The opening night of the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival is taking place this year on Hawai’i Island in late August at Waikoloa Beach Resort with the theme, “Aloha ‘Aina, Aloha Kai” – Love of the Land, Love of the Sea. Given that our local waters produce an amazing bounty of fresh seafood and that more than half the agricultural lands in the state are located here on Hawaii Island, the festival’s theme is something that every local chef can both appreciate and celebrate on their own menus.
Indeed, dozens of restaurants from Waikoloa to Hawi, Honokaa to the Kohala Coast have this bounty at their fingertips – or on speed dial when in a pinch – with more than 100 local farmers, ranchers, fishermen and bakers able to supply what their menus demand. Most restaurants tend to use purveyors that are in close proximity to their establishments and while some use the same sources, more often than not they select vendors unique to their dining outlet.
At Red Water Café in Waimea, for example, Chef David Abrahams uses only local ingredients in all of his dishes.
“Our purveyors are within our community,” Abrahams said. “They are close by and many are local families that have been in business for years. We know all of our farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and bakers by name. Knowing where our ingredients come from is key. You can literally taste the difference when using homegrown items. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.”
A handpainted sign on the wall at Village Burger artfully displays the names of 14 local farms, ranches and other purveyors sourced for fresh local foods used in their dishes, located everywhere from two to 122 miles from the restaurant. Above the sign it reads, “The best foods are found close to home.”
Owner Edwin Goto has worked with most of the food producers on the island over the past four years since opening.
“All in all, we purchase from about 24 vendors to create a variety of burgers,” he said. “The process can be chaotic at times, but if I do forget to order something I can drive there to pick it up. The Big Island is home to unbelievable farmers and ranchers. Depending on the time of year, our avocados come from either Adaptations in Kealakekua or Wailea Ag in Honomu; we get fresh Waipio taro every Friday from Waipio Taro Products; and if you love goat cheese, Dick Threlfal from Hawaii Island Goat Dairy mixes up some crazy chipotle goat cheese for us.”
Just down the street is The Fish & The Hog. A sign inside the front door proclaims: “Ohana— Rancher, Fisherman, Forager, Farmer,” further illustrating how much restaurants rely on the purveyors from whom they source the foods they need daily to satisfy their customers.
Owner Lisa Vann said, “We chose the vendors based on the quality and consistent availability of product used on the menu.”
But the farm-to-table movement is nothing new to Hawai’i Island. In generations past, Hawai‘i Island adapted to being 100 percent sustainable. During World War II, local farmers first started sourcing food to the troops. Then with the surge of new hotels on the island in the 1960s, chefs at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel were among the first to seek local farmers, ranchers and fishermen as their sources of fresh, locally sourced produce, grass-fed meats, fish and shellfish, giving them an additional source of income.
Under the Bodhi Tree, a new vegetarian, vegan and raw food restaurant at The Shops in Mauna Lani, aims to take the concept of local and sustainable to a new level.
In Kawaihae, Blue Dragon may have the record for the most vendors they use — more than 40. Head Chef Noah Hester works with them weekly.
“High quality and freshness of the product as well as the family feel is how we choose our vendors,” he said. “One of our favorite distributors is Brent Sasaki from Cal Kona Farm. He goes above and beyond the call of customer service with his motto being, ‘You ring, I bring!’”
They also have another advantage. “We have our own three-acre garden and 12-acre orchard on the Kohala Coast. We try to source as many fruits, vegetables and herbs as possible. When the season is right we may have all of our house made sorbets created with Blue Dragon Farm produce,” he adds.
Sweet Potato Kitchen uses different vendors than most other restaurants, given the eatery’s Hawi location. Many farmers are within 10 miles of the restaurant, along the Kohala Coast or in town, all selected because of their high-quality, non-GMO, organic produce.
The feeling is mutual
But chefs (and diners) aren’t the only ones who benefit all the local foods produced on the island. Growers, ranchers and fisherman have also come to rely on the strong ties for their livelihood.
Paul Johnston with Kekela Farms has worked with Blue Dragon and Village Burger since they opened. He supplies mixed lettuce, romaine, living salads and haricots verts weekly.
“It’s great to work with chefs who value fresh, local produce, use it in fun and innovative ways, and take the time to educate their diners about it,” he said.
Owners Kurt and Pam Hirabara at Hirabara Farms in Waimea manage to produce 13 types of lettuces, at a rate of 350 pounds a day on less than two acres — a favorite source for many Hawaii Island restaurants as well as for those on neighbor islands.
Nakano Farms, run by Richard and Patsy Nakano, produces mainly tomatoes, as well as Korean cucumbers, haricot verts, sweet corn and melons in Kamuela used at Village Burger and Merriman’s. Richard Nakano was once in charge of agricultural development and research for the University of Hawaii-Hilo. The Nakanos harvest produce three times weekly, and all of their tomatoes and cucumbers are greenhouse grown.
As for seafood, the chefs each work with different fishermen.
“We use two local guys who fish out of Kawaihae harbor,” said Hester at Blue Dragon. “A lot of times they will literally call me from the boat as soon as they land a fish. It’s great knowing that it was swimming hours before someone gets to eat it.”
For the “island-style” Kobe beef used in the Wagyu Beef Burger Village Burger relies on Kahua Ranch, while Merriman’s has been sourcing lamb from Kahua for more than 20 years.
“It is wonderful working with these restaurants,” said Bernie Ferreira, Kahua’s recently retired ranch product sales manager. “They give us a call when they need meat and we then arrange to have their meat delivered to their door. It’s always nice to have support from local businesses.”