Hawaii chef competes in San Diego poke festival
BY MARIE TUTKO / Special to the Star-Advertiser
SAN DIEGO, CALIF. » Nakoa Pabre is a name now associated with poke.
The Big Island chef quickly garnered a loyal following for the poke bowls and plate lunches he serves at Umekes, a restaurant he opened in Kailua-Kona last spring.
Pabre caught national attention when Da Poke Shack, an eatery he helped open in 1999, was named Yelp’s highest-rated restaurant in the U.S. this year. His signature “poke bombs” won the professional division of Sam Choy’s Keauhou Poke Contest — the Oscars of poke competitions — in 2013, and he walked away with two first-place awards at Choy’s contest again this year.
The next stop for the lauded poke maker was uncharted waters for Hawaii chefs: San Diego’s annual I Love Poke Festival, an annual showcase of Hawaii-style local grinds which features a competition where chefs battle to determine who can make the best poke in Southern California.
On Tuesday, Pabre showed off his culinary chops to expats and Hawaiian food lovers on the continent as the first Hawaii-based restaurateur to compete in the event.
Now in its fifth year, the I Love Poke Festival was founded by Nino Camilo, a native San Diegan and entrepreneur who struggled for years to find good poke in his hometown.
“People would just throw things in a bowl and call it poke,” he said.
Camilo knew how poke should taste, thanks to family ties in Hawaii. His aunt and uncle opened a store near San Diego’s busy beach boardwalk, Motu Hawaii, after moving away from the islands, and he grew up dancing hula.
Camilo’s experience in marketing and event planning enabled him to curate a panel of judges, lock down sponsors and invite notable San Diego chefs for the inaugural event in 2010. The festival grew in popularity since its inception and Camilo expanded it to a second location in Huntington Beach.
For the poke competition, entries are split into two categories, traditional and “anykine.” The anykine category is where chefs have shown innovation in the use of locally available ingredients and presentation, resulting in avant-garde poke creations such as halibut-dyed pink with jamaica, a Mexican hibiscus tea, to versions using pork belly and wild salmon as the star protein.
Camilo knows any poke made in California won’t be like what’s found in Hawaii. But Pabre’s presence this year changed that.
Why travel to the West Coast to enter a poke throwdown? After winning at Sam Choy’s esteemed contest two years in a row, Pabre was open to new challenges. He heard about the I Love Poke festival from a former Umekes employee, Alana Akaka, who now lives in San Diego and works at Bali Hai Restaurant, where the competition is held.
“Right away, I knew it was something I had to do,” Pabre said. Shortly afterward, he received a call from Camilo.
“A lot of my customers (at Umekes) actually come out of San Diego and the West Coast,” Pabre said. “We get a lot of tourists, and I thought this would be good exposure for the restaurant.”
Pabre and five employees made the nearly 3,000-mile trek and shipped a 100-pound ahi along with fresh opihi, limu and inamona.
“All of the ingredients are from Hawaii,” Pabre said.
When asked if he was nervous the morning of the competition, since chefs who won in prior years were entering the contest again, Pabre said he was humbled by the experience, yet remained calm and confident.
“I didn’t look at the list (of participating chefs),” he said. “I don’t know who’s going to be there, and I don’t even care. I’m just here to have some fun, and it’s all about the poke.”
He said he felt no pressure to win, despite being the first and only contestant from the Aloha State.
“Nah, I’m not thinking of first place,” he said. “We’re just here to do our thing. If it happens, it happens. I just want to showcase what I like to do.”
Pabre and his hui crafted an old-school medley of ahi, tako, opihi, pipikaula, limu, inamona and onion.
“Being from Hawaii, we had to go traditional and show how it was done in the olden days,” he said.
Staying true to convention, Umekes’ poke was presented to judges in a ti leaf-adorned bowl versus plated with ornate accoutrements.
“Since ‘umeke’ means bowl (in Hawaiian), I’m serving mine in a bowl,” Pabre quipped.
Unfortunately, after prepping 800 two-ounce portions of poke for festival attendees, Pabre didn’t place with the panel of six judges, comprised of surfing legend and board shaper Ben Aipa and pro surfer Benji Weatherly along with a San Diego-based food blogger, seafood distributor and chef.
First place went to San Diego-based chef Kurt Metzger, owner of Kitchen 4140, a farm-to-table restaurant, who soaked ahi in mango broth and topped it with toasted coconut, macadamia nuts, cherry blossoms and mango salsa.
Huntington Beach native Keoni Simmons, chef at Sushi on a Roll, took second place with a Fijian albacore poke mixed with seaweed salad and cucumber.
Hawaii was represented by third-place winner and Waianae High School graduate Alvanette Kauwalu-Pacheco of San Diego’s Specialty Produce, who made a spicy, Mexican-influenced “watermelon soup” poke. It tied with Bali Hai chef Deon Morales’ entry, ahi with avocado cream cheese atop a shrimp chip.
Reflecting on the experience Wednesday, Pabre said he had no regrets and didn’t feel defeated.
“I could have done a ‘new school’ poke that would have blown everyone’s mind,” he said. “But I wanted to stay true to my roots and show everyone what poke is and what we have on the Big Island.”
Many festival goers were not familiar with ingredients like opihi and pipikaula, and Pabre said West Coast palates could be a factor in why Umekes didn’t place.
“I do think it was an unfamiliar flavor for some people,” he said of his entry this year. “Just like how some of the poke there that we tried was unfamiliar to us and not what we are used to.”
San Diego chef Robert Ruiz, who was mentored by Alan Wong at Hualalai Resort and tied for first place at last year’s I Love Poke Festival, acknowledged that Californians like their poke with flavors that resemble ceviche.
“The real cultural influence is close to the border,” Ruiz said. “People like a lot of spice and cilantro, and you’ll see the Southern California influence with the avocado and cucumber.”
Camilo said he hopes having Pabre and the Umekes staff at his festival inspires other chefs from Hawaii to come to San Diego to enter the poke contest.
Pabre said he is open to entering future poke contests on the mainland.
“I’m just happy that I had the opportunity to educate people about our traditions and poke,” he said.