On Friday June 2 those lucky enough to find themselves at Aulani’s Kipuka lawn were greeted with a mouth-watering array of smells and flavors. Flames licked the sides of giant woks as contestants prepared a variety of perfectly seared meats, grilled shrimp, sous vide squid, delicately seasoned poke, and a unique array of accompaniments. The occasion was the famed HFIA Cooking Challenge, sponsored by Hawaii Gas, and it was a cooking contest like no other.
The competition was fierce; teams were HFIA members with decades of food industry expertise and access to the best ingredients imaginable. The judging was intense; overall and category winners were determined by audience votes and the audience was made up of food industry pros and their families. And the stakes could not be higher; winners were entitled to bragging rights as Hawaiʻi Food Industry’s Cooking Challenge Winner for a full year, commemorated with custom made prizes provided by Hawaii Gas.
In keeping with the Beach Party theme for the 2023 Convention, the Cooking Challenge theme was Surf n’ Turf and required teams to use one ingredient from the land and one from the sea. Keeping the requirements broad was an opportunity for Challenge cooks to flex their creative skills as well as their culinary prowess, and competitors did not disappoint.
The 2023 teams included last years’ four contestants: returning champs Pasha Hawaii; second year Challenge heavyweights Coca-Cola Bottling of Hawaii a Subsidiary of the Odom Corp.; also for the second year Challenge sponsors and open flame cookery experts, Hawaii Gas; and longtime participants and foodie favorites Koha Foods. The 2023 Cooking Challenge newcomers were Safeway and JPG Hawaii. After an extremely close Challenge in 2022 a new judging method was introduced this year to ensure teams were rewarded in the areas where they excelled. Audience members received HFIA Bucks in different denominations that they could use to vote for an Overall Winner, Best Use of Local Ingredients, Booth Presence, and Best Service. Chad Cohen of Island Distributing, and frequent HFIA front man, once again served as emcee of the event.
All the teams truly excelled, and the vote counts were close, but in the end first year contestants JPG Hawaii were the overall winners with their Poke Moco. It featured spicy ahi poke on a bed of sushi rice with a sous vide Waialua Fresh Egg on top, and finished off with a light drizzle of Kabayaki, rayu chili oil, bubu arare and micro shiso. We like to think that this proves that all HFIA members, even the Associate Members are food experts, but it’s also worth noting that Mark Gedeon, JPG Director of Operations was the executive Chef at Outrigger Canoe club for six years before joining the brothers at JPG.
The other category winners and runners up also found ways to go above and beyond, bringing some truly memorable dishes to the table. Challenge sponsors Hawaii Gas made a special trip to Kahuku to get local shrimp for the surf portion of their dish and it paid off as they took the win for Best Use of Local Ingredients.
The battle for Best Booth Presence was tight with Pasha Hawaii and Coca-Cola Bottling of Hawaii both bringing eye catching displays to the Challenge as always, but ultimately Coca-Cola Bottling of Hawaii’s signature style took the win in that category.
In what was no surprise to Safeway customers, their team earned the award for “Best Service” as HFIA’s new Chair Gary Okimoto and his team handed out premium steak and poke bowls with big smiles. Koha Foods showcased their top-level ingredient knowledge and technical expertise with remarkably tender sous vide squid and prime rib that earned them a line of repeat booth visitors. While there were prizes for all competitors the general consensus was that the real winners were everyone in attendance who got to enjoy these amazing dishes.
The Convention Cooking Challenge really captures so much of what HFIA is all about, all different types of members coming together to connect and share their passion for food. We’d like to thank all those who made this year’s challenge so special, everyone who voted, the HFIA Social Committee who plan this event, emcee Chad Cohen, all our skilled competitors, and Cooking Challenge Sponsor Hawaii Gas.