How Hawaiian Tastemakers are Inspired by Local Ingredients

Chefs' appreciation of Maui ingredients

Farm-to-fork is already a given, and sustainability is an unquestioned universal goal. In 1991, when a dozen celebrated chefs decided to promote Hawai‘i produce and seafood through a burgeoning movement known as Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine (HRC), it was seen as a monumental shift in the local culinary paradigm. Although such terms as sustainability and food security had not yet become part of the daily lexicon, these forward-thinking leaders of the restaurant industry were already championing the mantra of “Fresh First. Local Always.”

“In the ’90s, everyone wanted Mediterranean food,” said Malcom “Maka” Kwon, executive chef at The Pint & Cork. “In the 2000s, it was all about Pacific Rim. And now, it’s all about casual food prepared with local ingredients whenever possible.” A case in point is the aromatic mushroom salad, which is prepared with a duet of sautéed baby shiitake and Hamakua King Ali‘i mushrooms presented atop a verdant bed of baby greens.

“One of my favorite ingredients is the Haiku tomato,” Kwon said. “The tomatoes are picked just at the right time, and the farm is just right up the street from us, so it doesn’t get any better than that.”

At Cheeseburger Grille & Tap Room, locally grown avocados and watermelons are the star ingredients for a refreshing summer appetizer. The watermelon salad is bright, flavorful and complemented with a dollop of goat cheese for an additional local touch. 

Since opening his first eponymous restaurant in Lahaina in 1976, the late Bob Longhi insisted on using the best of Maui ingredients, which was especially challenging at the time since the island’s agriculture industry was at a nadir. Today, Longhi’s executive chef Paul Gonsalez incorporates as many Maui ingredients as he can into his salads, including Triple N Farms' baby romaine, Waipoli Farms' watercress, and Kula's greens and baby kale.

“Longhi’s was ahead of the farm-to-table movement,” said general manager and sommelier Michael Rose. “We’ve always sourced the best ingredients possible, whether it’s for our food program or our cocktail menu. We let the essence of ingredients speak for themselves.”

An advocate for farmers, Jason LaMotte’s philosophy is to utilize local first and organic whenever possible. It’s a stance that he has held his entire culinary career. Since assuming the top-toque position at Tommy Bahama two years ago, the New Orleans-raised chef has forged close relationships with local farmers who supply him with such bounty as golden beets, goat cheese, arugula, lilikoi, berries and micro-mint.

“I think it’s imperative, as a chef, that we support our farmers,” said LaMotte, who uses the ingredients above to create his Evonuk Farms' roasted golden beet salad and liliko’i cheesecake. “When I have all this great fresh produce available to me, why wouldn’t I want to use it?”

Ruth’s Chris’ executive chef Daniel Bader asks the same rhetorical question and, as expected, he arrives at the same answer as LaMotte. Of course, he’ll use local ingredients whenever he can. In fact, one of his signature dishes is a Caprese-inspired salad composed of locally sourced Kumato tomatoes, which are topped with fresh mozzarella then drizzled with an aged balsamic glaze.

“The tomatoes are fresh and they don’t taste like cardboard,” Bader said. “And they haven’t traveled thousands of miles to get here.”

With increased collaboration between farmers and chefs, diners can expect an authentic taste of Maui, adding another memorable—and delicious— moment to their island vacation.