Neighbors: Sending a sprout out

Some might say James Simpliciano takes his passion for locally grown food to the extreme.

Not only does the West Maui chef source his ingredients from local growers, Simpliciano also started his own farm. And when he wants a specialty ingredient, he doesn’t order it from the Mainland – he pulls on his hiking boots and treks deep into a nearby valley to “forage” wild-growing ingredients like cinnamon leaves, star anise or allspice.

“There’s so many fruits and spices that are there because of the Chinese immigrants who were brought in to build our reservoirs,” he says. “They would plant their foods, because they knew they would have to camp there for months at a time.”

Simpliciano is a co-founder and the chef of Kupu Maui, which stages events in which island chefs use local ingredients to create a “pop-up” dinner under the stars, at a different Maui farm each month.

“Everyone loves the freshness of it,” he says. “There’s nothing better than knowing that what was picked that morning was served that evening.”

Simpliciano says he and partner Dania Katz were inspired by the Hawaiian word kupu, which means a shoot or a sprout.

“It’s been an exciting sprouting,” he says. “That’s what kupu means to me – to keep growing and sharing with the community.”

Kupu Maui also donates a portion of its proceeds to local charities selected by the farms.

“Last year we raised over $5,000,” he says.

Simpliciano grew up between Oahu and Salinas, Calif., where his grandmother ran a farm and his family put food on the table the old-fashioned way.

“Everything was fresh,” he recalls. “My uncle caught fish – sea bass, or he took me trout fishing. Everything was sustainable.”

On Oahu, he helped out at an uncle’s orchid farm and spent time with a family friend who ran a plant nursery and would take him to botanical shows.

“I would collect all these different fruit trees growing up,” he says. “I just fell in love with all the different kinds of exotic and tropical fruits we have here. Growers like him inspired me. It instilled in my youth that it was something that I loved – tasting all those kinds of fresh, local foods.”

Simpliciano decided to pursue a career in food, entering culinary school at Kapiolani Community College in Honolulu, where he graduated in 1996. He went on to cook at Walt Disney World in Florida, the Manele Bay Hotel on Lanai and the Grand Wailea, and he now works at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa.

Simpliciano spent years living the good life on Maui – surfing every day and cooking every night. But he said his passion for working the land was rekindled when he had an opportunity to cook at a private event in Kapalua, and the owner of the property invited him to use part of the land for growing vegetables.

“I fell in love and realized this was something I’ve been missing,” he says.

Now he grows produce like bananas, root vegetables, herbs, asparagus, and specialty crops like jicama, beets, yams and cassava (which he uses to make his own tapioca), on 10 acres in Napili and 5 acres in Kaanapali.

Those farm-fresh ingredients regularly make an appearance in the meals he prepares for Kupu Maui, along with his foraged fruits, spices and more exotic items harvested from deep in Maui’s forests.

“Each valley has its own specialty products – Kahakuloa has freshwater opihi, the hihiwai; and Honokohau has fresh green frogs that most French chefs would die for, and fresh Malaysian blue prawns,” he says. “There are so many beautiful things here on Maui.”

When he’s not working on the farm or in a kitchen, Simpliciano also tries to give back to the community. He volunteers with school garden programs, helping to create a vegetable garden at Princess Nahienaena Elementary School, where his wife, Janell Caterina Simpliciano, is a teacher. He’s also volunteered with Lahainaluna High School’s alternative learning center, where students work and learn in a farm-classroom, preparing the food they harvest into meals sold on campus. He also frequently donates produce from his farm to community events.

Simpliciano hopes that all his efforts will help sprout in other people the same passion he feels for a sustainable, farm-to-table way of life on Maui.

“I’m just a servant of this land,” he says. “There’s a saying in Hawaiian, ‘I’ll be the servant, the steward, and the land, the aina, is the leader and the provider.’ “

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.