Chefs at the Food & Wine Festival appreciate Kalo

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Chefs from across the country gained a deeper appreciation for kalo (taro) after spending several hours on a farm in the Waipiʻo Valley on Wednesday, September 29th.

A visit to the five-acre taro patch Kapapa Loʻi o Kealiʻikuaʻāina, owned and operated by the non-profit Kū A Kanaka, was one of this year’s activities for chefs, which took place on the 11th Big Island with its pele and poliʻahu- Event on Friday at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

This year’s theme is “Mālama ‘Āina”, which means taking care of the land.

“Sustainability and the importance of food security have always been the focus of the festival’s Hawai’i Food & Wine Festival.

Given such unprecedented hardships over the past year and a half, Yamaguchi said, Mālama is also putting a broader focus for the festival to take care of the communities and support Hawaii’s economic recovery, much of which is on promoting sustainable practices that support bringing local businesses and attentive visitors back to the islands.

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On Wednesday, ʻIʻini Kahakalau, Senior Project Director at Kū A Kanaka, guided five of the 68 chefs who participated in festival events through their family farm. The non-profit organization is a social family business focused on developing Hawaiian language and culture-based products. In addition, the organization offers services from teaching the Hawaiian language to running Hawaiian language cooking classes to developing games that stimulate conversation about history and culture.

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Standing in front of the taro fields, Kahakalau explained the meaning of Kalos to the Hawaiians.

“We have a genealogical connection to these foods that goes back thousands of years. When we work with these foods, from planting to cooking to eating, it tastes so much more ‘mono,’ said Kahakalau. “There’s a lot more pride, a lot more aloha, when a dish is served like this.”

Kahakalau told the chefs it was easy to say that kalo is the most valuable plant for the Hawaiians.

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“It’s important to show the chefs who come to Hawaii that this is not about pineapples and coconuts; there are a lot more Hawaiian ingredients that we can share, ”she added. “Sharing this type of information with the Food & Wine Festival shows that there is more connection to eating and planting and eating this type of food than just consuming it.”

Among the chefs who spent the morning in the valley was Robert Del Grande from Houston, where he owns the Annie Café and Bar restaurant. This is his 10th year participating in the festival.

Del Grande knows taro, but on Wednesday he saw a taro patch for the first time. He said there was nothing better than being close to the source.

Del Grande and other chefs watched a taro plant being uprooted from its water bed with an ʻo’o or a digging stick. Kahakalau destroyed every part of the facility.

“This is your Lau, the leaf, it’s very tasty to eat,” explained Kahakalau, pointing to the heart-shaped leaf. “Then you have your hā, or your stalk, edible again … then you have the kalo itself.”

The only part of the plant that is inedible is the a’a, or the long-growing roots of the kalo. However, the A’a can be put back into the taro patch to serve as a nutrient.

Cooks replant a harvested kalo. After cleaning the a’a and cutting off most of the kalo root, the leaves were cut from the stem. The stems attached to the remaining taro root are then replanted. Before bringing the kalo back to the patch, Kahakalau performed an oli (chant) in hopes of giving life to the kalo.

“Every time you see how a fish was caught, how it was caught, how it (food) was grown, your point of view changes,” said Del Grande. “Most importantly, you don’t take it for granted because you understand the work behind it.”

Jason Neroni of Venice Beach, California owns The Rose Venice restaurant. This is his fifth year attending the festival.

“This festival is second to none in the sense that you come to Hawaii and experience the abundance of Hawaii and work with really great products and with expert chefs,” said Neroni. “It feels like there’s a great sense of pride here that people are banding together and trying to be a role model.”

Neroni has worked with taro in the past. He said he was tricked into coming down to the valley to see Kalo’s growth process and its story.

“Often in restaurants you only see cases of things that you don’t really know or understand, you just open them,” explained Neroni. “For me as a cook and restaurateur and as a person, it is extremely important to know where your food comes from. If you don’t, I think there is a lost connection and you can celebrate it more and better if you know where things are coming from. “

Executive Chef Edward Lee of Louisville, Kentucky owns the 610 Magnolia Restaurant. This is his first participation in the festival.

Lee said he didn’t know much about Hawaiian agriculture and was interested in learning more about the taro patches.

“Seeing where (taro) is grown and the story behind it gives me a new appreciation for it,” said Lee.

Lee has worked with Kalo in the past, mostly making chips. However, the chef plans to use the food in his dish for Friday’s event.

The pandemic continues to affect the way the festival is run and will affect this year’s events.

In 2019, a total of 12,778 people took part, including 360 craftsmen (chefs, winemakers, sommeliers, mixologists and brewers as well as cooking students). This year the festival will have 68 chefs. In addition, the events have been scaled down and redesigned in collaboration with chefs and dinners with seating.

Click here for more information on upcoming events.


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