Every chef knows one of the secrets to fabulous food is having the right ingredients. However, living on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific presents challenges when it comes to sourcing specific foods.
Many local farmers work closely with chefs to provide what they need. It’s a win-win for both as the chef gets fresh, desired ingredients and the grower has a committed market for buying product.
Planting on Demand
For instance, Adaptations in Honaunau prefers “to plant to order,” by knowing who is getting the crop before the seed is put into the ground.
“If the demand is confirmed, it’s our secure base and from there, we can have confidence to plant additional supply,” says Maureen Datta, Adaptations vice president. “When a chef commits to an estimated minimum demand per week, or a standing order, then the chef gets priority if there are production issues.”
Adaptations grows bok choy, watermelon radish, hakurei turnips, culinary herbs, edible flowers, cinnamon and microgreens. Standing orders include microgreens—super young plants like basil, arugula, lettuce and mustard that sprout in soil. Microgreens boast a concentrated flavor and are high in nutrition. Chef Peter Pahk of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Chef Peter Abarcar of the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel have committed to a significant volume and can custom-order the variety of plants in their microgreens.
“We have chefs who give us inspiration for certain crops,” notes Datta, sharing that Adaptations is using leftover cinnamon wood to produce chips for smoking and planks for barbecuing. “We also got ideas to use cinnamon leaves to infuse teas and marinades.”
Degree of Ripeness Important
Ken Love of Love Family Farms in Captain Cook says he gets calls for specific fruits or fruit varieties. In addition, culinarians request fruits with a specific ripeness, depending on what they’re making.
Love recalls how O‘ahu Chef Alan Wong specified “very ripe” Brown Turkey figs for a special event dessert, adding that “tree-ripe” fruit is sweeter than “commercial ripe” fruit.
“The longer fruit is on the tree, the sweeter it is,” details Love, who is executive director of the Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers and president of the “Chefs will request a degree of ripeness depending on if they’re making a sweet or savory dish.”
Growing Preferred Varieties
Bob and Janice Stanga cater to chef requests at Hamakua Mushrooms in Laupahoehoe. Their “Ali‘i” or trumpet mushrooms have been ordered by O‘ahu chefs George Mavrothalassitis and Alan Wong. The mushroom has a nutty flavor, resilient firmness and long shelf life.
“We specifically grew Jumbo Ali‘is for Chef Mavro to use on his menu,” notes Lani Weigert, of Hamakua Mushrooms. “Alan Wong requested 350 Ali‘i mushrooms that were 2.5 inches long and one-inch in diameter for a special dinner over filet mignon.”
Producing 5,000 pounds of mushrooms weekly, the company also offers a mushroom favored by island residents for Hawaiian and Asian cuisine: pepeiao. The fungal was collected in lush and moist Onomea; Auricularia cornea is only found in Hawai‘i and it boasts a chewy and crunchy texture.
Plant a Field and They Will Come
Instead of waiting for a special request to provide a certain product, Wailea Agricultural Group keeps abreast with the latest culinary trends and anticipates what chefs would like to have. Located on the Hamakua Coast, Wailea Ag is known for its fresh heart of palm, but also grows a wide variety of fruits, spices and flowers.
“We try to be involved with the culinary trade, shares Wailea Ag’s Leslie Hill, who is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a worldwide philanthropic society of professional women in the fields of food, beverage and hospitality. “We do our research, try it and see if it grows.”
Then Hill takes the product to chefs and says, ”this is our latest and greatest, what do you think?” Her answer is the resulting orders and Hill thinks that’s great too.