A Success Of Epicurean Proportions


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Hawai‘i’s own James Beard award-winning Chefs, Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, co-founded the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival.

But some five years into the event, it’s apparent that Denise Hayashi Yamaguchi, Roy’s wife, is the secret ingredient in their recipe for success. Through her resolve as executive director of HFWF, Denise has expanded the festival to 14 days and three islands. The latest festival, which takes place Aug. 29 to Sept. 13, is expected to attract more than 100 internationally acclaimed chefs and 10,000 foodies.

“I think what the festival has done has actually put a national and international spotlight on food here in Hawai‘i, and that’s important,” says Denise, who also serves as executive director for the Hawai‘i Agricultural Foundation. “This is really about bettering Hawai‘i, and making it a better place and supporting our tourism industry.”

Denise says her passion is a carryover from days spent working for the late Sen. Inouye, who left an undeniable stamp on Hawai‘i.

Denise says Inouye, along with her parents, Eddie and Vivian Hiyashi, were positive role models in her life who inspired her to cultivate the skills that she needed to succeed.

“Both of my parents worked very hard,” she says. “My dad was an educator, who was involved with politics and became the Aloha Stadium manager, where he worked almost seven days a week. My mom was in banking and retail, and at one time, she had two jobs.”

Inspired by her parents’ work ethic, Denise became a Zippy’s counter girl in her teens.

“My parents didn’t ask me to work; I just wanted to do it,” she says.

Likewise, she set high goals for herself post-high school, earning a degree from Santa Clara University, and then applying for a Washington, D.C. internship with Inouye. While working with Inouye, she decided to pursue an MBA from George Washington University.

To be sure, after earning her MBA and leaving Inouye’s office, Denise returned to Hawai‘i, where she held leadership roles at the Hawaii Foodbank, the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i and Bishop Museum. Denise says Inouye helped her secure grants for the Foodbank and for the Japanese Cultural Center. He also helped fund the Bishop Museum’s NASA educational partnership. After that, he brought NCL America to Hawai‘i, and encouraged her to take an opportunity with that company, too.

“A lot of things that are happening today, including the rail, are part of his legacy,” she says.

But friends and co-workers say Inouye’s former protege has her own legacy in Hawai‘i, where she currently serves as executive director for the Hawai‘i Agricultural Foundation. She also is the principal of Denise Hayashi Consulting LLC, which concentrates on fundraising and government affairs, and was recently appointed as a Hawai‘i Tourism Authority board member.

State Rep. Jimmy Tokioka, who also goes back to Denise’s Bishop Museum days, describes her as a tireless advocate for the needs of the community.

“She’s an arm twister who gets support for grants and other support,” he says. “No matter what the circumstances are or the process that she has to navigate she’ll get things done. She won’t stop until the job is done.”

Denise says she is proud of how the festival has grown and its role in putting Hawai‘i produce and food products front and center. She’s also pleased with the role it plays in developing local culinary students and exposing younger students to agriculture and Hawai‘i’s unique culinary scene. She’s also delighted that the festival from its start has been able to put money back into the community.

“In five years, our total will exceed a $1 million back into the community,” Denise says. “In the past, we’ve helped support the Hawai‘i Agricultural Foundation, the culinary programs at Kapi‘olani Community College and Leeward Community College, the county farm bureaus on the Big Island and Maui and the Honolulu Zoo Conservation Fund.”

As if that weren’t enough, she’s also working on partnering with fans in Japan and Korea to build similar festivals that will allow for cross promotion of Hawai‘i’s festival and its food products. Last year, Denise began working with the farmers and purveyors in Tokachi, Japan to spotlight some of their produce and products at Hawai‘i’s festival.

“We created a contest among our chefs using Tokachi beans. Three winners got $3,000 awards, and the main winner got a trip to Tokachi,” she says. “They’ll be back this coming year, and we’ll do another contest. It’s our hope to try to build a Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival in Tokachi.”

Denise says she’s on a mission to ensure Hawai‘i has culinary ambassadors around the globe. While on a recent trip to see friends in Korea, Denise and her husband, Roy, also met with Governor Won Heeryong of Jeju Island to explore the opportunity to build a food festival on Jeju Island.

“They see the impact that our festival has made here with everyone coming together to work for the betterment of Hawai‘i,” Denise says. “They’ve asked Roy and me to be involved, to take an advisory role in helping them bring their own festival to Jeju Island in 2016. We’re really excited about the opportunities that this will open for Hawai‘i farmers and food producers.”

For more information about the 2015 Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival, visit hawaiifoodandwinefestival.com.

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