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Chefs to curate farm plots on Mahi Pono fields

Program to help supply food for Maui restaurants

Island chefs and dignitaries break ground at Mahi Pono’s Chefs’ Corner Thursday morning. The 2-acre project will be divided among six chefs, who have requested various produce that will be grown for their restaurants. The chefs said the project will help them access crops that are hard to come by locally. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

PUUNENE — Nationally recognized chef Chris Kajioka would “love to” sink his hands into the Puunene soil that will nurture the kale, sweet potatoes and cabbage he will use in the restaurant he heads in Kaanapali.

“It’s any chef’s dream to touch the things he’s going to use,” Kajioka said Thursday morning.

But for now, he’ll leave it to the experts.

“For me, I don’t really have a green thumb at all. I don’t know if I’ll be much help,” the James Beard Foundation nominee said with a chuckle as he stood in a Puunene field with other local celebrity chefs and Maui County leaders.

On Thursday Mahi Pono and the Hawai’i Food & Wine Festival unveiled its new “Chefs’ Corner Project,” where five renowned chefs, some with multiple TV appearances, have the chance to personally curate and steward what is grown and harvested for their restaurants.

Mahi Pono General Manager of Farm Operations Darren Strand speaks during Thursday’s Chefs’ Corner groundbreaking.

Mahi Pono has set aside 2 acres on the Kahului side of Maui Veterans Highway for the project. The two acres are split to five quarter-acre farms plots for the chefs, including Kajioka, who leads up Waicoco at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa as well as other restaurants on Oahu and the Mainland.

The other chefs are Roy Yamaguchi, of Roy’s Ka’anapali and Humble Market Kitchin; Beverly Gannon of Hali’imaile General Store, Gannon’s Restaurant and Celebrations Catering; Lee Anne Wong of Papa’aina; and Scott McGill of T S Restaurants, which includes Duke’s, Hula Grill, Kimo’s and Leilani’s.

The chefs all agree that the project is a boost to their restaurants, bringing in locally sourced fresh produce and helping with sustainability. Some produce is hard for restaurants to get locally, such as baby fingerling potatoes, icicle radish, butternut squash or baby corn, Gannon said in a news release.

“This garden will provide a consistent supply of locally grown fresh ingredients I am excited to feature on my menus,” she added.

Gannon is requesting baby fingerling potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, celery root, butternut squash, baby corn, cherry tomatoes, yellow beets and watermelon radish.

Chef Roy Yamaguchi shares his vision for locally produced food while being interviewed Thursday. The crops Yamaguchi is hoping to grow are yellow squash, sweet onions, green beans, watercress, assorted microgreens, shiso, daikon, fennel bulbs, leeks, baby bok choy, breakfast and watermelon radish and zucchini.

Other chefs are also looking for a variety of vegetables. Kajioka needs sweet corn, haricort vert, baby tomatoes, caraflex cabbage and sweet potatoes. Wong is asking for corn, kale, cabbage, broccolini, crops from the choi family (kai choi, pak choi and choi sum), beets and squash. McGill wants tri-colored carrots, cucumbers, corn, dino kale, broccolini, arugula and head cabbage. And, Yamaguchi’s list includes yellow squash, sweet onions, green beans, watercress, assorted microgreens, shiso, daikon, fennel bulbs, leeks, baby bok choy, breakfast and watermelon radish and zucchini.

Darren Strand, Mahi Pono vice president of agricultural outreach and business development, said he hears chefs asking all the time why farmers don’t grow what they need for their restaurants, while farmers wonder why chefs don’t buy what they’re growing.

“This is a classic project for us to hopefully bridge that gap and grow stuff for your restaurant,” Strand said at the unveiling and groundbreaking in Puunene. “There is nothing cooler for a farmer to go out to dinner or lunch and to open up a menu and see local product on the menus.”

He later admitted with a smile that “some of the things on the (chefs’) list, I’m nervous to grow.”

The Puunene fields are not well suited for tomatoes, for example, but are favorable for crops such as watermelon.

Chef Bev Gannon wanders the Chefs’ Corner plot tabbed to grow produce for her restaurants Thursday. Her requests include baby fingerling potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, celery root, butternut squash, baby corn, cherry tomatoes, yellow beets and watermelon radish.

Strand said they will need to test crops including shiso, an aromatic herb native to Asia.

“I’m not sure how it will grow here,” he said.

Strand said Mahi Pono is preparing the soil in the chefs’ plots and will then plant a cover crop. The first crops could be ready for chefs to use around September.

Chefs will be able work in the plots if they want or let Mahi Pono take the lead, Strand said. They also have the option of transporting their own produce to their restaurants or having Mahi Pono do it.

The partner chefs will also have first opportunity to purchase all of the produce grown, a news release said. Any available surplus will be sold under Mahi Pono’s Maui Harvest label.

“While these farm plots will provide a consistent and tailored stream of crops for our partner chefs, they also help move us closer to food security for the island of Maui,” said Mahi Pono Chief Operating Officer Shan Tsutsui.

Yamaguchi, who is also the co-chairman of the Hawai’i Food & Wine Festival and a James Beard Award winner, said that the Chefs’ Corner project “is reminiscent of the Hawai’i Regional Cuisine movement of more than 30 years ago that helped replace the sugar and pine plantations, such as the land here at Mahi Pono, with diversified agriculture in Hawaii.”

Yamaguchi, who spent many summers on Maui at his grandfather’s Yamaguchi Store in Wailuku, added that “it brings back the importance of our symbiotic relationship that allows us to showcase the best of Hawaii’s agriculture and cuisine.”

The project could open up to other local chefs depending on how the initial efforts go.

“Mahi Pono is hoping to be able to expand in the near future but we are currently focusing on the success of the first five Chefs’ Corner lots,” Mahi Pono Project Manager Jayson Watts said Thursday evening.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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