Story by Michael Shapiro
Photo by Dana Edmunds
Go ahead, give it a shot. There’s not much to it, says Vikram Garg, executive chef for the Halekulani, one of Waikiki’s poshest hotels. Just flour, eggs, sugar, oil, coconut flakes … in fact, just go online, search “Halekulani coconut cake” and you’ll find the entire recipe. There are no secret ingredients, no gimmicks, no rarefied techniques. But Garg will shake your hand—maybe even hire you—if you can reproduce the Halekulani’s immensely popular cake.
“It’s one of those desserts that gives the feeling of Hawai‘i,” says Garg—simple but sublime: light, airy, sweet, with only a hint of coconut. The hotel ships it all over the world, and the signature cake has become nearly synonymous with the hotel itself.
But for whatever reason it’s reputedly impossible to reproduce the cake beyond the hotel’s event horizon. Even Garg can’t do it. “If I make the recipe at home, it doesn’t turn out so well,” he says. The reasons are mysterious: “It’s the oven, the temperature, the ingredients, the water, the humidity of Hawai‘i … who knows? Give the recipe to three decent home cooks, and all three will be different.”
Equally mysterious is the cake’s origin: No one knows who invented it or how far back it goes. “I tried to find out,” says Garg, “but there was nobody here longer than thirty years who could tell me where it came from. It likely started with the hotel [which opened in 1907], so it’s probably over a hundred years old.”
“No other hotel in Waikiki has a legacy dish with that kind of longevity,” says Mark Freischmidt, one of the hotel’s pastry chefs who uses “old school technique and art” to perfect the venerable cake (as well as develop new desserts). “And there aren’t any other menu items with a similar status,” he smiles. “Not yet anyway. …”
For the time being, the only place to sample a perfect specimen of the Halekulani’s coconut cake is the Halekulani. But Garg is more than happy to encourage others to try—mainly because he doesn’t think anyone will be able to pull it off. “If you achieve even 70 percent of what we make, it’s excellent.” And what if somebody can pull it off ? Well in that case, Garg shrugs, “c’est la vie!”