Oh, beautiful Hawaii. Look at those verdant cliffs, that turquoise ocean. I've never been in such an out-and-out magical place. Fully crowned and sashed, Miss Hawaii -- Pilialoha Gaison -- greets them at the Kona airport. Well, of course she had to be Miss Hawaii, she's got the spirit of aloha in her very name. The cheftestants get lei'd and are guided to a helicopter. I have never been tempted to take a ride in one of those. Maybe it's the airsickness, the high instance of crashes, or maybe it's the fact that I watch too many M*A*S*H reruns and would instinctively crouch when boarding the thing, but I just don't ever want to get in one. Son of Sam expresses some sincere trepidation about the ride, which kind of makes me like him a little bit more. Miss Hawaii waves goodbye, and the cheftesants take off and scream the whole way to Waipi'o Valley. Sam says something about holding Ted Ilan's leg in his arms out of abject fear. Kind of kinky. Waipi'o Valley makes me sad because it was one of our last stops on our way to the airport. Gail, Colicchio, Padmadala, and Alan Wong wait -- all lei'd up -- for the cheftestants to de-heli. Padmadala "aloha"s them and welcomes them to Hawaii. Padmadala introduces Alan Wong as "the Grand Master of Regional Hawaiian cuisine." Chef Wong tells them they are in Waipi'o Valley, a very spiritual place, where the first Polynesians arrived a long time ago. That's funny, I thought the first Polynesians landed at South Point. In the Waipi'o Valley, Chef Wong continues, taro grows in prodigious amounts, and taro features prominently in the Hawaiian diet. "So, to wish you luck and to welcome you to Hawaii, I've prepared some traditional Hawaiian food for you," Chef Wong tells them. But first, they will have a traditional Hawaiian blessing. A haole they flew in from the WWF (Islanders don't usually have facial hair like that) blows on a conch shell. Everyone stands around the table and joins hands while two Hawaiian natives say a prayer in the Hawaiian language.
Piles of interesting looking food are arranged on platters and in dark coconut wood bowls. Everyone tucks in. As would befit a traditional Hawaiian feast, there are no knives and forks, and everyone uses their hands. I've always loved eating with my hands -- it seems so languorous and decadent. However, I hope the cheftestants got a chance to wash up first. I mean think about it: hair product stink (you know they're all using it), plane stink, and helicopter stink ain't going to make that poi any tastier. Alan Wong explains poi to the cheftestants: "Poi, made from the taro in Old Hawaii, was considered very sacred. The poi is the end result of mixing something like the taro, or the breadfruit, or the sweet potato into a paste." Now, when we were in Hawaii in September, we were all about eating the local food -- particularly the fish, vegetables, and goat cheese -- but we never had the occasion to try poi. They didn't even have poi on the menu at Side Street CafÃ© where all the chefs of Oahu go to hang out and eat home-style Hawaiian comfort food after hours. Frankly, I've never even really been interested in the stuff, but I can guarantee you, if it was made by Alan Wong, I'd eat it happily. In his 1866 Letters from Hawaii, Mark Twain described poi as a "villainous mixture... almost tasteless before it ferments and too sour for a luxury afterward. But nothing in the world is more nutritious."