WRITTEN BY REBECCA REMILLARD SALT IMAGES BY MALLORY FRANCKS PEPPER IMAGES BY SEAN MCLAREN-LAMBERT, PAUL DE FILIPPI
MORE THAN JUST THE WHITE SHAKER on the dinner table – salt is a life force. Sure, it heightens the flavors in both savory and sweet dishes, preserves food, and can remedy a medley of health issues, but in addition, our bodies also need salt to live. In Hawai‘i, where it has been used for its cleansing, purifying and healing properties since ancient times, salt takes on an even greater significance. Native Hawaiian households each made their own salt and called it pa‘akai, meaning literally “to solidify the sea.” While table salt is made up of 97-99 percent sodium chloride, ultra-pure Hawaiian red salt is only 84 percent sodium chloride and 16 percent naturally occurring elements. These elements, about 80 in all, are what make Hawaiian salt magical. Potassium, magnesium and other electrolytes as well as iron oxide can contribute to blood pressure regulation, bone strengthening, increased immunity and energy.
Upon European contact, salt became a traded commodity and by the 19th century Hawai‘i was the main salt supplier for the entire Pacific Northwest. Salt production thrived well into the 1900s but became impacted by the industrialization of the islands. Concurrently, “Hawaiian salt” began to be harvested elsewhere and processed to resemble the appearance of true Hawaiian salts. Land used to make salt the old way was sold or lost; all that remains today are the Hanapepe Salt Flats on Kaua‘i.
Across from Salt Pond Beach Park on the arid west side of the island, what appear to be dozens of miniature frozen pools lay well-kept beneath the sun. These are the treasured salt beds, the rights to cultivate passed down from generation to generation amongst about 20 families. Tradition dictates that no one is allowed to farm anyone else’s patch and a new section cannot be started without permission. This salt cannot be bought or sold; it is given only as a gift or possibly traded. The process is done entirely by hand, a labor intensive and intricate operation involving wells fed by underground lava tubes, red mud, lots of stirring and rinsing and at last, three layers of salt. The top layer, the whitest, is used as a table salt. The middle layer is pink and is used for cooking. The bottom layer, red or brown, is used in blessings or given to special recipients.
This is low lying land. The season for salt begins when the waterlogged ground dries and the generations-old beds are once again exposed (usually from May to September, with some luck). Harvests are affected by a multitude of factors including tides, sun and ocean salt. For those highly skilled cultivators, it seems as though the seasons have grown shorter over the years and the harvests smaller. There have even been years where there is nothing to harvest at all.
The salt crop may be threatened by yet another factor: helicopters. The company that operates Maverick Helicopters, Smokey Mountain Helicopters Inc., is seeking permits that would allow them to expand on their existing facility nearby the salt ponds. This causes concerns about the chemical runoff, pollution and noise that the expansion could potentially result. So rare and precious, many in the community feel strongly that the last remaining traditional Hawaiian salt ponds should be protected.
For both those who cultivate it and those lucky enough to receive it, true Hawaiian salt is perhaps more precious now than ever.
Though not yet as prominent as its counterpart, there will soon be a grinder for Hawaiian pepper at the table too.
“We are certainly not the first to grow peppercorn in Hawai‘i, although we may be the first to test and track it as an economically viable production crop in Hawai‘i,” says Paul de Filippi of Mauka Vista Farm in Kula, Maui. The family-run operation places an emphasis on diversity and specialty crops; their harvests to date have included figs, dragon fruit, mangoes and a variety of citrus. Peppercorn is growing, too. Now that most of their plants are full-sized, they hope for a big flowering this year.
Native to India, the peppercorn plant flowers and fruits on long spikes, each spike containing up to 100 corns. About eight months after flowering, ripening begins and the spike is harvested. The peppercorns are separated from the stem, processed, and then dried into black pepper products. “With a local source, there is also the ability to provide the crop as a fresh product which opens the door to a variety of culinary possibilities,” says Paul.
The family has released an instructive video and travelled through the islands giving presentations on how to grow and propagate peppercorn plants, distributing plant material along the way. The plan is to gather growth data and eventually release a comprehensive cost of production model through the University of Hawai‘i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
Hawaiian peppercorn’s day has come.Native to India, the peppercorn plant flowers and fruits on long spikes, each spike containing up to 100 corns. About eight months after flowering, ripening begins and the spike is harvested. The peppercorns are separated from the stem, processed, and then dried into black pepper products. “With a local source, there is also the ability to provide the crop as a fresh product which opens the door to a variety of culinary possibilities,” says Paul. [eHI]
IN 2013, ALA‘AMOE KEOLANUI TRADED in the heels she wore in the Kamehameha Schools admissions office for rubber boots to work alongside her husband Troy and their partner Ed Olson at the1,000-acre OK Farms (short for Olson and Keolanui). Nearly a decade before, they’d planted baby spice trees along a dirt path on their land bordering the Wailuku River, just to see how they’d grow. Fifty clove, allspice, curry, nutmeg and Ceylon cinnamon trees lined “Spice Road,” and every one of them flourished. As Spice Road became Ala’amoe’s passion project, the pull to make something happen with the yields grew along with her beloved trees. “I said [to my husband], we need to be doing more than just showing them off to the guests; we should be processing the spices into food.”
Now Ala‘amoe and her family do all the harvesting and much of the processing by hand. Picking clove buds one-by-one to sell whole may be a fairly straightforward process, but cinnamon processing is a bit trickier. After Troy cuts down the branches with a chainsaw, Ala‘amoe uses a pressure washer to remove the moss and lichen. For dried sticks, she cuts the bark into pieces, leaving the outer bark on, and sets them out to dry. To make ground cinnamon, she pats the branch dry and “goes at it with a hammer” to detach the outer bark from the inner wood, since the inner wood has no medicinal properties. Then she uses a knife to shave the cinnamon off the bark and dries the shavings in thin strips. In the final step, a commercial grinder turns the shavings into a fine powder.
Today, Spice Road is a highlight of OK Farm’s walking tour. In addition to exploring the verdant coffee, macadamia nut, cacao, heart of palm, lychee and longan trees on the farm, guests are treated to a multi-sensory spice experience. Ala‘amoe invites them to smell, touch and taste the leaves and guess which spices are which. Her mission is to show people how organic spices create new dimensions of flavor in food and heal the body in a variety of ways. She shares that clove is a natural pain reliever, known to help heal cuts and burns, and can also be used as a natural insect repellent. Allspice is an anti-bacterial and antifungal plant with powerful aromatherapy applications. Ceylon cinnamon, she says, is rich in antioxidants and a terrific immune booster.
OK Farms also sells a sixth spice—the lesser-known mace, which Ala‘amoe describes as the “bright red alien webbing” of the nutmeg seed with a flavor reminiscent of cinnamon and pepper. Among other uses, she fancies mace in chocolate chip cookies, granola and Indian dishes. “We sell it in shells, and it’s really easy to open at home,” she says. “You just put your body weight onto the shell and crack it, then grab that little ball of nutmeg in the center. Use a handheld grater to sprinkle it in your dishes, and store it in a sealed jar in your spice cabinet.”
“PEOPLE ARE AMAZED AT HOW THE SPICES LOOK IN THEIR TRUE, FRESH FORM”
Two other farms on the Big Island are currently growing and processing spices—Wailea Agricultural Group on the Hāmākua Coast and Adaptations, a local CSA farm in Kealakekua—though Spice Road remains distinctive in its tour experience and diverse product mix. In 2015, Ala‘amoe started turning her spices into “healing mists,” fragrant sprays that combine essential oils and healing water extracted through a slow distillation process using ice water and steam heat. Good for topical and internal applications, the healing mists can be used as a spritz for the face and body, or for a health boost in foods and beverages.
Since adding the spice tour, Ala‘amoe and crew have enjoyed strong support from surrounding communities. “People are amazed at how the spices look in their true, fresh form,” she says. In addition to buying the spices on site or online, locals can taste OK Farm’s homegrown cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice in baked goods from Sundog Bread in Kona, or sample their curated curry while dining at Kamana Kitchen, an Indian restaurant in Hilo.
At the end of the day, Ala‘amoe hopes her passion to grow organic spreads beyond the farm, along with the spices and knowledge she shares. “Why rely on the mainland when we can grow pretty much anything here?” she says. “The excitement to feed our own community starts from within—try growing something small at home, get the kids involved and see what happens!”
Clove is usually a summer crop, nutmeg is in season during the spring/summer and end of fall, and cinnamon and curry are available year-round. [eHI]
STYLED BY MELISSA NEWIRTH OF CLOTH AND GOODS PHOTOGRAPHY BY JANA DILLON
Of course, it is really who is gathered around the table that matters most, but the added element of a well-designed (or improvised!) table setting can help set the scene. An aesthetically pleasing table setting will start to ignite excitement before the food is even served.
With the holiday and birthday season knocking at our door, we invited a treasured friend, Melissa Newirth of Cloth and Goods, to guide us in the art of table setting. Inspired by Japanese culture and modern style, Melissa shows how the use of just a few items can create an easy elegance that your guests will appreciate.
Items on the table don’t need to match or have a color theme. If you love the item- if it catches your eye or sparks your imagination – it could be just the thing to add to your next celebratory spread. May the following pages inspire you to shop, gather, forage and even borrow items to add to your table setting at an upcoming weeknight dinner or holiday celebration. [eHI]
“THERE’S SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT GATHERING A FEW FAVORITE PEOPLE FOR A MEAL. A BEAUTIFULLY SET TABLE IS THE PERFECT CANVAS FOR A DELICIOUS MEAL.”
KAHANU GARDEN AND PRESERVE, in Hāna, Maui, is home to Pi‘ilanihale Heiau, a National Historic Landmark and the single largest archaeological structure in the Hawaiian Islands. Plant collections at this powerful Hawaiian place are largely those of ethnobotanical origin; in other words, plants that reflect the agricultural customs, lore, and uses within a culture. Most of the ethnobotanical plants at Kahanu Garden are Pacific Island and Hawaiian heritage plants.
Prominent among them is Kahanu Garden’s mai‘a (banana) collection, which represents varieties bred from plants that were painstakingly transported across the Pacific. The collection includes many rare varieties that are valued as food, building materials, medicine, and for use in ceremonies such as the annual welcoming of makahiki, which recognizes the rising of the Makali‘i (Pleiades) into the heavens.
Prior to the 1778 arrival of Westerners in Hawai‘i, a wide variety of Polynesian-introduced “canoe plants” including bananas were planted in some of the most remote, and idyllic locations throughout the islands. These plantings were intended to provide food for travelers on long journeys, or even as sacred gardens reserved for a special purpose such as in times of political instability when one had to flee home for solitude in the forest. These bananas also were reserved for use as a kind of offering presented to ali‘i (ruling chief ) or as a highly regarded gift.
Unfortunately, since that time, many of these remote indigenous crop gardens have been overgrown by invasive species. With their disappearance come the loss of unique biological material and the stories of their origin. Those losses are akin to removing pieces of the puzzle of Hawai‘i’s early history.
In recognition of the threat of losing indigenous crop diversity, NTBG recently adopted a strategic goal to collect and curate all extant cultivars of Hawaiian canoe plants. The number of those early varieties is a fraction of what it once was, and research to verify each is ongoing. The current status of many of these rare varieties is debated, and requires much more than simply placing a few new plants in the garden.
Meanwhile, for all the indigenous crop varieties that still exist, NTBG serves as a safe haven where they can be preserved and shared for future generations. The fact that most of East Maui is still free of the Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV) is an important reason that Kahanu is a safe haven for these Hawaiian banana cultivars.
A FEAST OF FRUIT
Walking through Kahanu Garden’s banana collection is a feast for the senses. Standing in rows, vigorous banana plants tower over a mixture of kalo (taro), ‘awa (kava), and wauke (paper mulberry). Growing in multi-layered crop plantings alongside the bananas, the plants recreate a landscape of Hawai‘i’s ancestors where heavy bunches of fruit cascade from above in a multitudinous display of colors, shapes, and sizes.
Consider ‘Pōpō‘ulu Huamoa,’ the variety that first greets you with its enormous sausage-shaped fruits. Beside it stands ‘Iholena ‘Ūpehupehu’ with deep salmon-purple leaves. Then, perhaps the biggest showstopper of all, a rare ‘Manini,’ the only traditional Hawaiian banana with all variegated leaves and fruit.
Each of these varieties is unique and reveals the diversity of Hawaiian bananas while underscoring the importance of NTBG’s collections. Bananas belong to the group of plants known as Zingiberales (gingers, heliconias, and related families), and NTBG is an official conservation center for the Heliconia Society International (HSI), which strives to conserve documented living collections of these plants.
With multiple locations in Hawai‘i, different NTBG gardens will be tasked with piloting different collections. Limahuli Garden on Kaua‘i’s North Shore preserves the main collections of kalo, while McBryde Garden is home to the ‘uala (sweet potato) collection, and Kahanu Garden is home to collections of mai‘a (bananas) and ‘ulu (breadfruit).
By protecting all extant cultivars of canoe plants within our gardens, NTBG continues to grow as an invaluable resource for researchers, cultural practitioners, and as a place to safeguard Hawai‘i’s ethnobotanical and cultural heritage. As demonstrated by NTBG’s Breadfruit Institute and the collection at Kahanu Garden, NTBG plays a vital role in advancing solutions to global hunger.
Today bananas are the most widely consumed tropical fruit in the world and, as a result, don’t elicit the same sense of wonder that they did when first introduced to the United States at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. Yet, as commonplace as bananas have become, it’s easy to forget it wasn’t always so. What is often overlooked — call it a “banana blindspot” — is how many varieties still exist and why they need protection.
Most commercially grown bananas are of the Cavendish group — varieties like Williams, Dwarf Chinese, and even Hawai‘i’s local favorite, the ‘Hawaiian Apple.’ The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates roughly 47 percent of global production is of the Cavendish group with more than 50 billion tons of bananas produced globally each year. In the United States and the European markets, Cavendish bananas virtually dominate the entire market.
So what is wrong with this picture? Imagine a single plant species represented by just one variety as the only thing growing for hundreds of miles. This type of agricultural system, driven by our demand to produce economies of scale, leaves little opportunity for diverse habitats and ecosystems to thrive.
With genetic uniformity in such large plantations, one disease can spread like a hot spark in dry tinder, completely destroying entire farms in one fatal swoop. To cite one example, a new Fusarium wilt strain called TR4 is currently an enormous threat to Cavendish banana production as it quickly spreads throughout the world.
When existing commercial varieties do not exhibit the resiliency to combat these types of new diseases, it is important that other banana varieties are available to preserve irreplaceable genetic diversity that can help feed the world.
How can we counter the negative impacts of large plantation agricultural system failures, the loss of major food crops, and the displacement of ecosystems? One answer can be found in Hawai‘i’s kūpuna (elders) who share an important sentiment — nānā i ke kumu (look to the source) — in addressing today’s complex problems. When considering how to preserve the irreplaceable diversity of Hawaiian canoe plants, in this case, bananas, NTBG will continue to look to the source as we document, collect, and protect the banana varieties that are an invaluable part of Hawai‘i’s cultural and botanical heritage. [eHI]
This article was originally published in the Bulletin of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a not-for-profit, non-governmental institution. The mission of the National Tropical Botanical Garden is to enrich life through discovery, scientific research, conservation, and education by perpetuating the survival of plants, ecosystems, and cultural knowledge of tropical regions.
LETHA THOMAS, owner of Monkeypod Jam on Kaua‘i had been trying to get meetings with O‘ahu buyers for years. Then in January 2018 her company was selected to be in Mana Up, a Hawai‘i-based business accelerator program.
“I was able to get in front of buyers I had been trying to get a meeting with for years,” says Aletha. “Mana Up has the connections I needed. We’re getting to the point where we think we’ll double our sales [by this time next year] and part of that is due to the connections and education we learned from Mana Up.”
“You go into it wanting more sales, but it’s also about getting more organized and making sure you are more strategic in your decisions for the future,” adds Kimo Tuyay, co-owner of Maui Nui Venison, which makes venison jerky from invasive Axis deer humanely harvested on Maui.
These days small business owners like Aletha and Kimo can use all the help they can get when it comes to launching and scaling a business in the aloha state. Last year Hawaii ranked last nationwide for starting a business, according to a 2018 WalletHub study. Local businesses creating agricultural related products, which rely on fishing, ranching, and growing produce, face even greater challenges because their products are subject to the whims of Mother Nature and other external factors.
Thus, business accelerator programs, typically known for helping tech companies, are a godsend for businesses developing locally made products.
Launched in 2017, Mana Up was created with the ambitious goal of helping to create Hawai‘i’s next 100 product companies earning more than $10 million in revenue—all based in Hawaii. Mana Up does this through a 12-week accelerator program geared specifically for Hawaii-based companies by helping businesses with marketing, distribution, branding, scaling, and much more.
Cofounders Meli James and Brittany Heyd both have extensive backgrounds in the venture capital world and bring substantial, high-level contacts and partnerships to the program. Prior to launching Mana Up, Brittany, who is a lawyer, worked in the Obama White House on public policy and was managing director of 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based global venture capital fund.
Meli previously served as the head of new ventures at Sultan Ventures and program manager of XLR8UH, a nationally recognized startup accelerator run by the University of Hawai‘i. In addition to managing Mana Up, Meli serves as the president of the Hawai‘i Venture Capital Association.
According to Meli, the accelerator program helps Hawai‘i companies become global companies, while at the same time bringing to the world what really makes Hawai‘i special.
Companies that apply to Mana Up must meet certain requirements, such as having a minimum of $100,000 in annual revenue, plans to scale beyond Hawai‘i, having a Hawai‘i-based founder and company, and a deep connection to the aloha state.
“PEOPLE STRONGLY BELIEVE IN THE ‘AINA AND THE MAGIC OF HAWAI‘I,” EXPLAINS MELI. “THEY’RE MORE CONSCIOUS ABOUT THE THINGS THEY ARE PUTTING IN THEIR BODY, AS WELL AS WHAT THEY ARE PUTTING ON THEIR BODY.”
Businesses from a range of industries, including apparel, jewelry, packaged food, alcohol, health and beauty, and more can apply to the Mana Up program. Cohorts are typically held twice a year and competition can be fierce. Of the 85 companies that applied to the first cohort held in January 2018, only 10 were chosen.
When it comes to selecting finalists for the cohort, Meli says the Mana Up team “looks at what the company is sourcing and if they are doing it sustainably.” Equally important she says, Mana Up looks at a company’s story and connection to the islands. “Are they sharing that narrative with both visitors and residents of Hawai‘i who can learn something new?”
Of the 31 companies that have participated in the three cohorts to date, 13 are food related businesses sourcing locally farmed or ranched food in their products. Ag-based companies in the cohorts include Manele Spice company, which sources Hawaiian salt from Moloka‘i, Kōhana Rum and Hawaiian Rainbow Bees, both based on O‘ahu, as well as Hawaiian Vanilla Company and Big Island Coffee Roasters, both on Hawai‘i Island.
“They are pretty much giving you all the information you need to increase your sales from branding to advertising to online sales platforms to physical meetings with big buyers in the state of Hawai‘i,” says Dawn Kaneali’i-Kleinfelder, owner of Liko Lehua Gourmet Butters and Café. “What you do with that information is up to you.”
Those entrepreneurs fortunate enough to be selected for Mana Up cohorts are maximizing the opportunities the program provides.
“Manoa Chocolate has taken on a new merchandising opportunity with DFS Galleria with video and imagery instead of just being on the shelf,” says Meli, adding that more than 17,000 shoppers visit DFS’ flagship Waikīkī store daily where Manoa Chocolate has their new enhanced display. “Voyaging Foods, [from cohort 1], are now on the menu at the Kahala with their gluten free pancakes,” says Meli.
Through a partnership with Mana Up and Hawaiian Airlines, products from other past cohort participants like Big Island Coffee Roasters and Kunoa Cattle are now for sale on the Pau Hana food carts on Hawaiian Airlines flights. That partnership also enables some Mana Up companies to be featured in in-flight videos. Kunoa Cattle is featured in a short video on the Hawaiian Airlines in flight entertainment channel, giving millions of Hawaii visitors a glimpse into a day in the life on the Kaua‘i ranch.
“With our partnership with Hawaiian Airlines we’ve been able to get these videos on the flights, which is great exposure for the companies,” says Meli.
“We could not have gotten that kind of awareness on our own,” adds Kunoa Ranch co-founder Bobby Farias. Kunoa Cattle has 4,000 acres of ranch land on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu, as well as the largest USDA-approved butchery for beef and pork on O‘ahu.
Being in Mana Up helped the ranch do more than gain exposure. Before participating in the cohort, Bobby says there was a misalignment between what he thought customers wanted and what products their target market actually wants. “Mana Up helped us with that.”
“Whether you are selling pies or steaks or rubber slippers, business owners are consumed with business problems, they don’t have the bandwidth to deal with branding awareness.
“I’m a rancher. My business is producing quality local beef in a sustainable way. Mana Up is forward focused on brand awareness. Connecting with them allows me to focus on what I do best.”
For other businesses involved in Mana Up, it’s not just about marketing, but also helping to scale their manufacturing so their business can grow.
Sheldon Cho says his Kona-based company Kaimana Jerky, which makes ahi tuna jerky, wants to do national distribution but faces challenges.
“Working with Mana Up we get to work through our staffing and manufacturing issues,” he explains. “They help us line up all our manufacturing processes so that our products have the highest level of food safety and can be sold nationally and internationally.”
Then there is the intangible benefit of growing your business in Hawaii. Sheldon’s father first started making fish jerky more than 20 years ago in Kona. Now Sheldon is raising his kids in the same community where he grew up.
“I enjoy entrepreneurship and building a business,” he says, “but I also enjoy surfing and living in Hawai‘i and enjoying the beautiful place we live in. I love what Brittany and Meli are doing to help Hawai‘i have a more sustainable economy and helping local businesses survive here and thrive.” [eHI]
AKING A HEAP OF RAW INGREDIENTS and transforming them with fire and spice into a creation all your own can make you feel alive, daring and powerful. A few of Hawai‘i’s kitchen magicians extoll the virtues of going “off-recipe.”
A clean plate and a request for seconds — these are the hallmarks of a win at the dinner table. And when you’ve invited guests to dine, hearing the words, “I simply must have this recipe!” is music to a home cook’s ears. But chances are, there’s much more going on behind the scenes than dutiful allegiance to a set of instructions.
While recipes can be super useful when you’re aiming for predictability, what’s life without a little spontaneity? In food writer Philip Dundas’ book Cooking Without Recipes, he promises that risk-taking yields great rewards, challenging readers to venture beyond the shackles of scripts and see their kitchen as a playground with great potential. While there’s a certain sense of ease and security that comes with following recipes, relying on them too much can mean missed opportunities to apply your cumulative cooking skills in a creative way. For the home cooks we interviewed, the concoctions that pop out of their oven (or skillet, or crock pot) are usually one part imitation, two parts improvisation.
SOUP OUTSIDE THE BOX
O‘ahu’s Dabney Gough rarely follows a recipe on the nights she makes dinner for herself and her husband, usually in the Instant Pot, the plug-in rapid pressure cooker that’s gained a cult following for its convenience factor. Soups dominate her dinner table, she says, since, “They’re super healthy, inexpensive and there’s room for infinite creativity.”
Dabney’s ideas for soups and other inventive dishes usually come from taking an ingredients-first approach. “I have a minimalist lifestyle, so I don’t like to have too many ingredients on hand,” she says. “Maybe something catches my eye at the farmer’s market, or I’ll just see what I have at home and go from there.”
A self-proclaimed rule follower, Dabney’s culinary school background helped her to absorb the basics of cooking enough to improvise, but she still relies on the expertise of others when attempting new types of dishes. “If I’m doing a cuisine I’m not familiar with, I’ll stick to the recipe the first time just to get a feel for the ratios of spices,” she says.
Recently she went on an Indian-food-in-the-Instant-Pot kick, inspired by a Facebook group: “It was my first time doing something like this, so I found a recipe for lemon rice with turmeric, curry leaves and cashews and it came out great.” Instant Pot Lemon Rice:
Conscious of the toll meat production takes on the environment, Alethea Lai enjoys thinking up new vegetarian dishes for her partner and son to serve at their Puako, Big Island dinner table.
“When I have a lot of veggies I have to go through, I’ll make a super veggie sauce using fresh tomatoes from Kawamata Farms,” she says. “It becomes harder to make food taste good when you’re limited to vegetables, so I’m working with more spices now. We like a lot more garlic and ginger than most people.”
Though she tends to go by the book when trying something new, “I never follow recipes to a T,” Alethea insists. And while she often swaps ingredients to make her meals more local or customizes the spiciness to fit her family’s tastes, she doesn’t make a habit of skipping steps written into recipes, “… since that’s where you really build your flavor structure,” she says.
On Taco Tuesdays, Alethea likes to hand-make the corn tortillas, letting texture be her guide: “Once you know what the dough should feel like when you roll it out, you don’t forget that,” she says. For a recent dinner-and-a-movie night with the family, she looked up the Quail in Rose Petal Sauce recipe made famous in the film Like Water for Chocolate and added some fun tweaks: “I substituted the chestnuts for macadamia nuts, and the prickly pear fruit purée for local ‘ohelo berry jam. I also made my own stock from the bones of local organic chickens and sourced the roses from an organic garden in Waimea.” Quail in Rose Petal Sauce:
Ha‘ikū, Maui home cook Barry Frankel had a grand old time during the 12 intense weeks he spent at a California culinary academy in his late 20s, where he felt instantly at home in the commercial kitchen. The experience helped him acquire the techniques and confidence to be able to “wing it” in his daily meal prep today, and when he’s entertaining family and friends.
“I’ll typically look at three or four recipes and then combine them or use my own knowledge to figure out what works,” Barry says, often gravitating to meals that fit with the weatherpatterns. “My new best friend is the cast iron skillet. I’ve been cooking up a lot of comfort foods during the colder nights — beef stew, jambalaya, sauteéd fish with curry sauce — but as we move into summer, I’ll do much more barbequing. ” He’s also a fan of mixing up his own dry rubs to try out on meat and fish after friends gift him with various exotic spices they find while traveling.
A big part of Barry’s cooking game is the clever use of leftovers. “I took some leftover chicken soup and dumped it in my cast iron pan and threw an egg on it, scooped it out and set it onto a tortilla with some cilantro and avocado,” he says. “It was actually pretty close to this time-honored Middle Eastern dish called shakshuka. Now it’s one of my go-to meals.”
His advice for successful improvisation? “We have this natural sensibility to eat foods that are in season at the moment,” he says. “If you combine that with what’s available locally, you’re going to have better results.” Shakshuka:
Yes, recipes are essential, especially when you’re learning the ins and outs of a new dish or testing out an unfamiliar type of cuisine. But if you’ve got visions of whipping up edible masterpieces out of thin air, you might want to invest a little time and effort into reviewing some fundamental cooking truths first. After all, legendary painter Jackson Pollock mindfully studied the principles of representational art so he could go on to literally paint outside the lines and invent a new style known as abstract expression.
If you’re more of a rule-follower by nature than a free spirit, not to worry. Becoming a better off-the-cuff cook starts with observing how heat affects food — not just learning the difference, say, between baking, simmering and sautéeing, but actually discerning how these cooking styles alter both physical structure and taste. For instance, pan-roasting and grilling are both popular “dry-heat” methods of cooking meat. But since the direct flame of a gas or charcoal grill tends to zap the flavorful fats rather quickly, roasting is often preferable for larger cuts.
Another step on the journey to freestyle cooking success is understanding the ways in which various ingredients combine to form new flavor profiles — like how garlic and rosemary complement each other nicely, or how adding an acidic ingredient such as vinegar or citrus can help bring something bland to life.
PINCH OF THIS, DASH OF THAT…
Before you take off the training wheels, pay attention to the ratios and proportions that work in the recipes you’re making. Then, instead of pulling out your measuring spoons, remember that a tablespoon is about the size of an ice cube and see if you can eyeball it. If a recipe calls for one-fourth of a cup of something, picture a large egg. Estimating measurements can be empowering and help guide you toward inventing dishes with a balanced flavor-profile. (A quick Google search can provide you with a list of visualizations.)
In Season 3 of Netflix’s makeover show Queer Eye, resident food expert Antoni gave viewers a handy “3-2-1 ratio” to nail a pie crust from scratch — three parts flour, two parts fat and one part liquid. Once you internalize rough guidelines like this, it’ll be a cinch to adjust ingredient amounts based on your family’s preferences.
You can also use your senses and intuition to guide you — evaluating smell, texture, and taste as you go along for results no recipe can deliver. Finally, our panelists offered the advice that adding ingredients gradually, frequently checking for doneness to avoiding overcooking, and “seasoning to taste” are all good anchor practices for creative home cooks.
READY TO GO ROGUE?
Ad libbing a dish is not unlike composing a symphony, with ingredients, temperature and timing as your instruments. As you embark upon adventures in “cooking outside the lines,” remember the words of fantasy writer Erin Morgenstern: “You don’t have to be a chef or even a particularly good cook to experience proper kitchen alchemy: the moment when ingredients combine to form something more delectable than the sum of their parts. Fancy ingredients or recipes not required; simple, made-up things are usually even better.” [eHI]
What’s your cooking style — recipe-follower or rule-breaker? Insightful responses from our recent Facebook poll:
Joanie: I wing it but didn’t in the beginning. I am a super-taster, so I can usually adjust by tasting it!
Linda: I like trying new recipes that look good but I don’t have the confidence to just throw things together. I like having a format that has proportions that have already been tested.
Julia: I wing it 90% of the time… I like a lot of flavor, and I have found most recipes are boring.
Liana: When you cook often you know your flavors and what you can add take out or would work best for you. Often I will look at several recipes for the same thing and take elements I like.
Andrea: I very rarely use recipes, but it’s because I spent years following recipes, readings recipes and creating recipes as a chef/educator. That gave me the skill set to just “wing it,” even though it’s not really winging it…
Amber: Occasionally I use recipes for more authentic dishes from other places and cultures, but when I’m just cooking at home I make stuff up.
Daniel: Master the gold standard first. Be creative second.
Nia: Most of the time I follow a recipe, just because when I get home from work or the gym I don’t have the brain energy to be creative. I come from a science and lab background, so I feel very comfortable following recipes, and I’m out of my comfort zone when I try to wing it.
Victoria: I usually use the recipe for inspiration and then tweak it with what I think would add more or taste better. Not all recipes are winners, and neither are my tweaks — but this is how I build my own recipes from basic chocolate chip cookies to pasta dishes.
Natalie: I often use a recipe like a template. It gives me an idea of how to measure flavors, especially in new recipes. But I almost always change quite a bit.
Aimee: I usually cook by improvisation. What do I have on hand? How much effort do I feel like making? What sounds good tonight? The exception is when I bake; it requires more precision and I know it’s pretty easy to mess up if I don’t have the proportions and chemistry right.
WRITTEN BY CORTTANY BROOKS PHOTOGRAPHY BY KOLTON DALLAS
With just a few ingredients and a free afternoon you truly can prepare your own homemade charcoal!
Why would anyone want to make their own charcoal, you ask? For one thing, good, hardwood lump burns hotter and cleaner than briquettes do, and is much easier to light. You also know where it came from, what it contains and what was done to it en route.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
1. Source of fire: I use a back-yard fire pit. A propane heater or even a grill could also be used.
2. Empty metal paint can: It’s a good idea to make sure the paint can is completely clean as residual paint can put off toxic fumes. Poke or drill three holes in the lid. These holes should be about an eighth of an inch in diameter.
3. Wood: Different types of wood have different uses. Hard woods, such as oak and hickory, are better for heating and blacksmithing, while soft woods, such as pine and willow are better for making gunpowder. Experiment with different types of wood to suit your purpose.
When building the fire, wait and make sure that it will maintain a steady heat for at least four to five hours. I like to have my fire going for an hour or two before I start cooking the charcoal. This gives me a nice steady coal bed to cook over and a nice break to enjoy some sun and a brew.
Propane already gives a steady heat from the start, so no need to preheat.
Once the fire situation is in order, fill the can with your choice of wood. Try to use uniform pieces, which will give a more consistent end product. If using a variety of sizes, line the can with larger pieces, and place the smaller ones in the center. It’s also helpful to use dry or seasoned wood.
Tilt the can on its corner and place it over the half-burnt logs near the center of the fire where there’s an even heat. Make sure the holes in the can are facing up.
THE WAITING GAME
At this point I like to relax a bit with another brew and enjoy the fire. This part takes a few hours. Turn the can over once or twice, making sure that the heat stays hot and even, but not blazing.
As the wood heats, steam and gasses escape through the holes in the lid. The goal is to cook out everything but the carbon. Cooking the wood while starving it of oxygen is the retort method of making charcoal.
At first, the steam escaping will appear white. As the steam darkens, keep a closer eye on it. The darker gasses show that the essential oils are burning off. These gasses are flammable and will eventually ignite, making three small torches out of the holes in the lid.
When this happens, it’s time to take it off the fire.
PLEASE NOTE: DO NOT take off the lid at this point! Simply place the extremely hot can in a safe, cool place with the holes facing down. Introducing oxygen to the coal at this point would cause it to burn up immediately, leaving you with ashes.
Wait at least a few hours for everything to cool completely before revealing your homemade charcoal. And lastly, enjoy! [eHI]
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF edible HAWAIIAN ISLANDS AT THE BARN, MAUI HAWAI‘I
FIRE, THE DESTROYER, the purifier; get close to it for warmth, for illumination; feel the fire of passion, feel power; find hope in its flames and knowledge. It may be that fire signifies so much for us because it is one of the things that makes us who we are. Humans are the only beings to have controlled fire and with it, we cook.
Perhaps it was serendipity, a hominid banging rocks together and creating a spark that caught, or maybe it was inspiration from a wildfire, cautiously transferred then constrained in a small pit in a cave somewhere. It must have been pure experimentation to throw a hunk of meat on the open flames, but then for the first time in history we watched the fat begin to drip and sizzle and an aroma wafted unlike any before. We were cooking.
Every human culture cooks. Every other Netflix show is about traveling for, cooking with or trying new food. We spend more time planning, shopping for, and cooking meals than we do eating them. To discuss cooking, or the act of putting food to fire, is to open discussions of history, chemistry, geography and human physiology. There is more to cooking than meets the mouth.
THE ROOT OF THE FLAME
The harnessing of fire was an immense turning point in our human evolution. When exactly the first controlled fire burned is still heavily debated, as the evidence mostly went up in flames. Some argue that it was as long as 1.5 million years ago but most scholars can agree upon at least 400,000 years ago. At that point, we were still the Homo erectus version of ourselves but it didn’t take us long to discern that besides the truly major advantages of warmth and protection, fire could also cook food.
Before this point, our diet consisted mostly of seeds, flowers, fruits and – at times – raw meat. The heat of fire, however, chemically and physically transforms food and its advent transformed not only how humans eat, but possibly humans themselves. While cooking meat causes it to lose calories due to fat melting out, it also kills parasites, making it less likely to cause food poisoning, and also reduces the amount of energy it takes to chew and digest. Meat became a staple of the early human diet.
Then there is the somewhat controversial theory, first hypothesized by Frederich Engels in 1876 and expanded on by Richard Wrangham in 2009, that the ability to cook with fire gave Homo erectus such a sudden surplus of nutrients and energy that, over time, it allowed human brain size to increase. This view suggests that cooking with fire transformed us from our ape-like ancestors to the backyard barbecuing Homo sapiens we are now.
THE ELEMENTAL ELEMENT
“There’s something very primal and raw about cooking with live fire. The flavor, the texture is all very natural,” says Noah Hester, chef and owner of Fox BBQ in Kamuela on Hawai‘i Island. He prepares southern-style barbecue in a 28-foot-long custom trailer wood fire smoker and grill. Chef Noah says he’s always been excited by cooking with fire, “You have to harness and control this uncontrollable thing. At the same time, restaurant cooking involves fire. Every cook in the world has that desire [to harness].”
It has been merely 150 years since the gas range became common in household kitchens. Before that, kitchen fires burned almost consistently because, before matches, getting a fire started was much more of a process. Now, with the appearance of electric stovetops and microwaves (if we can really even call this cooking), the closest many Americans get to cooking with live fire is the backyard barbecue, and even then, most are gas or charcoal. Gone are the days where the knowledge of how to start a fire and maintain a desired temperature was necessary to cook anything. Perhaps it is this disconnect that has us seeking out experiences of food being cooked in a more age-old way.
Chef Noah reflects on the Outstanding in the Field dinner he participated in, held in a pasture used for raising lambs in North Kohala. The objective was to cook a five-course meal for 250 people using only natural fire. He remembers it was a rainy, chilly day, “And as guests arrived they walked past this open fire pit being worked with shovels and branches. There were big chunks of lamb being cooked on stones surrounding the fire pit, so the smell was incredible. The fire pit all of a sudden became this gathering place where people started talking to each other and mingling. It really helped bring everyone together over common warmth and the promise of delicious meat. It set the pace for the dinner, and conversations that had started around the fire continued on through the event. I think seeing and smelling the food cooking over this fire and then tasting the finished product really made it that much better.”
UP IN SMOKE
A steady trickle of smoke streams from the chimney of Linae Cruz’s log cabin trailer, accompanied by an aroma of burning kiawe, ribs, pork shoulder and brisket she’s been told can be smelled a mile away. Smokey Ranch BBQ offers Texas-style, pit-smoked meat and fixings in Waimanalo on O‘ahu. God’s Country sure smells heavenly with Linae cooking in it.
“Most of the flavor of smoke is actually perceived through our smell,” she says. We understand how important the olfactory nerves are to our sense of flavor only in instances where we have a head cold or our nose is stuffed. Food just doesn’t taste the same. It takes a trifecta of information sent from our taste buds to the brain; physical and visual stimulation, such as how the food feels and looks, combines with our sense of smell to equal flavor in food. Moreover, our tongue can identify only sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savory) flavors, so when something tastes smoky to us, it is because it smells smoky to us.
“I think it’s important to note that smoke shouldn’t be considered an ingredient to a recipe. The ultimate goal is that perfect smoke ring when you cut into the meat. It’s kind of like cutting through a tree trunk. If done correctly, you’ll see a distinct array of rings with the outer layer sealing in the juices and flavors,” says Linae.
She feels that cooking food in this way will never go out of style or become outdated because it’s ingrained in our ancestral DNA. “I believe the smell of burning wood is associated with feasts and happy moments,” she says. “When we come together as people, food is an important element. We celebrate, we converse, we contemplate the world over food.”
ISLE OF FUEGO
One of the most diverse components of human cultures around the world is how we put food to fire. Chef Leo Antunez is an Uruguayan now living on Kaua`i with his own catering business. He remembers growing up with a country life, a fire pit inside his house, and discovering a passion for cooking as a child.
The parrilla is a South American barbecue but Chef Leo has adapted it to the flora and fauna of Kaua`i, burning guava and ironwood, grilling local meats and vegetables as often as possible. “A traditional parrilla starts with the gathering of wood, finding the best location, checking out the weather and the direction of the winds,” he explains. Once the fire is burning strong, a metal grill is set above the flames for half an hour to sanitize and prepare it for cooking. The grill is then removed, the fire itself is transferred to the side, and the grill is replaced on top of the hot coals. On goes the lamb, chicken, pork, vegetables, or, traditionally in Uruguay, the organs of the cow, known as chinchulines, served as an appetizer paired with homemade bread, wine and cheese.
The parrillero’s job is then to shovel more hot coals from the fire to under the parrilla, being sure to place them in a circle in order to evenly distribute the heat. This part requires attention, patience and “let[ting] the fire do its thing.” The process is repeated until the food is cooked to perfection.
“Manning the parrilla requires a lot of dedication and love,” says Chef Leo, “I am in love with fire, I really care for it. It can tell stories, the wood has different stories to tell. Fire used to be the T.V. of the people.”
AL FRESCO ONLY
Two invasive species, the Axis Deer and the Kiawe tree are a perfect match, just add fire. Chef Yeshua Goodman grew up cooking over fire while camping at La Perouse and in Hana on Maui. He now runs Kiawe Outdoor, holding open-flame cooking events on the island and beyond with menus centered around sustainably caught and invasive species. “If we can’t do it sustainably for the next generation then it goes against everything that Hawaiian culture is about,” he says.
The process of hunting a deer or catching a fish with a single line, of opting to eat canoe crops, utilizing an imu, or pounding kalo: these things are far from the easiest way to make a meal, rather, they exemplify cooking with deep intention.
“Cooking with open fire is universal, it really strikes a cord. For millennia, it was the only way to prepare a meal; somewhere in the last century we got away from it in favor of convenience and indoor cooking,” Chef Yeshua says. “The challenge of it is part of the beauty. Tell me I can’t pull off Michelin level food in a field and I’ll set out to do just that. But we do more than just cook with fire, we’re about the whole experience. When you cook over fire, surrounded by your friends and family on the side of a volcano in Maui, watching the sunset and sipping on great wine, the experience is unlike anything else.”
So while the origins of cooking with fire began with a human need for sustenance, it is now perhaps more of a wistful act, a social experience and open-air therapy. Fire demands we remain present and as we work with a powerful force of nature. Chef Yeshua knows firsthand, “There’s magic in the flames and it brings us back to a special place where the earth and the smoke season the food.” [eHI]
WRITTEN BY REBECCA REMILLARD PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF KAUAI FOOD FOREST GROUP
IN THE BEGINNING, we were hunters, gatherers, and scavengers. It worked well enough that we kept at it for 200,000 years. Then came the era of agriculture. Humans started extensively planting food in the ground only around 7,000 years ago. And perhaps we have now entered a different epoch entirely, one where only a few farm while most get their food from a grocery store.
It is easy to forget that we live on a tiny chain of islands in the middle of the Pacific with the great abundance of perishables in our local Costcos, Safeways and Foodlands. Our fruit bowls overflow with apples from Chile, grapes from Mexico, bananas from Costa Rica. It is haunting to consider what would happen if the Matson ships stopped sailing. How many of us really know how to till the soil at a subsistence level?
A WALK THROUGH THE FOREST
Just past a row of red ti plants, on a road right off Kuhio Highway in Kilauea, grows the Kaua`i Food Forest. Paul Massey and his dog Sage, both undeniably high-spirited, meet me at the entrance and immediately he is concerned about my legs. I have grown gardens, little herb boxes and potted tomatoes, but, like most of us, I have never worked in or even walked through a food forest. I have naively forgotten about the natural occurrence of mosquitos attracted to the moist soil and worn shorts and Locals. Paul lends me a pair of beige work pants and we’re off, Sage leading our pack.
The Food Forest is not manicured rows of spinach and kale, restrained patches of zucchini and trimmed cucumber plants, nor does it strive to be. At first glance it is a plot of tropical woodland, disorderly with random growth. Then Paul, who plays the role of Food Forest Manager, begins to explain the intentionality of each of the two hundred edible and medicinal plant species that grow in the forest.
“We’ve created plant guilds that serve a common purpose,” he says (plant guild: think symbiotic relationship), gesturing to three plants which are huge components of the forest. Various colors of Coleus, Sissoo spinach which can act like a living mulch under fruit trees, and comfrey, improving the soil by cycling nutrients and keeping weeds out of beds. “This is a prime example of an agricultural system known as multistory agroforestry: a combination of plants that occupy different positions in the vertical space, from tall canopy trees, understory trees beneath them, shrubs, vines, ground covers, and root crops. Each one of these vertical layers produces a valuable part of the total production of the system, which includes food we eat, soil building organic matter, and habitat for the micro and macro-organisms that really make the ecosystem resilient to the extremes of climate change, like the floods Kaua`i experienced last year, and sustainable in the long term.”
If it wasn’t already clear, Paul knows what he’s talking about. A certified arborist and resident of Kaua`i for the last 20 years, he has studied at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on island and the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew in the U.K. He is also the host of In The Garden On The Farm, a weekly radio show (Wednesdays, noon-1pm) on KKCR where he is able to both share and learn.
We walk past a black pepper plant, a pink powder puff, mountain apple, blackberry jam fruit, wing beans, lima beans and a tropical yam growing underground. We stop before an Egyptian Pea tree, growing double overhead and flowering yellow.
“This is called chop-and-drop,” Paul says, using a machete to cut off low branches of the tree then placing them at the base of a neighbor plant and stepping on them. “The leaf becomes bug food, bug poop becomes plant food, plant food becomes food.” It is living mulch, one plant feeding another.
A four-year-old cacao tree grows nearby. Paul cuts off a pod and splits it, offering me half. We eat the pulp off the seeds then spit them out wherever — they just might grow. “Cultivating the forest is about compromise,” he says, “When we choose to plant many plants close, for example, it’s an exchange. Protection from strong wind is perhaps more important than full sun.” There are nitrogen fixing trees growing, some plants that supply shade and cool the ground, others that crowd out weeds, more still cycle out nutrients from the soil, a few prevent erosion, and of course there are those that provide food. Suddenly the food forest no longer appears to be growing in chaos but in deliberate harmony.
This is not just farming, it is permaculture, a sustainable agriculture. The idea is to cultivate the land with all people, including future people, in mind. Paul emphasizes that this is a long-term project, investing energy into the plot for long-term abundance. He believes it is one of the most rewarding aspects of the food forest, the years of commitment it requires. Several of the trees he has planted will take a decade or more to bear fruit. This is a patient person’s game.
Before this specific land had ever been tilled, it was almost certainly the innards of a dense forest. And because Polynesian settlers tended to subsist along the coast and lowlands until the point of resource diminishment, the uplands may not have been touched for a great deal of time. In 1863, the land was sold to Charles Titcomb by Kamehameha IV and it grew sugarcane from 1880 to 1971 then guava from 1977-2006. The parcel was then purchased by Bill and Joan Porter and cleared, then rested as two acres of mowed grass for five years. Now christened Wai Koa, the land became the site of the Kalihiwai Community Garden in 2009, when the future food forests’ nonprofit Regenerations first got involved to assist in the design.
“The garden design, which initially included both vegetable plots and a mixed fruit and bamboo orchard, was conceived at a two-week permaculture design course that I helped to produce. A local nonprofit, Mālama Kaua`i, had secured the lease for the land where the garden and the forest were eventually developed,” says Paul, “The idea of larger scale plantings never left my mind and I continued advocating for its creation throughout the community.” After years and a series of community discussions, a large-scale planting was at last achieved in December 2012 and the food forest was born.
It is a fact that the Hawaiian islands are overly dependent on food imports. It is a service to the community to provide a venue where people can find inspiration and education on how to establish and maintain a food producing system of their own, increasing their food security. For this reason, the food forest always has been and forever will be entwined in the community of Kilauea, of Kaua`i, and of Hawai`i. It intends to serve as an educational demo site where visitors can become proficient in subtropical agroforestry techniques through hands-on experience and even take home cuttings or seeds to start their own baby food forest.
“[THE FOOD FOREST] IS A LIVING, BREATHING ORGANISM”
“It is a living, breathing organism that demonstrates our evolving techniques arrived at through experimentation and a keen observation of the interrelationships of the plants and soil,” Paul says. “The food forest is also a living seed bank, generating an ever-increasing diversity and quantity of planting material for establishing these elegant food and soil building systems in backyards and farms around the island.”
GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY
While visitors can explore the food forest any day of the year, weekly workdays are held every Saturday from 9am-5pm where all are welcome to cultivate the land, get their hands dirty and learn through experience. Green thumbs and novices alike can interact with the food forest, and, “both figuratively and literally, enjoy the fruits of our efforts,” Paul says referring to the weekly group meal, made with food harvested from the forest. Possible menu items include: wild chicken stew, giant yams, curried coconut soup, and almost certainly pickled vegetables.
At this point, the forest represents thousands of people’s work. Passionate community members and volunteers, the nonprofits of Regenerations, Mālama Kaua`i and Sanctuary of LUBOF, Paul and his right hand men from the beginning, Marshall Paul and Rob Cruz, and all of those who have donated seeds and cuttings; it takes a village to grow a forest.
On our way back to where we began, Paul hands me a rollinia fruit, a relative of the soursop. It is pale yellow and delicate, bruising easily. He tells me it is ready, to eat it soon. We stop briefly so he can pick himself some edible hibiscus, or lau pele; this will be Paul’s dinner tonight, he will steam them. He plucks the leaves tenderly, like this plant is an old friend. After so much time and energy spent in the food forest, perhaps it is. “I’m in love with this place and what it keeps revealing to us,” he says. [eHI]
WRITTEN BY LINDSEY KESEL IMAGES COURTESY OF FORK & SALAD
The trio behind Three’s Bar & Grill and Fork & Salad in Maui grew their passion project into a booming enterprise against all odds. Through it all, they’ve learned that cultivating a business founded in friendship means never giving up.
After their lives intersected in the kitchen of Longhi’s Wailea, a popular Italian seafood restaurant in Kihei, Maui, Travis Morrin, Cody Christopher and Jaron Blosser became thick-as-thieves surf buddies with another serious hobby in common — a deep-seated love of cooking. During “board meetings” in the water, they often daydreamed about what a future fixated on food might look like. They itched to create something that would let them surf and cook as much as they wanted, and in 2009, the friends decided to go all in on building their dream business with a commitment to not only make great food, but also to do right by their customers and collaborators.
A SHORT TRIP FROM CATERERS TO RESTAURATEURS
Before they could talk themselves out of it, the foodie friends powered forward with Three’s Catering — the name, a nod to the idea that each partner brings unique strengths to the table that perfectly complement the whole. Three’s offered Maui clients an eclectic combination of cooking styles — Hawaiian, Southwestern and Pacific Rim — and service was just as essential as fresh ingredients and inventive dishes. Their new venture garnered such positive response that after just a few months of catering events, in 2010 the budding entrepreneurs were able to rent a brick-and-mortar space at Kalama Village in Kihei for their first restaurant, Three’s Bar & Grill.
THE LUCKY BREAK THAT LED TO A BIG BOOM
In 2013, Travis, Cody and Jaron’s little catering experiment hit a big break when they won the bid to cater all of the Pacific Whale Foundation’s snorkel charters, a gig that would help keep them afloat through all the challenges that lie ahead. Then the friends took a gamble and introduced one of the first-ever food trucks on Maui — before it became a hot trend — and were stoked to see how much people loved casual, cost-effective food truck weddings. With some stability, the guys felt confident enough to move forward with a fun new concept they’d been tossing around — a farm-to-table, fast-casual restaurant they called Fork & Salad that would make eating healthy and eating local convenient and affordable. In July of 2016, Fork & Salad debuted in Kihei touting over 50 local ingredients and won the “Friend of Agriculture” award given by the Maui County Farm Bureau. Shortly after, Three’s Bar & Grill was featured in an episode of Food Network’s hit show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” In June of 2018, they opened a second Fork & Salad location in Kahului, Maui.
In all likelihood, the eager chefs’ headfirst dive into restaurant ownership should have been nothing more than a flash in the pan, especially since none of the three had any real business experience. (Deciding to break into the food industry during the worst part of the recession didn’t help, either.) But something about their formula worked. Building three successful local eateries from the ground up and growing a handful of staff to a team of over 100 wasn’t easy, but the co-owners put everything they had into the business with no shortage of elbow grease and grit.
“Being naive was the best thing we had on our side,” says 39-year-old Cody. “If we’d started out with smart business sense and looked at all the numbers, that would have talked us out of it quicker than anything. We necessarily didn’t care; we just wanted to open a restaurant with our best friends.”
Growing up in Beaumont, Texas, Cody’s family was big into barbecue, and he was constantly immersed in the Cajun and Creole styles of cooking. He recalls the particular night his infatuation with the world of food began, around age 10:
“My Uncle Chip was getting married and the reception was held at this fine-dining French restaurant in Houston. It was a 15-course meal and the chef came out and introduced himself, then brought me back into the kitchen and let me ask questions. Those swinging doors, the yelling, the fast pace of it all, and the smells
of all the different spices — I knew right then I wanted to be a part of it.”
After graduating from the culinary program at the Art Institute of Houston, Cody worked at a two Michelin Star restaurant in Oslo, Norway, then spent time in California surfing and learning from experienced culinary experts to become what he calls “a well-rounded chef” — as adept at baking as he is at grilling.
The first three years of running a restaurant were an uphill battle, Cody says, but he and his cohorts were able to weather the obstacles largely because they were all willing to do whatever needed to be done. “You’ve got to wear a lot of hats, and the cooking is the easy part…” he says. “If it meant washing dishes, if it meant climbing under our building and fixing a busted pipe because we couldn’t afford a plumber, we just did it.” With help from countless YouTube videos, Cody’s been able handle a lot of building, carpentry and welding for their spaces.
In year two of being open, Three’s Bar & Grill succumbed to a kitchen fire that forced them to shut down for 41 days. “At 6 am that day I got a call from the chef and I knew the whole kitchen must be on fire. There was no time to panic; it was step one — the Pacific Whale boats are going out this morning we need to make sure that those are stocked, and step two — we need a place to cook tomorrow morning. So I’m making calls to use our neighbor’s kitchen, Jaron’s talking to the general contractor about the rebuild, and Travis is making sure the catering keeps rolling.” When a crooked accountant made off with $30,000 of their hard-earned profits later that year, no one would have blamed them for throwing in the towel. But the partners used the adversity as fuel to hustle even harder. “If anything, the fire and the theft were wake up calls that it was time to stop ‘winging it’ and get serious,” says Cody. “From then on we were focused on knowing our business inside and out.”
A native of Maui, 31-year-old Travis Morrin was always around the hospitality industry, since his dad held the general manager position at a local hotel. He has fond memories of watching a French cooking show with his mom almost every afternoon and remembers how therapeutic it felt to watch people work with their hands as they transformed ingredients from one state to another. “It’s really an art form in a sense; you have to balance a lot of elements: texture, flavor, appearance, the whole nine yards,” he says.
At 20 years old, Travis attended the culinary arts program at the University of Hawaii Maui College, and he was still in school when the opportunity came to open up Three’s Bar & Grill. “I actually don’t remember a lot of it because it was so difficult,” he says. “We were making like $300 every two weeks and a lot of people thought we were crazy.”
Their scheme worked, Travis believes, because of how well each partner complements the other two. “It’s easy to knock down one person, but it’s a little harder to knock down three,” he says. “Jaron is very good with numbers and he brings us down to earth in terms of what we can actually do and how we can be smart about it. I’m the creative, entrepreneurial guy and Cody is an incredible chef and a tremendous builder.” Always one to pitch new concepts for expansion, Travis says they’ve always stuck to the law of “majority rules” when deciding what direction to move in next, making sure to put the partnership first.
Once a week, Travis holds meetings with the upper management teams, providing an open floor to discuss ideas and issues and check in on the numbers. “The regular face-to-face interaction really helped turn our business around because we were finally setting some short-term goals to pair with our long-term vision,” he says. “They continually inch us forward and keep us growing in a healthy, sustainable direction.”
THE NUMBERS GUY
Growing up in Durango, Colorado, Jaron Blosser’s family sushi outings every Friday night were his first taste of how food could command an audience. “I would order a simple roll — just rice, nori and crab — and I would be hooked because of the flavors and presentation. We would go to Benihana and I remember wanting to be one of those chefs doing all the tricks.”
Right out of high school, Jaron attended Scottsdale Culinary Institute, then earned his chops as a cook under accomplished chefs in Durango, Seattle, and Olympia, Washington, in the niches of Japanese, Pacific Rim and French cuisine. As far as what makes a great meal, he answers: “You need good ingredients and a balance of flavors, textures and temperatures, but what truly makes a difference is passion in the process and in the details. Some of my favorite dishes had very few ingredients, but it was the character of who prepared it, or the way it was served, that made it meaningful for me.”
“YOU’VE GOT TO WEAR A LOT OF HATS, AND THE COOKING IS THE EASY PART… IF IT MEANT WASHING DISHES, IF IT MEANT CLIMBING UNDER OUR BUILDING AND FIXING A BUSTED PIPE BECAUSE WE COULDN’T AFFORD A PLUMBER, WE JUST DID IT.” – THREE’S CO-OWNER CODY CHRISTOPHER
Ever the pragmatist, Jaron says the most stressful part of running a restaurant is the less glamorous stuff — like negotiating the lease with the landlord, talking job scope with the contractor and collaborating with the architect. “The entire future of the restaurant depends on the proper execution of these things, and if we make a mistake, there’s no going back,” he says.
These days, 37-year-old Jaron supervises much of the business’s financial aspects and building projects, or as he sees it, “I mainly solve problems all day as needed!” His biggest takeaway from years of putting out a steady stream of fires? “Just because something appears to be bad, it might end up being a really valuable lesson,” he says.
SPREADING THE NICHE OF ALOHA
Now that they’ve made a big splash in the Maui market, the brain trust behind Three’s is expanding to the mainland to show people “the niche of aloha” with a third Fork & Salad opening in Orange County, California, this spring. The guys have also partnered with FranSmart, a powerhouse in franchise development, to expand their brand even farther across the country and even the world. At the end of the day, their biggest motivator for continued growth is not money, or even love of food, but rather a sense of duty to their extended ohana:
“I’m sure that there are better restaurants out there, but this is our little slice of what we’ve carved out in this world,” says Cody. “We have the responsibility to make sure that our people have a place to come and work so they can take care of their own families. And as long as we do the right thing by our team and our customers and give back to the community, we’ll keep moving forward.”
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