Story by Leslie Harlib Photos courtesy of Blue Dragon
Taking fresh to a whole new level
Order the Living Salad at the Big Island’s Blue Dragon restaurant, nightclub and spa in North Kohala, and you’ll get a dish so fresh you’ll think the farm was brought right to your table.
Created by Blue Dragon’s Executive Chef Noah Hester, this inventive concoction ($11 on the starter menu) is a little wooden planter box a’bloom with five to seven types of lettuces, edible marigolds and fennel fronds—it all depends on what’s seasonal at the time. Served with the salad is a small dish of the day’s fresh produce, which might include anything from minuscule whole cucamelons to snippets of magenta dragonfruit, and perhaps a fresh ginger and Kiawe honey vinaigrette.
The bouquet of assorted leaves, which flourish in a bed of vermiculite, perlite and special coconut shell potting soil, is designed to share and eat with your hands; you harvest the bounty with a dainty pair of scissors.
“We’re always looking to get things as fresh as we can,” says Hester, who debuted the dish in March 2014. “People are amazed when we tell them produce was harvested that morning from Blue Dragon’s farm. The Living Salad takes the concept of freshness down to the minute.”
Hester sells anywhere between 10 and 30 whimsical salads a night. His concoctions are devised in conjunction with farmer Paul Johnston of Kekela Farms in Kamuela and Hester’s father Ron of Hawi, who hand-makes the planter boxes from 500 year-old mango wood.
“It’s always fun to see how people interact with it,” Chef Hester says. “Just recently we had a family with kids who were playing with iPads suddenly on the edge of their seats, so excited, when Dad was snipping off lettuce leaves and handing them out. They started out not wanting salad, and then they couldn’t wait to eat it. Watching the experience gave me goosebumps. That’s totally what the salad is about.”
Slowing down has allowed James Babian to reenergize his love for food and family. Last year, Babian transitioned from a grueling position as executive chef of a four-star resort to ownership of a family-run restaurant. Now he’s able to wholeheartedly pursue his passion for providing the Big Island with an authentic taste of Italy.
In early 2013 Chef James Babian and his wife Christine opened Pueo’s Osteria in Waikoloa Village, a restaurant that caters to locals, visitors and their peers in the hospitality industry. [Pueo is the native Hawaiian owl, and the restaurant caters to night owls by staying open until midnight.] The idea came from his and his wife Christine’s love of Italian food after a recent trip to Italy. James has Sicilian roots on his mother’s side and always remembers growing up being exposed to superb food and how it positively affected his soul.
Indeed, the restaurant has a family feel. Christine is there all the time, greeting everyone hello and goodbye. Her influence extends to the decor, menu and recipes. Through the osteria (basically an Italian version of a bistro), the Babians reinterpret the authentic flavors of Italy without ever losing the flavor of the islands.
After working in his family’s restaurant on the East Coast where he grew up, Chef Babian attended the California Culinary Academy in the early ‘80s. He came to Hawai‘i in 2000 where he worked at the Fairmont Orchid as Executive Chef. After seven years, he moved to the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, ranked as one of the top resorts in the world. During his time there, he helped champion the concept of RSA, “Regional, Seasonal and Artisanal” menus.
His steadfast philosophy is to create rewarding dining experiences that are culinary adventures. “I like to stay in the region, buy products only when they are in season, and support all the local artisan food producers I can,” explains Chef Babian about his locally sourced ingredients, which include goat cheese, macadamia nuts, Kona coffee, honey and Hawaiian salt.
Life is different now that he runs his own restaurant catering to the dinner crowd, in contrast to to the 12-14 hour days he spent as an Executive Chef at the resort.
“I spend much more time with my family than when I was working at the Four Seasons,” Chef says. At the resort, I was ultimately responsible for running six operations including the restaurant and 24-hour room service. Now, I run one restaurant and I can get a knife on a cutting board again. I am back out at the Farmer’s Markets, talking to farmers, buying fresh produce and being involved with the daily creation of specials.”
Clearly, he is happy to be in his element of crafting menus utilizing both the finest imported Italian products while choosing the freshest local ingredients. “If you want to experience how the food tastes in Italy, this is the place. We buy 80-pound wheels of Parmesan each week. My team and I look at three to five variations of a recipe to decide how we can make it more flavorful by applying the plant to plate concept,” Babian explains. “I don’t know who has more fun, me or the guests!”
Story by Catherine E. Toth Photos by Megan Suzuki (on O‘ahu) & Sean M. Hower (on Maui)
Edible Hawaiian Islands sent one local chef on assignment into foreign territory: a vegan boot camp in the kitchens of two female-run eateries. It didn’t take long for him to feel the beet.
“I know this is a natural food store, but is there any caffeine in here?”
And that’s how Mark “Gooch” Noguchi, local chef and commentator for the Cooking Channel’s “Unique Eats,” walked into Kale’s Natural Foods in Hawai‘i Kai.
If you know him, you wouldn’t be surprised. Noguchi is comfortable anywhere, even in a super cramped kitchen in the back of a health food store deli that specializes in vegan and vegetarian dishes.
This is not Noguchi’s element.
Not that the formally trained chef isn’t into health food. Noguchi, who grew up in both Mānoa and Hilo eating mostly traditional washoku (Japanese home-cooking), has experimented with cleanses, vegan food, juicing and the raw diet. These are just not techniques he uses often — or professionally.
“I happen to know vegan and raw is not just rabbit food,” says Noguchi, who recently opened LUNCH BOX to provide the Hawaiian Airlines staff with healthy locally sourced meals. “But a lot of local people think that. They think it’s only lettuce, and that’s not true.”
And that’s certainly not true at the deli at Kale’s, where sisters Jennifer and Christina Hee have built a reputation for serving delicious vegan and vegetarian dishes that have garnered loyal followers who stop by every day to see what the pair is whipping up in the kitchen.
Dishes like a wild mushroom risotto or a healthy loco moco with a beet burger served over organic spinach, brown rice and quinoa with mushroom gravy.
“There’s a misconception that vegan food doesn’t taste good or is bland,” Noguchi says.
Noguchi donned an apron — he actually put on a hot pink paisley one from the sisters’ collection first before pulling out his own — and got to work, learning from Jennifer how to use ingredients like organic spelt flour, coconut oil and vegan butter.
There’s no professional mixers or commercial convection ovens here. The Hees use an induction burner and a home oven for their dishes, mixing by hand and eyeballing most of their ingredients. They aren’t professionally trained, but what they make is prepared deftly and passionately.
“I’m so impressed by their spontaneity and their energy,” Noguchi says afterward. “There’s a lot of love in that kitchen. I felt the warm fuzzies.”
Noguchi helped prepare the deli’s popular polenta with local kale and vegan sausage made with beets, apples, beans and tapioca. The vegan polenta is pan-seared, then sautéed with the vegan sausage, red onions, red bell peppers, Portobello mushrooms, organic apples, garlic-roasted beets and locally grown kale — with a few other secret ingredients. It was full of flavor and texture.
“This style of cooking isn’t something that’s really taught in culinary school,” says the graduate of the Culinary Institute of the Pacific and the Culinary Institute of America. “But it should be.”
Noguchi, who has worked with the farm-to-table advocates at Town in Kaimukī and at Chef Mavro, has long been a believer in sustainable cuisine. He has supported like-minded local chefs and food producers at his pop-up venue TASTE in Kaka‘ako, but had never, himself, used the kind of ingredients and techniques he learned with the Hee sisters.
Like using beets and organic spelt to make vegan chocolate cupcakes. Or swapping butter with coconut oil or a vegan substitute made with soy (and tastes a lot like cheese). Or using an egg replacement made from tapioca and potato starch. Or that cane sugar isn’t necessarily vegan.
“Man, this is good stuff,” he says, tasting the beet frosting he made to accompany the vegan cupcakes. “This is really cool.”
His new perspective on cleaning cooking was only reinforced on his recent visit to Choice Health Bar in Lahaina.
Owned by best friends Emily Kunz and Kathryn Dahm, Choice is a bustling café that resembles a trendy coffee shop minus the coffee. Instead of lattes, it serves a variety of innovative smoothies, açaí bowls, juices and health elixirs that use seasonal fresh produce from Maui, superfoods and almond milk and coconut water made in-house.
With omiyage (gifts) in hand, Noguchi walked into lively café and couldn’t believe how much work goes into creating the thoughtful raw, vegan and vegetarian dishes Kunz and Dahm come up with.
“They are so innovative, it was cool,” Noguchi says. “And they’ve got a freaking following. I was helping them prep and I saw people in there, waiting 45 minutes to an hour before (the café) opened for lunch. They crank.”
Its popularity comes from the interesting dishes Kunz and Dahm serves, using whatever local produce they can find— Kunz actually drives to farms on Maui to pick up ingredients.
“Our menu changes daily based on what’s available,” Dahm says. “Our focus is on local and fresh… It’s about pure food. The less you do to it, the better. You can cut an avocado in half and it’s a five-star meal.”
And they really do use whatever’s on hand, from romanesco broccoli to kohlrabi to heirloom carrots. They even have customers who bring in fruits and veggies — like oranges and figs — from their backyards.
While its menu is mostly smoothies, juices and açaí bowls, Choice does serve full-on meals like a raw falafel wrap with a Peruvian olive tapenade and a cashew tzatziki sauce, a robust Mediterranean kale salad with an herbal-infused lemon vinaigrette, a sunflower-walnut burger with raw ketchup and bee pollen “cheese” on a collard leaf, as well as a variety of soups.
That day, Noguchi helped prep what the friends jokingly refer to as the “two-day entrée” — the HI Vibe Pad Thai dish. It’s a play on the Thai noodle dish, except this is made with green papaya, carrots, red bell peppers, daikon and other veggies julienned to look like noodles. The dish was topped with an almond ginger sauce and coconut-ginger black forbidden rice.
“They were telling me, ‘You know, don’t worry if you can’t finish it because it’s a three-day prep for us,’ and I was, like, ‘No way. I’m banging out this entire thing,’” Noguchi says, laughing.
And he did.
He saw firsthand how much work and effort it took to make a healthy dish appealing to people who might not be familiar with vegan or raw cuisine.
“They think like chefs,” Noguchi says about Kunz and Dahm, neither of them professional trained. “They think about the way food feels in your mouth, about balance… It was really impressive.”
In both kitchens, Noguchi learned something he joked he would steal for his own restaurant concept. He was thinking about making a beet foam or an Asian dressing using raw almonds and maybe adding blenders and juicers to his kitchen. He realizes how, once you cut into an ingredient, you change it. And he knows that anything, even kohlrabi, can taste good. You just gotta work at it.
“How we look at food now is radically different than five years ago,” he says. “We’re stepping away from white rice and mac salad. It’s changed, it’s evolved. It was nice to be in kitchens that weren’t staffed by my team or by professional cooks. And it was all women. I never did see more passion than in those two kitchens.”
Tucked in a quiet corner of rural Haʻikū is a kitchen producing some of the most impressive locally-sourced cuisine on the island. Here, you are invited to pull up a chair at the prep table for a feast of the senses. A notable group of Maui culinary talent did just that recently; here’s what happened.
Story by Shannon Wianecki Photos by Mieko Hoffman
The chefs rolled in like a gang, excited to escape their own kitchens for a night and curious to see what the buzz was about. Jeff Scheer, owner of Maui Executive Catering, had invited them to a private dinner at his commercial kitchen in Haʻikū, Maui. Scheer’s guests hailed from the island’s top restaurants and represented the new guard: young, hungry and über-talented. One was fresh off the set of Top Chef; another had recently traveled the world with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. Not an easy crowd to impress—but if the evening’s host felt any trace of intimidation, he didn’t show it.
Scheer sported a spiffy chef’s coat and wild dreadlocks barely restrained by a bright bandana. He welcomed the entourage into his immaculate kitchen, where he was about to prepare a seven-course feast—live and unrehearsed—in front of them. His knowing guests eyed the machinery, the spit-shined industrial stoves, the enormous walk-in, the sous-vide cooker and the dehydrator. They took their seats around a stainless steel prep table that had been transformed with elegant place settings.
Scheer and his business partner, Jason Hacker, explained their mission: to provide next-level cuisine for catered events and to open up their kitchen for exclusive chef’s table dinners, like this one. Maui Executive Catering’s headquarters may be off the beaten path, said Scheer, but it benefits from close proximity to island farms. Everything on the evening’s menu—from the octopus to the heart of palm—had been harvested nearby.
And with that, the banquet began. Scheer produced one mesmerizing course after the next. First came a tomato water teaser, playfully studded with chia seeds and a dollop of rich crème fraiche. This acidic shot across the bow was followed by octopus crudo—a slice of edible stained glass that shimmered beneath coconut water gelée. The tender white flesh was crowned with micro mustards, nasturtiums, and rainbow radishes sliced as thin as fairy wings.
“Food is art,” Scheer said. “You taste it first with your eyes.”
The chefs snapped photos, posting them to their social media accounts with glowing descriptions. And then they ate, murmuring and nodding as they savored each bite. Everyone fawned over the venison rillettes—irresistible shreds of braised rib and shank meat rolled in house-made granola, set on a generous smear of puréed fennel and accented with a whimsical dab of oat foam. It was a deeply satisfying dish, perhaps something Red Riding Hood’s hero would have feasted on before slaying the wolf.
Next came an organic rib eye slathered in rich bone marrow, which Scheer torch-seared into a crust. Tucked alongside was braised oxtail ragout, heart of palm and faux bone marrow in a playful bamboo “bone.” By this point, the chefs who were tweeting gave up listing individual ingredients—who could keep up? Clearly impressed, they began to wonder: Who is this guy?
One of the attendees knew the host well: Kyle Kawakami, a former instructor at Maui Culinary Academy. Scheer had been a promising student there just a few years back. After graduating in 2006, the Ohio transplant catapulted into a full-time catering career. He started out cooking for dive boats in the wee hours, in a borrowed pizza kitchen. He’s since built a brag-worthy kitchen of his own, returned to teach at his alma mater and quietly ratcheted up the standards for private dining on Maui.
In addition to attending Maui Culinary Academy, Scheer studied at the Culinary Institute of America and “staged” (that’s chef-speak for apprenticed) at Bottega and Flour + Water in California. In Honolulu, he did stints at Mavro’s and Town. Perhaps most significantly, for two years he spent every Monday elbow-deep in the soil at Kupa‘a Farms down the road, where he grew the vegetables he’d later cook.
Hacker, a long-time friend from Ohio, joined him in 2008. “We were working around the clock for the first few years,” says Scheer. The boats needed provisions 365 days a year, so the men didn’t get a day off. But on New Year’s Day in 2010, a rainstorm flooded Kihei and the boat trips were cancelled. Rather than celebrate or rest, Scheer and Hacker rang in the New Year by relocating their business to Ha‘iku , the heart of Maui’s farmland.
The small space in Ha‘iku Town Center was a shambles; the men transformed it into a gourmet laboratory. They painted the walls persimmon and rewired the electrical outlets to handle the commercial equipment they’d acquired. Among their investments: an enormous deck oven with steam-injection and a stone baking surface. “It cost a fortune to get it here,” says Hacker.
It was worth every penny: Scheer’s sourdough baguettes and loaves of multi-grain—made with fresh-milled flour—will make artisan bread fans weep with gratitude.
Today, Maui Executive Catering is the go-to choice for event planners with clients who are serious about food. It’s the primary caterer for Ha‘iku Mill, one of the island’s prettiest, most exclusive wedding venues. Catering allows Scheer to be more responsive than a typical restaurant chef. He can craft meals entirely around a client’s desires and neighboring farms’ freshest produce. His commitment to quality is impeccable; he makes everything from scratch. In the hinterlands of Ha‘iku , he’s crafting hyper-local cuisine that could easily compete with the most sophisticated plates in Manhattan.
A single dinner takes Scheer around three days to prepare. Often he’ll start with a Flintstone-sized slab of organic beef from Beef & Blooms, which he expertly breaks down into recognizable cuts: ribeye, short rib, chuck. He grinds the extra bits for dumplings and sliders, simmers the bones into stock and gives the scraps to Kupa‘a Farms. This semester he’s teaching Maui Culinary Academy students how to do the same: not just to carve perfect cuts, but also to purchase meat directly from local ranchers and maximize every morsel.
So what compelled this ambitious young chef to summon the sharpest knives on the island over for dinner? He explained over dessert—a complex affair involving fresh-spun cardamom ice cream, mint gelée, coffee cake and passion fruit leather.
“We’re all passionate and have our own styles, but I think we agree that restaurants need to change the way they source food,” said Scheer, having just served a meal that amply backed his argument. “It’s important to stay connected. One person doesn’t have that much power, but together we have influence.”
He had invited his colleagues to share his kitchen and collaborate on chef’s table dinners; their response was one of giddy enthusiasm. Everyone talked at once about raising the bar within the island’s culinary industry, rallying support for small, local farms and, essentially, starting a food-driven revolution. The evening began to take on historic overtones. What will result from this meeting of culinary minds? Impossible to say. But when a chef’s imagination is stirred, everyone’s palate wins.
To experience the magic yourself, book a seat at Maui Executive Catering chef’s table. Scheer, or perhaps one of his new comrades, will wow you with the best Maui has to offer.
Story by Melissa Chang Photography by Monica Schwartz
Life and food has been nonstop for chef Lee Anne Wong since she showed the world what she could do on Bravo’s first season of “Top Chef.” She ended up one of the four finalists in this popular reality show in 2006, and continued with the show (and its spin-off, “Top Chef Masters”) for the next four seasons as their culinary producer— determining the budget, equipment restrictions and time limits for the contestants, plus sourcing and styling the ingredients for the challenges.
Not as many people realize she’s also been behind the scenes of many other popular shows, like “No Reservations” with Anthony Bourdain, “Rocco’s Dinner Party” or “Unique Eats”; or affiliated with lesser-known entities, like Maker’s Mark virtual recipe cookbook and the Gohan Society.
Despite such a high-profile career, this native New Yorker has fallen in love with the lifestyle, people and ingredients that Hawai‘i has to offer, and has set sights on moving here.
“The first time I spent time out here as an adult was during Top Chef season two,” Wong said. An episode was shot on the Big Island, so she took the opportunity to fly to O‘ahu to meet Hawai‘i relatives from her father’s side for the first time. There was a bit of a generational gap, but she found they had a great connection, as local families often do.
Now, she returns to Hawai‘i every six weeks or so, usually to work in the food scene. Through other culinary twists, she met her boyfriend, Tristan Reynolds of Hawaiian Fresh Farms, which has probably helped in nurturing her love affair with the islands.
Avocado Fruit Toast “Avocados are one of my superfoods. I love the simplicity of their creamy, nutty flavor with a few fresh ingredients.”
Butternut Squash and Curried Kale Gratin, With Local Goat Cheese “Sometimes you just want something comforting to eat and this recipe covers all the bases— it’s rich and delicious, but better for you because it’s fresh, local and full of great ingredients. This dish is perfect as a vegetarian entrée on its own, or can be served as a side.”
Roasted Beans and Broccoli, Szechuan Peppercorn Yogurt “Green veggies are part of my daily diet and broccoli is an old favorite (it was the first thing I ever learned to cook for myself.). For an even healthier take on this recipe, simply serve the vegetables steamed or blanched with the yogurt dressing.”
Cronut: Hawai‘i 5-0 “Dominique Ansel is one of the best pastry chefs I have ever known and I visit his patisserie in Soho often for my sugar fix. He is singlehandedly responsible for the half croissant, half doughnut ‘Cronut’ craze that has taken the world by storm. If you can’t get to NYC and wait in line for two hours for this pastry delight, here’s a quick cheat; not quite the same, but equally decadent.”
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