Their Farm, Your Table
From baby Bibb to Big Island beef, Hawai‘i’s crops are thriving — and showing up on menus in force.
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About the time many of us were glued to the television coverage of Operation Desert Storm and Kurt Cobain had us all wondering just how does teen spirit smell, a group of like-minded chefs got together in our 50th state and conceived the concept of Hawai‘i regional cuisine (HRC). The basic aim of these 12 culinary innovators, among them Bev Gannon, Alan Wong, George Mavrothalassitis and Sam Choy, was to take advantage of the freshest island ingredients: livestock raised on the islands, fruits and vegetables grown in rich volcanic soil, fresh fish from the Pacific. Did they expect HRC to become a sought-after menu enhancement? “Absolutely not!” Gannon says. “We created HRC because we were tired of getting inferior products from the mainland, so we got together with the farmers (who were shipping their entire crops offshore), the fisherman and anyone willing to raise cattle and asked them to work with us. ”
Is HRC the same as farm-to-table? “Not really,” Gannon says. Both movements do share a commitment to quality local products, but HRC arose more from a desire to celebrate the heritage of Hawai‘i’s myriad ethnicities, while farm-to-table’s raison d’être is sustainability. Still: “Everyone I talk to, including food vendors, is moving toward a more sustainable way of doing business because it just makes good business sense,” Gannon observes. “The benefits for the environment and preserving our fragile island ecology are fantastic and (the recognition of that) is now very commonplace in Hawai‘i.”
Up-and-coming chef Ryan Loo, who is stirring up the Waikiki waterfront with his new restaurant Twist at Hanohano in the Sheraton hotel, respects his culinary forebears and credits chefs like Wong and Gannon for setting a great example and creating a market for local farmers.
“Even in the past 10 years local farmers (have been) establishing themselves with crops like microgreens and specialty fruits,” he points out. “Because of our great weather and soil, the diversity of fruits and vegetables is endless.”
To sample this newfound bounty of paradise, we’ve singled out a few both new and classic examples of Hawai‘i regional cuisine.
In step with the Fairmont Kea Lani’s commitment to the environment, Ko, which means “sugarcane,” has brought Maui-born executive chef Jake Belmonte on board at this Wailea resort. Chef Belmonte has forged partnerships with local farmers to offer fare like ahi “On the Rock” sashimi spiced with orange-ginger-miso sauce, and lobster tempura served with spicy sesame, pineapple, sweet chili garlic, and grapefruit soy sauces. For those who prefer a bit of hemoglobin in their protein, he’s got Maui Cattle Company “paniolo” rib-eye steak and coconut-curry lamb chops marinated and grilled with mango-mint salsa. As a father of two with his own backyard garden, he is passionate about sustainability. “We all need to cultivate a sustainable lifestyle. For over a decade, local farmers have been producing more and more island-grown products. Hawai‘i is an abundant source of sustainable products, and its future (potential) for renewable energy is like a gold mine.” 800.441.1414, fairmont.com
Google “farm-to-table Maui,” and chef James McDonald of Pacific‘o, I‘o and the gourmet luau feast at Lele is first to appear. As he picks a gorgeous grapefruit, the says “The fertile volcanic soil of Hawai‘i offers so much variety for growing,” says the chef as he picks a gorgeous grapefruit. Last year, Gourmet named his eateries to its list of top restaurants with farm connections. Menus feature items like Maui steak with roasted garlic cloves, oyster mushrooms and pahole (fern shoots) and award-wining “Hapa Hapa tempura.” His farm provides most of the produce, including Tahitian limes, tomatoes, stir-fried veggies and fresh herbs. All three venues offer Maui-grown range-fed beef that “has a serious island flavor,” McDonald says (Lahaina). 808.667.4341, pacificomaui.com; 808.661.8422, iomaui.com; 866.244.5353, feastatlele.com
Despite the long drive to get to Bev Gannon’s Hali‘imale General Store, this 150-seat casual spot nestled in an upcountry pineapple field has been a dining institution since its opening in 1988. Why? The food. “Whenever possible, I source local products,” she asserts. In part that’s because “I feel a responsibility to use what is grown and cultivated as close as possible to my restaurants, but mostly, my guests get a better product on their plate.” Fish such as ahi, opakapaka, ono and mahimahi are easy to source wild; farm-raised Kaua‘i prawns, moi (Pacific threadfin), Kampachi (Hawai‘ian yellowtail) and abalone. In the past, when she’s tried to jazz up signature dishes like Meyer lemon chicken breast, Hunan lamb, crab pizza and pineapple upside down cake, her customers have revolted. They love the menu and won’t let her change it—though she does add a few seasonal treats. Diners can also get a taste of her culinary talents at Joe’s (named after her husband) in Wailea and at the Hotel Lana‘i. Gannon is executive chef for Hawai‘ian Airlines and travels to each operational hub to train chefs to use their own local food sources. “Obviously, it is working,” she says, “as we are always voted in the top if not number one in airline food surveys” (Hali‘imale). Hali‘imale General Store, 808.572.2666; Joe’s (Wailea), 808.875.7767; bevgannonrestaurants.com
Established in 1990, the Lahaina Grill has been rated best Maui restaurant in Honolulu magazine’s reader poll for 15 years in a row. For 11 of these years, Jurg Münch, a Swiss-born-and-trained, Asia-raised master chef, has been at the helm, and he’s dedicated to using the island’s bounty as the backbone of his menu, which includes Kona lobster crab cake, kalua duck and osso buco, all sourced from the islands (Lahaina). 808.667.5117, lahainagrill.com
Clockwise from left: Chef James McDonald buying produce for Pacific’o and I’o in upcountry Maui with TV chef Andrew Zimmern; Jake Belmonte prepares a meal in his kitchen at the Farimont Kea Lani; Bev Gannon, an original HRC chef.
Ever since George Mavrothalassitis opened his Honolulu restaurant Chef Mavro in the late ’90s, the former executive chef of Halekulani’s famed La Mer has been a leading purveyor of Hawai‘i regional cuisine. Through the years he has received such kudos as the James Beard award, being listed among Hawai‘i’s top 40 restaurants (with 18 out of a possible 20 stars) by gayot.com, and a Gourmet write-up citing his eatery as “where we would eat if we had only one night in Honolulu.” While today there are many more one-night-worthy options, Mavro has maintained his innovator status. Abalone and flounder have joined his menu’s list of farmed options from the Kona Coast via the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai‘i Authority (NELHA); fall dishes include abalone ceviche with croquettes of cod, red chimichuri and essence of cilantro as well as a crispy fillet of flounder with rice-flake crust, braised green papaya, broccolini florets and house tamarind curry. Sometimes buying local means the cost is higher and sometimes it takes more time, but the reward is huge, Mavrothalassitis says. “Local farmers succeed, and my guests enjoy fresh, regional ingredients and a dining experience they could have only in Hawai‘i.” For those who want to get their hands sticky and bring home culinary tricks, he leads gourmet Hawai‘ian cooking classes (Honolulu). 808.944.4714, chefmavro.com
Finally, the menu from this Sheraton Waikiki eatery is on par with its fabulous Pacific views. The new name Twist at Hanohano (formerly Hanohano Room) was inspired by chef Ryan Loo’s culinary approach: tradition with a twist. “I love to use classical techniques with new visions and flavors people may not be familiar with, like a Caesar made with locally harvested baby Bibb,” says Oahu-born Loo. He makes a point of supporting area farmers, choosing baby herbs, oyster mushrooms and vegetables from nearby Waimanalo (on Oahu) and lobster from Kona. He’s likewise created a twist on the ol’ prix fixe: diners can build their own multicourse dinner with a three-, four- or five-course option. As a local, Loo sees cooking as a celebration of heritage. “I find the bounty from the land and sea of Hawai‘i enables us, as hosts, to prepare foods that tantalize the palate with simplicity of flavor,” he says. “What better way is there to showcase Hawai‘i than through the diversity of our culture and cuisine? Visitors don’t want to come here and have something they can eat at home” (Waikiki). 808.922.4422, starwood.com
Ed Kenney and David Caldiero have created not one but two farm-to-table venues, Town and Downtown, both of which support local farms, use organic ingredients where possible and serve pasta and bread made from scratch. Some specialties like grass-fed burgers are made from North Shore Cattle Company beef or USDA-approved Kulana wild boar (fatty enough to make sausage and prosciutto) from the Big Island. A favorite vendor is Ma‘o Organic Farms, a five-acre nonprofit on the west side of Oahu founded to build community and give positive direction to disaffected local youth. (Kaimuki). 808.735.5900, townkaimuki.com
His empire has expanded to the Big Island and Japan; meanwhile, Alan Wong’s namesake restaurant in Honolulu was listed in Food & Wine magazine’s Go List 2008. It’s still serving up dishes that made him famous, like twice-cooked short ribs, butter-poached Kona lobster and “H.R. Caesar” salad made with baby Maui romaine and kalua pig. His definition of the concept he helped create? “Hawai‘i regional cuisine is the contemporary style of cooking in Hawai‘i today. It’s eclectic, East-West. It utilizes all of the ethnic influences found in Hawai‘i today and is representative of Hawai‘i being called the melting pot of the Pacific.” Look for his monthly farm-to-table series on his website (Honolulu). 808.949.2526, alanwongs.com
Clockwise from left: Chef George Mavrothalassitis of Chef Mavro; Up-and-coming chef Ryan Loo of Twist at Hanohano; Ahi appetizer from the Fairmont Kea Lani.
Postcards Cafe is known for its homey style, multicultural island-grown organic vegetarian cuisine, and fresh seafood. Diners won’t find meat, poultry, refined sugar or food with chemical additives on the menu, and many dishes are vegan. Appetizers include Thai summer rolls, made with local shredded carrots and cabbage, basil, cilantro and mint, and the unique Hanalei taro fritters, described as “tasty polenta-crusted taro with pineapple ginger chutney.” Stay veggie for dinner or try the local seafood. If you’re lucky, ahi is the fresh catch; the blackened ahi gets rave reviews (Hanalei). 808.826.1191, postcardscafe.com
Executive chef Ben Takahashi, new to his post at the Sheraton Kaua‘i Resort, comes to the table(s) with impressive HRC cachet. For the past few decades he’s worked on most of Hawai‘i’s major islands, befriending many of their farmers along the way. Now, on Kaua‘i he is discovering new favorites like goat cheese and the Kaua‘i salt ponds’ salt, which he uses to brine poultry and pork. “I like to utilize food from our local farmers and fisherman in my cooking,” he says. “It’s better for my customers and it’s good for the sustainability of the state; it’s good to be green.” As of this fall, Takahashi oversees Shells, the Point and Naniwa restaurants on the Sheraton’s Poipu property (Poipu). 808.742.1661, starwoodhotels.com
Besides the two resorts, the only other place to get a meal here is the boutique Lana‘i Hotel, where Bev Gannon has created a culinary destination. Chef Mike Davis grows herbs to complement locally grown roasted root vegetables as well as standbys like meat loaf, rotisserie chicken and fresh island fish. 808.565.7211, hotellanai.com
As most Lana‘i visitors stay at either Manele Bay or the Lodge at Koele, most of their dining options are overseen by executive chef Oliver Beckert, who draws from nearby food sources as much as he can. “Four Seasons Resorts Lana‘i supports local farmers and fisherman because they offer the freshest quality produce, picked in its prime,” he says. The restaurants buy produce from Bennie’s Farm on Lana‘i; greens and specialty fruit come from Adaptations farm on the Big Island and mushrooms are from Hamakua mushroom farm on Hawai‘i. While the lamb is from Colorado and the squab from Washington, Beckert doesn’t go far for the daily ocean catch.
“Hawai‘ian seafood is considered the best in the world, ranging from opakapaka to Pacific snapper,” he notes. “The quality and freshness are outstanding. The fish is caught in the morning and served the same evening.” Manele Bay, 808.565.2000; Lodge at Koele, 808.565.4000, fourseasons.com/Lanai
Celebrating its 20th year in business, Merriman’s, a low-key eatery in the sleepy town of Waimea, has been named “Best Big Island Restaurant” by Honolulu magazine for 11 consecutive years. Although it was founded by HRC pioneer Peter Merriman, chef Neil Murphy runs the kitchen these days and is earning rave reviews for his Hawai‘i farm-to-table-driven menu. “I take time to get to know the farmers and I accept all that they bring into our kitchen,” he explains. “We showcase the food, not complicated preparation, so our guests authentically taste the organically grown lettuce or vine-ripe tomatoes from down the road” (Waimea). 808.885.6822, merrimanshawaii.com
It’s not much of a surprise that at Kona Village, the resort known for “unplugged Hawai‘i” and eco-friendliness, executive chef Mark Tsuchiyama’s first priority is food from local vendors. Look for Waimea-grown tomatoes and greens, hearts of palm, goat cheese, fresh island fish, famous Kona coffee and even island wild boar on the menus throughout the property. Tsuchiyama has established relationships with boat captains to ensure freshly caught island fish as well as abalone, lobster and cold-water fish from nearby NELHA. “My goal is to always have what is brought to the table come from the freshest ingredients possible,” he asserts (Kona). 808.325.5555, konavillage.com
Good food is easy to find throughout the Four Seasons Haulalai resort. Executive chef James Babian, ever committed to local vendors, has a metaphysical take on his art. “Dining should be a culinary adventure for the soul, from the delicate aroma of herbs picked fresh from our own gardens and produce from Hawai‘i island farmers to a visually inspiring presentation to a level of service that is unsurpassed. All of these elements, in a breathtaking oceanfront setting, create a memorable and complete dining experience.” Signature items at award-winning upscale oceanfront restaurant Pahu i‘a include the Hawai‘ian Anthology Appetizer; Pacific Seafood Ragout with red pepper-coconut sauce; and pan-seared “Kona Blue” Kampachi or amberjack, raised offshore. 808.325.8000, fourseasons.com/hualalai