Star Chef

George Gomes shines as chef of Tri-Star Restaurants

Ask George Gomes, the executive corporate chef for Tri Star Restaurant, how he creates a dish, and he smiles and closes his eyes. “I just do this,” he says, sitting back on a leather chair at Aaron’s Atop The Ala Moana Hotel, his eyes remaining firmly shut.

He’s always built dishes by first closing his eyes. “To me, it’s not about how it’s going to look, about what color it is, or about the science of food,” he says. “It’s purely about how it tastes. I close my eyes and I imagine how it will taste on the plate. That’s it.”

Molecular food? Foams and fancy sauces? You’re not likely to find them on any of Gomes’ menus.

“Take a piece of Kampachi, for example,” he says. “I close my eyes – it needs nothing to make it taste better. A squeeze of lemon, a touch of salt, that’s it. How can you improve on the taste of that fish?”

Gomes has been cooking this way ever since he can remember. He is a man truly inspired by local ingredients who can barely hide his passion when talking about the local farmers on Maui who grow most of the ingredients for Sarento’s on The Beach and Nick’s Fishmarket.

“We’ll walk out through the farm and look at what’s growing, talk about what we need – and then we build dishes…it’s a simple process,” Gomes says. It might sound simple, but to Gomes, knowing the source is an integral part of the cooking process. Whether he’s going fishing or going out to hunt wild boar to make sausage, he has a passion for keeping stuff real.

Long before Hawaii Regional Cuisine had a name and a movement, Gomes was working at the Mauna Kea Hotel – the first ever Hawaii-born executive chef hired there – creating dishes the only way he knew how. Along the way, his Portuguese heritage has influenced his cooking, as he adds vinegar where another chef may add sugar, chili peppers where others may add cream.

“I love vinegar,” he enthuses, ” I love the citrus and the sour tastes, from my heritage, and I try to bring out the flavor of food that way.”

Look carefully on the menus at Sarento’s or Aaron’s next time you’re there – you’ll be surprised at the lack of rich, creamy thick sauces. “Cream sauce with fish?” he asks, laughing. “They have no business being on the same plate.”

Born on Oahu but having spent much of his childhood on the Big Island, Gomes grew up in a home where his Portuguese grandparents cooked from family recipes and made every holiday an opportunity to taste great food. “I remember at 6 o’clock on Christmas mornings, smelling these unbelievable aromas coming from the kitchen,” he says. “Pickled pork that had been cooking for hours already, lots of dishes that took a lot of time and a lot of love to create – that’s what we grew up eating.”

Subconsciously, Gomes began to recreate some of the flavors of his childhood when he began his professional career, “but I knew that I wanted to keep things clean and fresh,” he says.

Back in the eighties he was already creating dishes like “firecracker salmon” and “Thai rice sushi,” impressing the star-studded hotel guests at the Mauna Kea with his fresh, forward style. “I guess I took my local boy roots and my French training – and somewhere along the line my style came out,” he says modestly.

A meeting with chef and restaurant owner Jean Marie Josselin proved fortuitous, and in the mid-eighties, Gomes left the corporate hotel world to work with the ever-passionate, often unpredictable French chef. “To me, meeting Jean Marie and working with him was really incredible,” he says. “We fed off each other in the kitchen, and the fact that he owned the restaurants and I was the corporate chef gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted.”

Gomes – who’d spent time beforehand honing his skills in Scottsdale, Ariz. at The Venetian, and with Mark Miller in Washington – and Josselin created some exciting food during the 10 years or so they worked together before Josselin left the islands for Las Vegas.

While other chefs were headed to the science lab to discuss ingredients in molecular terms, Gomes headed into the woods to hunt wild boar and to the ocean to catch his own fish. “There’s something about knowing where the food comes from that appeals to me,” says the chef who values the bounty of produce around him and considers it his greatest gift.

Today Gomes heads the culinary team of some of the most respected restaurants in Hawaii, including the award-winning Sarento’s on the Beach and Nick’s Fishmarket on Maui, and Aaron’s and Sarento’s on Oahu. And while he might not have time to hunt and fish much anymore, he still maintains a clarity about his menus and the ingredients he uses.

“Our food is clean and simple,” he says of menus that feature local produce, fresh fish and beautifully constructed Mediterranean-inspired dishes.

And one of the things that seems most comforting about this chef with the local boy heritage and the regional cuisine style is the fact that with Gomes, you always have the sense that what you see is what you get. He’s one of those rare guys who projects honesty and utter humility, yet still manages to convey a sense of how passionate he feels about his work.

“When you’re a chef, you’re always a chef. You go to sleep, you’re a chef. You wake up, you’re a chef. All day long you think about food, about tastes and about creating new dishes. When you think about it,” he says with a grin, “It’s really kind of crazy.”

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