurant, and what’s next.
First question: Why Hawaii?
Turns out that Graham’s childhood was spent moving from one base to another, due to his father’s Naval career. For six years, that included living and attending school at Ewa Beach. “Throughout my life I’ve always felt like Hawaii is home. I try to come back every year. For the last seven years I have been involved in the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival,” he explained. “I met Chef Felix Tai, the Executive Chef of Restaurant Services for the Polynesian Cultural Center, through social media on my last visit in February. We agreed that we needed to get together the next time I came back to the islands. Meanwhile, I was looking for a change in my life. So, in April I took the leap and moved here to Oahu – just packed two suitcases and flew on over.”
“Right now, I’m living in a basic room, not even a television. But it’s literally steps to the ocean, and that’s all I want. I‘m not looking for a fancy downtown apartment. Just the beach.”
“When I arrived, my plan was to meet up with some friends. One of them was planning on opening a food truck, someone else was looking at organizing popup classes and dinners. I just focused on that for a while. Then Felix invited me over to try out the luau, and experience cooking on an imu. It was awesome. We talked like best friends who knew each other for years. I found myself saying to him, “Hey, if you hear of anything here on the island, I want to find something to keep me busy.” The next morning, he called me up and said “I’ve been thinking about some places and actually, Pounders Restaurant has an opening for an Executive Chef. Would you be interested?”
“I was then introduced to Greg Maples, the Vice-President of Food Services here at the Center, plus current Chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association. It just seemed like a great fit. Everyone was on the same page. Our goals matched. It felt really organic and I was genuinely excited about the possibilities.”
“To me, the Polynesian Cultural Center is the standard bearer for what represents the Polynesian culture. They are a great example of giving back to the community. I feel that to do this vision justice, Pounders needs a menu that pays homage to these beautiful cultures we represent.
What is really great as I step into this role, is that our kitchen is a reflection of the Center in general. We have a sous chef with a solid Japanese background. We have someone from Samoa, and someone from Tonga. Our kitchen team is a literal example of what we represent.
Greg shared a thought that has really made an impression. “Sometimes we forget how important the impact of our work is on the future of Polynesia, both in our efforts to preserve and portray these cultures accurately and respectfully, and in our workforce (which is generally 60 – 70% student employees).”
Most of our student workers come from a number of countries across the Pacific Rim. Our focus is to help these students obtain a college level education in subjects that will help shape their future, their family’s future, and stability of their communities. Polynesia has so much to share, and we all benefit from these goals.”
A Team that works together
In my line of work, I’ve seen times when egos clashed and the prevailing attitude was “this is my world, watch out!” You don’t find that here. Felix and I work together. I’ll tell him what I need, he’ll ask my opinion on something he is working on. We are united in our vision and we really respect each other.
Greg Maples also is the coolest. I love that guy. I feel that I am a very positive person and always try to be in a good space, cheerleading others on. Greg is the same type of person. In fact, everyone that I’ve worked with so far is not only nice, but really dedicated to the Center’s mission. For instance, the members of my kitchen haven’t, up to this point, had the type of training necessary for a fully functioning, professional kitchen. We’re changing that now, and they are trying so hard and really giving it their all. There is so much potential here for achieving a high-end dining experience. I know we’re really going to make a difference for our guests, and our staff.”
“Well, as I mentioned, I am building a wonderful relationship with Chef Felix as we take this opportunity to tweak everything while operating under these COVID restrictions. We took a few days earlier this month to close down in order to prep for a new menu, train our staff and build a tightly knit team. We are now ready to reopen at an elevated level, bringing a reenergized approach to farm fresh island dining.
Along with great food and excellent service, I want the restaurant to be an extension of the Center. There are so many learning opportunities. For instance, we will have displays of the types of fruit we use. Guests will not only experience new tastes; they will be able to see what a guava actually looks like and feel the rough firmness of a freshly picked breadfruit.”
More to come
“We would love to offer demonstrations, cooking classes, and special events. We plan to be very active on social media with everything from podcasts to how-to videos. We also want to visit local schools in order to help get our keiki excited about the concepts of farm to table dining and to inspire them to become involved in what they eat.
It’s a lot, I know. I am really good at coming up with a big list of possibilities, but it’s the united effort to achieve these goals that is exhilarating. First, however, we need to finalize all the upgrades at Pounders Restaurant, the Ali’i Luau, the new Gateway Buffet and the food kiosks throughout the Center. Of course it’s hard work, but as martial artist Urijah Faber said, “dream big, stay positive, work hard, and enjoy the journey.”
Spotlight on Graham Elliot
Chef Graham has accrued many prestigious accolades including three James Beard Foundation Nominations, and being named one of Food & Wine Magazine’s “Best New Chefs” in 2004. At 27, he became the youngest four-star chef to be named in any major U.S. city. In May 2008, he opened his eponymous restaurant, Graham Elliot Bistro, which became one of only 15 U.S. restaurants awarded two Michelin stars.
He has appeared on numerous shows including 10 seasons with the MasterChef & MasterChef Junior series and 3 seasons as a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef. He has also participated in Bravo’s digital series, Going Off the Menu, ABC’s Family Food Fight, Food Networks’ Cooks vs Cons and is slated for a new PBS show later this year. But there’s more! Major League Baseball chose him to be the host and Culinary Correspondent for their MLB Grub Tour and he has served as the Culinary Director of the Lollapalooza music festival for over a decade.
Chef Graham has three up-and-coming “sous chefs”, sons Mylo, Conrad and Jedediah. He firmly believes in giving back to the community, and is extensively involved in multiple charitable organizations including Share Our Strength, the American Heart Association and Smile Train.