AGUSTIN TABARES / ATABARES@STARBULLETIN.COM
Big Island farmed baby abalone is one of many new seafood products being produced close to home.
Time’s ripe for local fare
More grocery store shoppers and restaurant patrons are demanding food produced naturally in Hawaii
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Of the many food trends clamoring for shelf space in 2008, one clearly stands out: The mood in food is going to be green -- and we're not talking leafy vegetables. Hawaii chefs and gourmet grocers alike report that people are demanding naturally produced food as never before, and the whole industry is paying attention.
Labels reading "organic," "free-range," "grass-fed," and "wild-caught" are rapidly edging out the dowdy "all-natural" in supermarkets. And in the coming year, "people will become more picky about where their food comes from, more concerned about tainted food -- and that's not only from China, but all over the world," says chef Alan Wong, who echoes a growing concern among Hawaii chefs for purity, authenticity and transparency in food sourcing.
Wong sees a growing emphasis on buying local in the coming year, not only to reduce carbon emissions, but to strengthen relationships with Hawaii producers of food. Indeed, as rising fuel costs stoke a nationwide concern for "food security," Hawaii continues to depend largely on food imports, as land here has proved too valuable to devote to agriculture.
The consumer-driven "green" revolution may just start to shift that tide.
Already, a doctrine for eating local is multiplying the ranks of the "locavore," and health consciousness is nibbling away even at the hallowed Hawaii custom of "get plenty," according to Russell Siu, executive chef of 3660 on the Rise. Siu reports more and more "upper-echelon" diners ordering "just a bite" of five-course dinners, choosing quality and freshness over quantity.
That forecasts a rather good year -- amid otherwise gloomy economic predictions -- for Hawaii producers of fresh food.
Big Island fish especially have Hawaii chefs sharpening their creative edge. Seasonal restrictions on bottomfish have raised or renewed interest in locally farmed species: Kona kampachi, moi, baby abalone and sablefish (black butterfish), all of which should become more widely available in 2008.
It's not always easy to retain desirable qualities in fish that are farmed, says chef Hiroshi Fukui of Hiroshi's Eurasian Tapas. So finding fish farmed sustainably here in Hawaii, "that's a beautiful thing."
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AGUSTIN TABARES / ATABARES@STARBULLETIN.COM
Chefs like Hiroshi Fukui, owner of Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas at Restaurant Row, are conscious of organic and health trends. Fukui has been experimenting with slow-cooking methods from Europe that preserve nutrition and texture of foods such as slow-cooked beef, left, and salmon.
Asian cooking, not surprisingly, is one of the bullish food trends for the coming year -- not only in the form of frozen entrées at fancy groceries, but even in terms of ingredients and philosophy.
"A lot of presentations are getting more kaiseki style," notes Daryl Fujita, executive chef at Orchid's at the Halekulani Hotel, referring to the formal Japanese dinner of many small courses.
"If you look at the way people are designing their china these days, they're building it container-style -- that's one of the biggest influences."
Asian ingredients also are on a roll: soy sauce or miso in beurre blanc, Thai chili in European sauces, Fujita says. In fact, the aging of the baby boomer generation and concerns about contamination are driving a groundswell of demand for foods perceived as more healthy, from soy substitutes for meat and dairy to vegetarian everything -- even in carnivore-rich Hawaii.
"I see people kind of half-and-half," notes Russell Siu, executive chef at 3660 On the Rise. "You look at locals, they're not going to change. We sell a lot of steaks." But the trendsetters who fill his restaurant increasingly want less trans fat, more organic and "freshness of product -- not so much sauces."
"We see more and more vegetarians," adds Hiroshi Fukui of Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas, who was placing orders for organic produce and organically fed meats in the final days of 2007.
Fukui is looking to add more vegetarian entrées this year, and has been experimenting with European slow-cooking techniques that preserve texture and nutrition. A salmon dish, for example, gets baked at just 175 degrees, resulting in flesh that is moist rather than flaky. Beef gets cooked in a 225-degree oven overnight.
It stands to reason that Hawaii chefs borrow increasingly from Europe as everyone else looks to Asia. Wayne Hirabayashi, executive chef at Hoku's at the Kahala Hotel and Resort, says he has been applying the "molecular gastronomy" popularized by El Bulli restaurant in Spain. Chemicals such as calcium chloride and sodium alginate are used to create "caviar" of persimmon, or smoked salmon "foams" out of lecithin, or a basil "gel" served hot.
According to the National Restaurant Association's "What's Hot and What's Not" survey of 1,146 chefs, such seemingly contradictory trends in contemporary cooking fall under a few main influences: seasonality/availability, ethnic cuisines, new twists on tradition and dietary needs/preferences.
Clearly, the top trend among these is the huge demand for organic, traditionally raised and locally grown food -- a boon for the chains Whole Foods Market and Down to Earth, as a peek at their packed aisles will show. Both grocers have profited from ongoing relationships with local suppliers of fresh food. Yet the state's limited agricultural output makes buying locally a continuing challenge for consumers and chefs alike.
"Because of Hawaii's geographic isolation and our historical dependence on imported products and oil, 'sustainability' has recently blasted to the forefront of consumer awareness and action," notes chef Ed Kenney, owner of the restaurants Town and Downtown.
Kenney points to a related trend he calls the "casualization of fine dining," part of the recent longing to reconnect to the roots of food.
"Theatrics on the plate and chef ego-driven menus will not be the focus," he writes in an e-mail. "Rather, comforting preparations and familiar flavors will be embraced, allowing ... family and friends to be the evening's highlight."
Tour guide Matthew Gray agrees. The former restaurant critic who now operates Hawaii Food Tours says his most popular product is the "hole-in-the-wall" ethnic restaurant tour. He sees it as a sign that people are growing weary of cuisine, and "reverting back to the comfort foods and things that are exotic rather than gourmet."
Casual food has come as a revelation to George Mavrothalassitis, aka Chef Mavro. His new restaurant, Cassis, a bistro version of the high-end Chef Mavro, has turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable obsession.
"I have to confess that after so many years trying to work at the top of the game in L.A. and Hawaii, it is so refreshing to do casual food," he says. "To do something like rotisserie or salad is totally refreshing ... and I have to say I enjoy it very much."
But Mavrothalassitis is not above experimenting with a foam or gas, especially for desserts. "Sometimes we get inspiration from new techniques of cooking," he admits.
A chef is, after all, a kind of artist. And when it comes to getting creative, Hawaii's chefs have no intention of sticking to the orthodox and pristine this year.
Among their enthusiasms: mochi buta, "an amazing pork" from Japan that is even better than the current craze for kurobuta, according to Alan Wong.
Sea asparagus and maitake mushrooms from Hamakua Farms are a new discovery "that gives us a lot of inspiration," says Mavro thalassitis. And European cured meats using local products -- artisan pipikaula, dry-cured sausages, prosciutto, and charcuterie -- are on the plate for Ed Kenney.
Hawaii has always been a bit different, of course, when it comes to food. Sustainably farmed, locally raised food here often means meat from the sea -- including exotic species like baby abalone and Kona kampachi that have all the chefs excited.
AGUSTIN TABARES / ATABARES@STARBULLETIN.COM
Locally farmed Kona kampachi, left, and moi should become more widely available this year.
National trends are sometimes slow to hit the islands -- and thank goodness. Among the national fads that may not make an appearance here this year: a milk from Japan that promotes sleep, caffeine-powered potato chips, macaroni-and-cheese-only restaurants, vitamin-spiked "healthy" cocktails, animal innards, tuna ice cream and gourmet hamburgers with foie gras.
Lucky you live Hawaii!