Hawaii, the 50th state, might have been a latecomer to the union but it was at the head of the line when it came to launching the farm-to-table movement that has blanketed the North American food scene over the past decade.
Although it sounds like an obvious birthplace for plant-to-plate style cuisine, Hawaii, for all its fertile volcanic earth and golden sunlight, didn’t use to grow much in the way of everyday edibles—the islands were dominated by sugarcane and pineapple plantations. Not so now. On the islands, and in particular Maui with its rich soil and perfect growing climate, there are small farms exploding with exotic crops for a hungry market of restaurants that serve old and new versions of traditional Hawaiian food and are breathing new life into the poke bowl.
Some say the trend was the brainchild of Peter Merriman, chef, entrepreneur and passionate locavore long before the word “locavore” existed. Thirty years ago, newly arrived in Hawaii, his dream was to cook traditional Hawaiian food with all local ingredients. “Only trouble,” Merriman says, “was that local produce, fish, and meat were hard to find.” Merriman persisted and practiced what he describes as “guerrilla purchasing.” He scouted out small farmers, gardeners, fisherman and ranchers to provide the ingredients, such as breadfruit, octopus, and taro, for what would be a new (or old-revived) style of cooking. “I even went diving myself for sea urchin,” he says laughing. Soon, several other chefs were on board and eventually what would become a far-reaching dining trend “Hawaii Regional Cuisine” took off. Today “Hawaii Regional Cuisine” is not just a style of cooking, but also an organization of chefs promoting local sourcing for a true Hawaiian foodie experience—and Maui is a great place for visitors to begin a locavore adventure.
That new culinary interest seeded a rich harvest of farmers, small growers, fishing folk, and ranchers who began to see burgeoning markets for their products in new restaurants staffed with chefs passionate about fresh local food. Maui always had small farms and family gardens, but now provisioners could earn their livelihoods from locally grown and indigenous crops. Today, for example, third generation farmers at ONO Organic Farms grow jackfruit, guava, soursop, and even cocoa and coffee for the market. At Surfing Goat Dairy a dozen types of goat cheese are made and served locally. Not far away, the eight-plus acres of O’o farm deliver fresh avocados, edible flowers, kale, and sorrel lettuce to local eateries.
Sarah Burchard, the editor of Hawaii’s popular food blog, The Healthy Locavore, suggests visitors take farm-to-table tours at some of those growers. One of her favorites is the Punakea Palms tour, to learn everything about coconuts, and she also reminds us not to forget to try Maui grown wine at Ulupalakua Vineyards. Some of the farm tours even have visitors harvest foodstuffs for their own lunches later prepared in the farm kitchen. Burchard also says because Maui is “ground zero” for the wild food movement, visitors should join locals on an under-the-radar tour with wild foods expert Sunny Savage. On this tour, guests learn the secrets of foraging and preparing Maui’s wild foods.
If donning hiking gear and clambering on forest paths is not everyone’s idea of a mellow Maui vacation, there are plenty of farm-to-table restaurant options with both traditional and innovative dishes. Here are just a few of the many that dot the Maui landscape and should be on every visitor’s To-Eat list.
A bastion of farm-to-table dining is Merriman’s oceanfront restaurant in Kapalua. Peter Merriman says his goal there is to reflect the Asian cultures of Hawaii with locally sourced ingredients and sustainable seafood. In addition to those ocean dishes, Merriman wants visitors to try some of Maui’s most basic of foods such as the yam-like taro. One of his taro favorites is Maui Lehua Taro Cake. It’s pan sautéed with zucchini, Hamakua mushrooms, and Hirabara Farm Swiss Chard with a tomato-ginger coulis.
The almost half-century old Mama’s Fish House is on a secluded beach. As its name suggests, the house specialty is local seafood from an ocean so close you can dip your toes in between courses. The restaurant prides itself on its concern for sustainability and its tight-knit connections with local fisherman. Menus listing the day’s catch even bear the names of the fishermen and where each fish was caught. Visitors can try opakapaka (pink snapper) prepared in a coconut lemongrass sauce caught by Wilfred Kitada or a very traditional Polynesian preparation of mahi-mahi with native wild boar slow-cooked in a ti leaf with traditional sides of octopus luau.
The Mill House has a very close relationship with its produce. In fact, the restaurant sits in the middle of a 16-acre farm. Chef Jeff Scheer jokes about almost being able to reach out the window to pick some of the ingredients for his innovative menu such as his Farm Salad. Ingredients might include roasted burdock, rutabaga, celery root, and fried chicory over a carrot puree. But Chef Jeff doesn’t want visitors to forget the traditional “canoe crops” either. At The Mill House taro leaf is pureed for a risotto and as for the island staple, breadfruit? Try The Mill House take on French fries, he says. “They’re crispy, they crisp up better than any potato. They’re just amazing!”
Visitors on a tight tourist schedule might just blow by the nondescript strip mall that is home to local favorite, Tin Roof. But do not miss Top Chef finalist, Chef Sheldon Simeon’s comfort food stop says Healthy Locavore’s Sarah Burchard. “If you are a foodie,” she says, “no trip to Maui is complete without a stop [here].”
Tin Roof, with its eight-seat counter and few tables, is a new spin on mom and pop genre with chef Sheldon Simeon and wife Janice at the helm. The restaurant specializes in culinary experiments with Hawaiian comfort food created with local ingredients. The menu’s innovative rice bowls have folks lining up out the door at lunchtime with with rave reviews for the Machiko Chicken Bowl seasoned with Japanese furikake. Tin Roof guests will also find the island’s beloved breadfruit in Ulu Mac Salad, a dish of steamed diced breadfruit, macaroni, eggs, celery, carrots, mayo, garlic salt, and pepper.