Hawai‘i Food & Wine Fest attracts top talent

Aug. 29, 2014 | 0 Comments

BY JOLEEN OSHIRO / joshiro@staradvertiser.com

Chef Anita Lo’s knee was bothering her so much last year when she came to the Hawai’i Food & Wine Festival, she was “hobbling around with a cane.” Then she attended Paina on the Pier, a private event at which Hawaii farmers put their products on display for visiting chefs.



The fourth annual event begins Friday on the Big Island, continues Sunday on Maui and runs Wednesday through Sept. 7 on Oahu, with more than 80 chefs from across the globe delivering gourmet cuisine using products grown and raised in Hawaii. Top wine and spirits masters lend their expertise as well.

The fest comprises 16 events including dinners, seminars, an after party, a keiki cooking competition and even a workday at a taro patch. (A Sept. 3 event is sold out, and the Halekulani Master Chefs Gala on Sept. 5 is nearly filled.)

For a full schedule and to purchase tickets, visit hawaiifoodandwinefestival.com.

There was exotic tropical fruit, pineapple, mango, green papaya, bitter melon, long squash, okra, mushroom, heart of palm, taro, herbs, fish, shellfish, beef, chocolate, cheese, eggs, kim chee, laulau, ready-made sauces and much, much more — plus all manner of drinks, and chefs cooking everywhere.

Pain be damned, “I started running all over the place. I got really excited,” said Lo, owner and executive chef of the popular Annisa restaurant in New York. “Gosh, that was such a good event.”

Amid all the racing around, Lesley Hill’s heart of palm caught her attention.

“She started ordering it, and now, we have a standing order,” said Hill, of Wailea Agricultural Group on Hawaii island, which grows 24 tons of the hearts each year and is the country’s largest producer.

From Hill’s product, Lo created a grilled heart-of-palm salad, served with Szechuan pepper sauce and topped with tiger lily bulbs and buds, oranges and raw heart of palm.

“It’s a good seller,” Lo said.

The Lo-Wailea Ag connection fulfills the highest intention of Paina on the Pier — the opportunity for isle growers to draw clientele beyond Hawaii’s shores.

“Roy and I wanted an event to feature the farmers, to give them a chance to network with chefs,” said chef Alan Wong, who co-chairs the annual festival with chef Roy Yamaguchi. “We’re always asking them to participate in the festival, and it’s only fair they get a chance in the spotlight.”

Wong said some chefs have no idea of the scope of Hawaii products until they see it themselves.

“Years ago, in the 1990s, I did an event at the Kea Lani on Maui, and I was paired with (noted French chef) Hubert Keller. Through that event, he was introduced to heart of palm, moi, edamame. And he started buying moi and heart of palm. These events spread the word about Hawaii and our food.”

This year, among the producers making a first-time appearance at Paina on the Pier are Kekia’i Roberta Taira and Kekaulike McShane Arquette of Mamaki Native Hawaiian Herbal Tea. The duo farms certified organic mamaki on more than three acres of land in Punaluu.

Taira and Arquette went into the production of mamaki tea in 2012 after studying laau lapaau, Hawaiian medicine based on herbs. Mamaki is said to address conditions such as diabetes, cholesterol and high blood pressure.

The partners sell four varieties: a pure mamaki tea and blends of mamaki with uhaloa, a plant said to assist with asthma; kinehe (Spanish needle), said to calm inflammation; and wapine (lemon grass), said to support circulation.

But the tea can stand on its own for its flavor profile and food friendliness. Taira describes mamaki’s flavor as having a hint of berry at the back of the tongue. It’s a tea that does well both hot and iced.

Wong has offered mamaki tea on his menus for some 20 years. He said it’s well suited for dinner because it goes well with food and doesn’t contain caffeine that will keep diners up all night.

“It has a subtle, mild flavor, and it has the effect of cleansing the mouth just like hot water with lemon,” he said, noting that mamaki can be steeped just a few minutes or overnight and never turns bitter or tastes overwhelming.

Taira believes her product would be well received in mainland restaurants.

“There’s a growing market for tea, and people are drinking this tea for pleasure,” she said. “Just a label of ‘Hawaii tea’ will sell in itself.”

Haleiwa is the site of another isle product sure to make the rounds at Paina on the Pier: Namihana Shochu, a Japanese spirit made with local Okinawan and Molokai sweet potatoes and rice “koji,” or culture. Ken and Yumiko Hirata, owners of the Hawaiian Shochu Co., distill 3,000 artisanal bottles twice a year using centuries-old vats to ferment koji from 200 pounds of rice along with 1,000 pounds of sweet potatoes. The fermented mixture is then distilled.

Hirata believes there is lots of room for growth in the U.S. market for shochu.

“Shochu is not well established here. Everyone knows sake,” he said. “But the Japanese actually drink more shochu than sake, and shochu is more suitable for food. Sake picks food; it must be paired with the right food to be enjoyed, but shochu is more versatile.”

Hirata said shochu is sometimes used in cooking. It’s added to shoyu pork, for instance, to add flavor and tenderize the meat.

Wong said shochu can be served both straight and as a mixed drink. One of his favorite ways is to mix shochu with hot water and mash an ume (Japanese pickled plum) in the drink.

But Wong serves Namihana Shochu just one way: on the rocks.

“Smell and taste it naturally,” he urged. “It’s pretty smooth, and it’s a local product, so you want to taste its original essence.”

A huge fan of Paina on the Pier is New York chef Floyd Cardoz, formerly of North End Grill and soon to open his own restaurant, White Street, in the city in a few weeks.

“On my first trip in 1999, almost all of the ingredients came from the mainland,” said Cardoz, who has participated in numerous culinary events over the years.

“To see the amount of products and ingredients of such high quality is eye-opening. Hawaii has the most amazing mangoes, pineapple and chilies. The heart of palm is like nothing you can get on the mainland, and the fish is always good. There are things in Hawaii chefs from other places can only dream of getting.”

Cardoz will attend Maui’s festival event Sunday, Ka’anapali Kitchen Stadium Under a Maui Moon, where he will roast a whole goat in banana leaf.

In his own restaurants, Cardoz has sourced heart of palm and fish from Hawaii, as well as black and red Hawaiian salts.

“I like to meet the farmers,” he said. “When I hear what they go through, I can see the love and passion that goes into the products they grow — and it makes the food taste better to me.”

Chef Ming Tsai, a regular at the festival, can’t say enough about Hawaii food.

“I love Hawaii. There’s so much natural, gorgeous, tasty seafood, produce and even protein. I think Hawaii is unparalleled in what it offers.”

Tsai says local chefs cooking at Paina on the Pier even offer a lesson or two to the big-time chefs who enjoy all the prepared food.

“They keep it simple and straightforward to allow all the natural flavors to come out,” he said. “They offer a great reminder because we’re all trying to achieve that new flavor, but maybe the bottom line is to let the product sing.”
Find Wailea Agricultural Group’s heart of palm at all Whole Foods Markets statewide. Mamaki Native Hawaiian Herbal Tea is sold at Na Mea Hawai’i at Ward Warehouse, 596-8885; and Mililani Farmers Market, 8 to 11 a.m. Sundays, starting Sept. 7. For information on Namihana Shochu, visit facebook.com/hawaiianshochucompany.

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