Story by Melissa Chang
Think of locavore dining and often smaller, independent restaurants come to mind. This is especially true in Hawai’i, although as resources grow, an increasing number of the Islands’ large resorts are able to bring local foods to the table.
While the chef-farmer collaborative is now a common practice, this has not traditionally been the case for hotel chefs. Their food and beverage operations are usually cost-conscious (generally at the expense of providing high-cost food for their guests.) Since Hawai‘i-grown produce tends to fetch a premium, sourcing local has not been a popular practice for large resorts.
Even with the added heft of a resort’s buying power, overall demand for Hawai‘i products is not enough to bring prices down. Charging astronomical prices for everything on the menu would put a resort restaurant at risk of being priced out of the dining market. For hotel chefs, then, sourcing locally becomes a delicate balance between providing great, local food and being fiscally responsible.
But the rewards, as some proactive chefs are finding, are very gratifying.
“We try every way we can to get as much local goods into our properties and on to our guest’s plates,” said Starwood Hotels & Resorts chef de cuisine William Chen (of Beachhouse at the Moana). “Our guests love hearing about how the tomatoes they are enjoying are from over the mountain, or how the beautiful fish and meats are locally sourced. It gives them a much deeper connection to Hawai‘i and the cultures here.”
With this in mind, resort chefs must go far beyond being great cooks; they must also be savvy businessmen. It’s long been said that doing business in Hawai‘i isn’t completely about what you know, but who you know. The chefs we talked to said they have spent years cultivating relationships with local farmers to get the best prices and to work out the most efficient ways to get seasonal products to the table.
“When dealing directly with specific farmers, we started the process slowly, at a smaller scale and looked at it with a completely different approach,” Grand Wailea executive chef Eric Faivre tells us. “Instead of dictating what we needed, first I asked the farmers to let us know what we could get from them. This helped build trust and more face to face contact between us. Then we started placing standing orders for other, larger departments like banquets.”
Allen Hess, executive chef of Canoe House at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Resort, adds that dealing directly with farmers helps to get better prices, too.
Hess believes the direct contact translates to a higher quality product because he’s able to monitor it himself. “If the quality is good and you pay the farmer what he wants, you will always receive good product,” Hess explained. “Most hotels run a relatively low food cost so there is always room for them to pay a little more for exceptional quality.”
Supply & Demand
Limited land is a challenge for island farmers to yield the quantities needed to keep prices down, let alone simply getting enough products for the resort.
Consider this: even on the tiny island of Kaua‘i, the Grand Hyatt Poipu alone has 602 guest rooms, six restaurants and six lounges that all serve food. They bring in at least 288 pounds of fresh island seafood every day, which comes to 52 tons of seafood a year. Diners at the resort consume 629 pineapples and 850 papaya each week. That’s more than 32,000 pineapples and 44,000 papaya each year. How can supply meet demand?
“Infrastructure and distribution on Kaua‘i is still the greatest challenge for me and the resort,” Grand Hyatt Poipu Executive Chef Matt Smith said. “Produce is a great example. I know there are farmers here on Kaua‘i, but it isn’t always easy to obtain their product on a regular basis in the quantities we would like.”
Smith sees the challenge of island inventory as an opportunity to showcase products from around the State, using long-standing relationships with Surfing Goat Dairy, Ali‘i Kula Lavender, Kaua‘i Fresh Farms, Hamakua Mushrooms and the many specialty farms in Kula. (He developed relationships with Maui farmers when he was the executive chef at Hyatt Regency Maui.) “The inventory purveyors carry here is very limited. In order to get anything different, it’s always a special order. There are so many incredible artisan producers and specialty farms across Hawai’i. getting the goods here is difficult.”
Faivre, although on a larger island, agreed: “The main challenges are still the variety of options available on Maui, but we are working together to increase communication between all parties. We want to make sure the farmers know to keep growing what we’ll always need, but also what we need sometimes…and what we may need one day.”
Grown here, not flown here
In the name of freshness, even in the digital age, customers are becoming more understanding of discrepancies in listed online menus and actual daily menus. Faivre said that the Grand Wailea simply uses broad verbiage on their menus that allows them to switch vegetables or fruits according what is available each week at the farm. He’s found that diners are open to eating more common local vegetables instead of fancier ones grown on the mainland. “So far, its been terrific and I haven’t encountered a client refusing a great seasonal, freshly harvested local vegetable, instead of something else barged in from 5,000 miles away.”
Chen added that frequent communication helps the farmers understand the resort’s weekly consumption; in turn they’re able to give the chefs advance notice when an item may need to be swapped or isn’t available.
The chefs have also been instrumental in introducing local products that have previously been deemed unfavorable. “When I started at Canoe House I said that we would be putting grass-fed beef on the menu, but no one wanted it,” recalled Hess. “The response was, ‘we know our customers, and they don’t want it.’ I brought it in anyway, did a taste test, then brought in the rancher, and explained the health benefits of grass-fed beef. We also showed sample menus from high-end mainland restaurants that have Hawai‘i beef on their menus.
“It took a few months, but they understood. Now they go to a table with knowledge and confidence that we serve a superior product,” said Hess.
Chen is also pleased to see more Hawai‘i grass-fed beef on his menu. “We strive to have as much on our menus that is locally sourced as possible. We have had great success highlighting a new beef program from Hawaiian Ranchers located on Hawai’i Island. Normally a grass-fed product isn’t very well received with people who aren’t familiar with the taste profile, but we have had amazing responses.”
The chefs all try to form strategic partnerships with local farmers. Once a week, for example, Faivre and his team go to Kumu Farms to visit Grant Schule and Manu Vinciguerra to discuss the specific harvests, projects coming up, brainstorm on what’s next from on menu creations, ideas, promotional opportunities and more. He found that these visits energize his team and builds camaraderie between the farmers and chefs.
“It’s great to see their ‘work space’ and get a feel for what the farmers do on a day-to-day basis,” Chen said. “Not only are we putting faces to the farms but also getting a better understanding of their passions and stories. This allows us to bring that passion back to our venues and menus.”
Faivre sums it up nicely: “We have to make sure this farm-to-table awareness is a permanent reality rather than just a trend.”