Lanai upbringing, lettuce keys to success in food truck challenge

Little did Adam Tabura know that his humble upbringing on Lanai – where he prepared venison and harvested vegetables – would help him succeed on a national food reality television show.

Tabura, an executive chef and businessman from Kihei, and two teammates from Hawaii moved one step closer to the finals in Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race” by surviving a trip to the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

The competition has had the Aloha Plate team members harvesting their own potatoes, cutting their own buffalo meat and cooking special ingredients from geoduck (a large clam) to Spam.

This was all no sweat for Tabura, who knew how to prepare all of that for consumption by customers in the cities they’ve visited. He, of course, has cooked up a lot of Spam in his lifetime being a local boy.

But teams from the Mainland, some from big cities, struggled with the harvesting, the butchering and the preparations of the mystery meat.

“I was worried about being (on the Mainland) and surviving the weather and the road, without knowing the skills we grew up (learning) from our (grandparents) are coming into play now,” Tabura said Thursday.

Tabura; his brother, Lanai Tabura, a radio personality and comedian from Oahu; and friend Shawn Felipe, a comedian and actor on Oahu and in Los Angeles, make up the Aloha Plate team.

The Hawaii guys are one of three remaining teams in the race that began with eight.

The two other survivors are “Philly’s Finest Sambonis” from Philadelphia, which specializes in cheese-and-steak sandwiches, and “Tikka Tikka Taco,” a team from St. Louis, which specializes in Indian tacos. The three all-male remaining teams will battle it out in Chicago on Sunday’s new episode on the Food Network.

“A Food Truck Kind of Town, Chicago Is” will be televised on cable Channels 321, 786 and 1321 at 3, 6 and 9 p.m., according to the Oceanic Time Warner Cable website.

If Aloha Plate survives the Windy City episode, it would put the team in the finals with a chance to win $50,000 and a food truck.

The competition has already been completed with taped episodes being aired. The guys can’t say how it all turned out.

The show, now in its fourth season, takes teams across the Mainland to sell their grub out of their tricked-out food trucks. The team that makes the least money is eliminated after each city visit.

Aloha Plate, which got off to a slow start in the first city, Beverly Hills, Calif., has grown to become a force in the competition. Aloha Plate grabbed first place in several cities and has won special challenges.

The team’s recipe for success has been the “coconut wireless,” or word of mouth, spread by those with Hawaii ties in the cities in which they set up shop. The wireless has worked even in places such as Pocatello, Idaho, and Rapid City, S.D.

“Everyone makes one phone call to another. Next thing you know, you got a hoolaulea going on over there,” Adam Tabura said of customers that line up in front of their truck.

Not only do former Hawaii residents show up, he said that people with any connection to the Aloha State come to support the team, including those that have vacationed in the islands. At some city stops, customers were singing and playing the ukulele.

Another key ingredient to the team’s success: lettuce wraps.

In several cities, Adam Tabura has used lettuce as one of the staples, wrapping whatever mystery ingredient teams were forced to sell in the leafy green. He said lettuce is cheap, which is a bonus, because teams receive a limited amount of “seed money” to buy their groceries. The amount varies from city to city.

“The Asian people really gave a big bang to what lettuce wraps have become. It’s light and its refreshing. You can eat a lot of it,” he said.

Because the wraps are appealing, people buy multiple plates, which turn up profits for the truck.

The Tabura brothers, who grew up learning to stretch food and drink – including adding water to milk and ketchup – have used their local street smarts in the competition.

Adam Tabura’s executive chef experience also has been a key ingredient.

Some teams used a chain saw to cut their buffalo meat into shreds in South Dakota, but the chef brought out his knives to cleanly slice the team’s portions. It was a skill he learned through his culinary training and from slicing venison on Lanai.

The chef is a graduate of the Western Culinary Institute of Portland, Ore., and has worked at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Wailea, the Kona Village Resort on the Big Island, and at the Manele Bay and The Lodge at Koele resorts on Lanai.

He also recently worked as a chef at the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas, where he opened the restaurant Pulehu, an Italian Grill.

Adam Tabura currently works as a restaurant consultant and runs the Spice Rack, where he furnishes spices to restaurants.

The success on the show has cast a spotlight on the chef, who now is recognized all over town. He says the success won’t change him.

“I’m always going to be humble,” he said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at