Kipahulu 'Ohana    

Funky Things with Poi

Great chefs tackle the flavors of East Maui

Spirit of Aloha
Features
September/October 2006

By Rita Ariyoshi

"The further a Hawaiian gets from the taro, the less Hawaiian he is," John Lind said as he stomped in the mud, then bent over cradling a taro plant in one hand and expertly pulling it with the other. Like the rest of us, he was barefoot and adorned in mud to his thighs. The difference was that John pulled two or three plants to our one, because taro was his life, his passion, and he knew it well. The rest of us were Saturday farmers, dabbling in the terraces, the lo'i, as part of an epicurean adventure staged by the casually luxe Hotel Hana-Maui.

Food and wine festivals pop up all over the calendar these days, like champagne corks at a big wedding. I signed on for "Hana—A Reflection of Place: The Flavors of East Maui," because I knew anything happening in Hana would be unique. And there I was, playing in the mud and loving it, my Prada sneakers parked in the grass beside the lo'i.

One Saturday farmer, mud beneath her manicure, said, "It's like working with chocolate. The mud has such marvelous viscosity."

A large Hawaiian man on holiday from his executive day- job said, "It's like a spa treatment. If I didn't have to get back in the van, I'd flop right down on my back and really enjoy it."

This was the excursion for Day Two of our culinary caper. With John's wife, Tweetie, as our guide, we had hiked uphill through dense green forest from the Kipahulu Visitor Center in Haleakala National Park to Kapahu Living Farm.

John and Tweetie are part of the Kipahulu 'Ohana, a nonprofit organization formed in 1995 by Native Hawaiians with genealogical ties to Kipahulu. They have a working partnership with the National Park Service to restore the ancient taro lo'i that once flourished at Kipahulu. They also promote traditional Hawaiian culture and develop culturally sensitive economic opportunities for the area. To accomplish all this, they have regularly scheduled workdays involving the Hana-Kipahulu community in the lo'i. Groups of senior citizens, schoolchildren, troubled youth and court-ordered, community-service workers come from all over Maui to learn and participate.

Tweetie is a 58-year-old grandmother with long grey-black hair. She regularly hikes with visitors from the park base to the farm. Her roots in this part of Maui go back 10 generations. When she spoke of Kipahulu, tears filled her eyes: "In the old days, before Safeway, the Hawaiian was the land, the land was him. He came from the taro, from land and water. Aloha 'aina—love of the land— is a complete relationship with your sustenance."

This intimate connection of people with their food and the land from which it came was a recurring theme of the Hana food festival. Lily Boerner, who owns Ono Organic Farm with her husband, Chuck, said, "The family farm is the heart of the world. Good food, humanely raised, is of vital national importance. What we put on our land affects our neighbor, our neighbor's water, our neighbor's garden. If we used chemicals on our crops, the reef in the ocean would be ruined, the pools along the way would be polluted. We have to malama [care for] the land. You can walk barefoot in our fields and not get sick." Area farmers, she said, have agreed that Kipahulu is a GMO-free zone. GMO means genetically modified organism. She urges people to buy from local family farms and to frequent farmers' markets. "The average food product in the store travels an average of 1,500 miles." Chuck and Lily have been married and working together for 25 years. They grow 50 or 60 kinds of crops on land Lily calls "a slightly organized jungle." She bragged, "We throw away one garbage can a week and that goes to a friend's pig."

Twice a week, on Monday and Thursday afternoons, the Boerners welcome visitors for a farm tour, which includes exotic-fruit tastings. What you sample depends on the season. We tried juicy lychee, papaya, three kinds of mango, cherimoya, soursop and a strange fruit called choco, which tasted like root beer. "We're trying to perfect cinnamon and chocolate," Lily said. We also sampled fudge Lily had made that morning from her own cacao beans. The Boerners will be rich and beloved if they can do to chocolate what they did to jack fruit.

Their fortitude comes naturally. Chuck's 95-year-old mother makes jams and jellies from the farm's fruit. On Thursdays, Chuck drives her to Hana, where she sits beside the road and sells her now-famous strawberry jam. Chuck goes surfing and picks up his mom and her profits on the way home.

Lily does the marketing for the crops. "I'm on the phone twice a week to the local chefs. 'Hi," I say, 'We've got mountain apples. You can make crisps.' Every chef wants to have a cutting edge on the other chefs."

David Patterson, executive chef at Hotel Hana-Maui, said, "The farmers and fishermen are fellow culinarians. They inspire the food. It's easy for us in Hawai'i to have really healthy food with all the fresh fruits and vegetables and the fish out of the water only a couple of hours. When it's that easy, it becomes hard to make bad food. You have to break away from that deep fryer."

The dinner menu in the hotel's Kau'iki Dining Room changes nightly to take advantage of the freshest ingredients. One evening's specials included onaga caught by the Lind family, asparagus from O'ahu prepared with Maui Meyer lemon and local olive oil, bamboo shoots from Kipahulu, vegetables from David Ishii's farm in Kula, and Surinam cherries from the hotel grounds.

Patterson said: "A fisherman will call me on the phone. 'Hey, I've got a hundred pounds of mahi.' I love that. It's a dream. My sous chef, Troy Baker-Sato, is teaching me to spear fish. I love to find out about weird tropical fruits. The Meyer lemons came from lower Nahiku. Then, I got a call from a guy who said his tree had 5,000 pounds of lemons. David and Dora Ishii are raising crops for me. I talked to them and said I needed to find someone to grow beets. Now they harvest 10 pounds a week, plus cauliflower, broccoli and tomatoes. They're really excited.

"I used to be happy doing mashed potatoes," added David. "Now? I do funky things with poi. I want to use the people's food, to complement what's happening in Hana. Local people are passionate about their food. You feel the connection. I'd be crazy to come here and make soufflés and foie gras."

For the opening dinner of the food festival, David and his staff prepared an amuse bouche of Kipahulu pumpkin-tip tempura with Big Island wasabi root and dashi foam. The soup was Kipahulu corn soup with oranges and begonias, followed by a salad of Laulima Farms butter lettuce with lacy, crispy crostini. Raw fish came next in the form of Hana-caught ahi tartare with local vegetable crudités and ginger aioli. The main course was another Hana-caught fish, mahimahi, served with taro and coconut-lime sauce. Dessert, prepared by David's wife, Aima, the pastry chef, was coconut mousse and corn cake.

It was only the opening salvo of evening feasts that ran to a dozen or more courses, all paired with appropriate wines. Prominent guest chefs, invited for the occasion, went wild with local ingredients, creating innovative dishes. "We gave them free rein," David said.

With great energy and enthusiasm, each chef discussed the dishes he had prepared, as they were served.

Susur Lee, one of the world's leading chefs, originally from Hong Kong and lately of Toronto, opened his eponymous restaurant, Susur, in 2000. He was so taken with Hawaiian ingredients that he put 19 of them in his salad. "I tried to use everything—taro, apricots, ume."

The salad course was a sensation, the talk of the evening, overshadowing Susur's monchong with macadamia nuts, and even his Emperor's Rice Pudding with eggfruit and coconut, Kona coffee and Kahlua sorbet. Of the dessert, Susur said, "I thought I knew everything on Earth about fruit. But eggfruit? It really tastes like egg yolk."

Chef Edward Tuson from the Sooke Harbour House in British Columbia looked every inch the eccentric chef, with an Abe Lincoln beard and a Mohawk haircut. His was the third course, supposed to be a chilled star apple and kaffir lime soup, but, Tuson said, "It got thicker when it got cold, so what you've got is a 'blomb' kind of limey." We all wondered what he meant by that. Sitting in the center was a roll of thinly sliced Kobe beef with watermelon, celery sprouts and lime jelly. The sound of spoons delicately scraping the last drop from bowls was testimony that, soup or blomb, it was exquisite.

Chef Craig von Forester from Sierra Mar Restaurant at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, Calif., echoed the thoughts of others on the relationship of people to their food. "There's a vibrance in fresh food. I was prawning the other night with the other visiting chefs. It's amazing that none of us were speared. You go out at night with a flashlight shining in the water and the eyes of the fish glow back at you. We built a fire on Hamoa Beach and cooked them. Seeing how local people care about what they're eating, it all starts there. When I lived here 16 years ago, I hoped one day I could stay in a place like this hotel." He added, "Back then, most of restaurant and hotel food came from the Mainland and all the chefs were German or French doing classic continental cuisine. Hawai'i has come a long way."

Craig is passionate about his career. "If you're not giddy about what you're doing, do something else. A lot of culinary grads don't take time to develop a palate. They've got all that book knowledge in their heads, but not their hands. Your hands have to feel the physical aspect of the ingredients. Without sounding too Big-Surish, the old chefs are aware of the spiritual aspects of food. We are linked to our food."

Cal Stamenov believes in the link. At his Marinus Restaurant at Bernadus Lodge in Carmel, Calif., he has his own vineyard out front and 3 acres of garden. "I love farming. It's my hobby." It was his first time in Hana, but, as he said, "I never want to leave. Everything grows so fast. The people are so nice and sincere."

He added, "What I noticed is there's a growing culinary scene here. Once the farmers kick in, it will really snowball. It's all moving in that direction."

Family farms are dear to him. "They put so much more care into what they grow, as opposed to conveyor belt farming."

That care was evident in every one of the 13 courses served that evening at the festival dinner. The sixth course was Cal's mahimahi with white miso and taro leaves, paired with Roccolo Grassi, Amarone, Venetro, Italy, 2000. Other memorable courses were the 11th, Big Island rack of lamb and Laulima Farm arugula; the 12th, Upcountry goat cheese with a fennel tart tatin; and dessert, Kula lemon verbena ice cream with mango, lime and tapioca.

Cal summed up the experience of the guest chefs: "I thought I was coming here to be an inspiration to others. However, the people of Hana have been more of an inspiration to me."

Then I remembered what John Lind had said, quietly, with his characteristic humility. "We're sons and daughters of God, trying to create Heaven on Earth."

RITA ARIYOSHI is a multiple winner of the Lowell Thomas travel journalism awards. She is also a recipient of the Pushcart Prize for literature.

Original article URL: http://spiritofaloha.com/features/0906/facing.html


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