The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens


SPECIAL REPORT: Hawaiian chefs and farmers tell their tale

Ed Kenney

Chef Ed Kenney outside the Hawai'i State Art Museum,
where he has opened a restaurant called Downtown@HiSAM.

HONOLULU — Two hundred and fifty years ago, the Hawaiian islands had a population of at least 800,000 people and between farming and fishing were completely food self-sufficient, notes Ed Kenney, a chef who has cooked for First Lady Michelle Obama when she entertained foreign dignitaries during the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting last November.

Then came the arrival of the Europeans and the Americans, the era of the sugar and pineapple plantations and the decimation of local food farming. Today Hawaii imports 80 to 90 percent of its food, but Kenney is one of the leaders of a movement to increase food production as a matter of food security and higher quality.

Kenney, who operates a neighborhood restaurant called Town and another restaurant in the Hawaii State Art Museum, has a mantra: “local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always.”

See following guide to restaurants patronized by the Obamas.

In an interview, Kenney stressed that, although local and organic food is often associated with the finest restaurants, his movement is not elitist or any more expensive than necessary.

Kenney grew up in the islands. After earning a business degree from the University of Colorado and spending four years in corporate commercial real estate, he was sitting on a milk crate in Hanoi, eating a steaming bowl of pho, when he realized that being a chef was his calling.

Although only in his mid 20s, he was already married and had a child on the way, and decided he was too old to go the elite chef training route. So he took a crash course at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific and started working.

In 2007, he opened Town. While he said famous restaurants like El Bulli and Chez Panisse “are doing real progressive, cerebral food,” Kenney has decided that his “culinary identity” is “the soulful approach.”

“We usually buy whatever comes to the back door,” Kenney said. “The beef comes from the Big Island. Pigs I pick up on the other side of the island. Ma’O Farms [which trains out-of-school youth] delivers vegetables and I go to the farmers’ market every Saturday.”

Kenney’s dishes include many vegetables, particularly types of mushrooms, that mainlanders are unlikely to recognize. He credits chef Roy Yamaguchi with the development of Hawaiian fusion cuisine and also noted that Dean Okimoto, now president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, grew the vegetables that Yamaguchi needed for his chain of restaurants.

Kenney’s approach is more modest than some of the star chefs, but it includes promoting local and organic foods, a preference that is gaining momentum among younger Hawaiians and that is embraced by Neil Abercrombie, a former Democratic House member who was elected governor in 2010.

Kenney noted that Hawaii faces special problems in trying to re-develop local agriculture. During the plantation era, Hawaii imported laborers who viewed themselves as farm workers — not farmers — and who urged their children to get educated and leave the land as quickly as possible.

“That has killed our ability to feed ourselves,” he noted.

Hawaii also has a water problem. Unlike the mainland, where the federal government and the states developed dams and water systems, the irrigation systems were developed by the sugar and pineapple plantations. When the plantations went out of business, the irrigation canals were not maintained. And they were never intended for use by small farmers.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie

Gov. Neil Abercrombie
Abercrombie has promised to help local and organic agriculture.

“Polynesian farmers and fishers worked together. Food security is the pressing goal,” the governor said in a speech welcoming the American Farm Bureau Federation to Hawaii in early January. “We are within a few days of not being able to sustain ourselves.”

Abercrombie noted that he approaches farming as a business, not a hobby.

“If you are just growing gardens, you aren’t in business,” Abercrombie said, even though he and his wife have planted a garden at the governor’s residence similar to the one Michelle Obama has planted at the White House.

Abercrombie has pledged to repair the irrigation systems, give business advice to farmers and also encourage the schools to plant school gardens so that Hawaiian youth learn more about the food they eat.

The enthusiasm for local food was apparent at a cooking demonstration at the Farm Bureau convention put on by Mark Noguchi, a former chef at Town, who has started his own restaurant.

Noguchi, known as “The Gooch,” prepared beef from the Big Island ranch of Michelle Galimba, who explained that she operates a 10,000-acre ranch that her father started after a sugar plantation went out of business.

Galimba, of Kuahiwi Ranch, said her father shipped cattle to the mainland when they were a year old because it was cheaper to ship them and finish them there than in Hawaii. But now she feeds her cattle on grass, then puts them on a mixed diet of wheat, bran, barley and corn and supplements to “give a really consistent product” before having them slaughtered locally.

“Consumers were not interested in the specifics of how the cattle were raised,” she said. “Now people are interested.”

Slaughter facilities in Hawaii are small, however, she said, and the transportation for meat between the islands is antiquated.

For the Farm Bureau crowd, Noguchi also demonstrated what a dedicated local chef can do for a farmer or rancher. Taking a piece of beef that he called a “short plate” and Galimba described as an almost unsellable piece of beef belly, Noguchi performed what he called “seam butchering,” cutting away fat horizontally until he had a piece of beef he could cook in a frying pan.

While he butchered, Noguchi told the crowd that he had been kicked out of Punahou, the elite private high school from which President Obama graduated, finished public school, and spent years as a hula dancer and cook in a Korean bar near Hilo before going to the elite Culinary Institute of America in New York and apprenticing on the mainland.

On top of the beef he put a Vietnamese salad prepared with greens provided by Shin Ho, a young woman who had come back to Hawaii and taken over her father’s vegetable farm.

Farm Bureau is known for its big farmers and ranchers, but as Noguchi asked members of the audience to come forward and try his food, farmers and ranchers from Minnesota, New York, Idaho, North Carolina, Oregon and Texas gathered around the panelists. Many seemed interested in learning from the Hawaiians, but they also had their own farming and business ideas to offer.

A rancher of Utah could be heard telling Galimba that he mates beef cattle with bison to create “beefalo.” He urged Galimba to import some bison semen and create her own mix, because the animals are so gentle to handle.