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Tours serve up taste of Hawaii's 'salad bowl'


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POSTED: Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sushi for Robin Williams; salmon stuffed with crab meat for James Coburn; penne pasta and sausage for Dan Aykroyd; medium-rare prime rib for Heather Locklear—from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, Matthew Gray was the personal chef to a host of Hollywood stars, and he knew exactly which dish would ease their tension from a hard day on the set and bring a smile to their faces.

He believes food brings as much comfort and pleasure to the body and soul as music or a massage.

“;I love to eat; I live to eat,”; said Gray, who founded Hawaii Food Tours in 2004 with his fiancee, Keira Nagai. “;The aromas, colors and flavors of food have fascinated me ever since I was a little kid. My mom inspired me to become a gourmet chef.”;

Gray grew up in the 1960s on Long Island, N.Y., in the same generation as the legendary Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali.

“;Mom was a fantastic, creative cook who likened ingredients to paints on an artist's palette,”; he said. “;She always took the time to explain her choices and techniques to me. When I couldn't see what she was doing, I would call our dog Happy to the kitchen and use him as my step stool. That way, I could get a good view of Mom's sauces, stews and soups as they bubbled in her big aluminum pots.”;

By the time he was 12, Gray was preparing extravagant meals: lobster, lasagna, casseroles, cakes, stewed fruits and puddings.

“;My family was very encouraging about my desire to learn about cooking,”; he said, “;although I'm sure Mom would've wanted me to be playing outside instead.”;

In 1976, at the age of 17, Gray got the opportunity to hit the road with the Grammy Award-winning rock group the Eagles, overseeing sales of their licensed merchandise on their coast-to-coast “;Hotel California”; concert tour. “;That just fell into my lap,”; he recalled. “;It led to similar gigs for other big acts such as Santana, Led Zeppelin, Linda Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones.”;

Five years later, burned out by life in the fast lane, Gray decided to get serious about cooking. After completing formal culinary training in Los Angeles, he worked at several posh restaurants in the city, including Chin Chin, which specialized in dim sum. Wolfgang Puck would occasionally pop by Chin Chin's shop to buy noodles, soy sauce, sesame oil, whatever he needed that night for his famed Spago.

               

     

 

HOLE-IN-THE-WALL FOOD TOUR

        Place: Transportation is provided in a Mercedes van. Pickups are made at Ala Moana Center and all Waikiki hotels.
       

Offered: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily except Sunday

       

Cost: $99 per person. Maximum group size is 13.

       

Call: 926-FOOD (3663)

       

E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

       

Web site: www.HawaiiFoodTours.com

       

Notes: Dress in comfortable clothes and shoes. A fair amount of walking is involved, so participants should be mobile. Hawaii Food Tours also offers the $199 Gourmet Trilogy Tour from 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Available for parties of at least eight, this progressive dinner stops at three award-winning restaurants, each serving a different course (appetizer, entree and dessert) paired with wine.

       

 

       

AFTER LEAVING the restaurant scene, Gray ran several businesses, including Chef Matthew's Fine Foods (which created “;sexy finger foods”; for upscale markets like Gelson's and Trader Joe's) and the personal chef service that catered to Hollywood magnates and movie stars.

Love brought Gray to Honolulu in 1993. Although that relationship didn't last, his passion for food never waned.

“;Hawaii Food Tours is a logical extension of my devotion to fine food and my desire to share it with others,”; he said. “;I believe there's no better way to learn about people or a place than through their food.”;

Gray and Nagai lead all the tours, incorporating personal anecdotes into their lively narration. The popular Hole-in-the-Wall Tour features visits to restaurants, marketplaces and bakeries in three to five neighborhoods between Kalihi and Kahala, including Chinatown.

“;I have unfettered access to kitchens throughout Honolulu,”; Gray said. “;I take my guests where the action is so they can see how their meals are made.

“;Most people have never been inside food factories or restaurants' kitchens, but on our Hole-in-the-Wall Tour, they get an E ticket!”;

Participants taste 15 to 20 different local foods, including baked manapua, fresh rice noodles, barbecued meats, squid balls, pork and mushroom meatballs, crack seed, coconut tarts, malasadas and exotic fruit.

“;We explain what they're seeing and sampling, and how to cook them,”; Gray said. “;They even have time to buy a few things to enjoy later. The tour is a perfect blend of culture, fun, history and, of course, incredible food. Even kamaaina wind up discovering something new!

“;Many people describe Hawaii as a melting pot, but I prefer to call it a salad bowl, where each ethnic group retains its individual identity, favorite ingredients and cooking styles.”;

At the end of the day, Gray sends an e-mail to participants that includes names, addresses, phone numbers and summaries of the tour's stops; recipes for some of the foods that were eaten; his “;best restaurants list”; for Oahu and any other island they might be visiting; and a reminder that he provides “;24-hour foodie tech support”; while they're on holiday.

When he and Nagai launched Hawaii Food Tours, little did they know they would be pioneers of “;culinary tourism,”; vacations revolving around food, which is currently one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel and tourism industry worldwide. They always plan their trips with food in mind; for example, a one-week getaway will include meals at a minimum of 21 different restaurants. Museums, art galleries and other attractions and activities are also on their itinerary, of course, but dining is the focal point of their adventure.

“;When you try new foods, your taste buds blossom,”; Gray said. “;It's as though you've switched on a previously untapped area of your brain. The foods of a place say a lot about its culture, history, people and traditions. It's no different here. I believe the best way to experience Hawaii is to taste it!”;

 

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Bulletin have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.