Waipi’o Cookhouse: Pioneers in Sustainable Farming
“My learning curve has been straight up,” jokes Larry Vidlak, talking about his Waipi’o Cookhouse venture. Vidlak is a pioneer, of sorts, into the field of farm-to-table.
Located less than a mile from the Waipi’o Valley Lookout, the cookhouse’s setting is pretty much the definition of idyllic. There is a panoramic view of the Pacific, where whales can be seen and even heard. As you drive in, a flock of multicolored St. Croix-Barbardos Hair sheep graze in the pasture. Landscaping, gardens, and orchards show off the farm’s bounty. Grazing beyond the restaurant are Angus cattle. It’s beautiful, and it’s busy.
Although we hadn’t met in person yet when I arrived at the farm, Vidlak was easy to spot. I watched him toting a bucket, moving a hose, yelling to the kitchen, and answering his phone. Simultaneously. The guy is everywhere, and I wish I had some of his energy. I kid him about the various “hats” he wears (manager, farmer, rancher, tour guide) and he adds, “. . . and when I go to town, I’m Public Relations and the delivery boy.”
Vidlak and his longtime partner, Colleen Gold, have established the 16-acre farm-to-table spot (Kanahonua Farms) under Hawai’i Revised Statute 205.2. This statute allows farmers and ranchers to run an agricultural commercial operation. In implementing this statute, the State of Hawai’i is supporting steps in sustainable agriculture.
Figuring out Section 205.2 hasn’t been easy, though. The legalese has had to be interpreted along the way, and Vidlak has gotten to know his legislators and laws. As the first in the County to obtain approval from the State Department of Agriculture to run this type of operation, he didn’t have guidelines to follow – he is the guideline. Vidlak is emphatic about the importance of sustainable farming.
“We are importing 90 percent of our food supply,” Vidlak says, “and the average age of a farmer is 60.”
Gold is the perfect foil to Vidlak’s outgoing personality. Calm and serene, she has assumed the landscaping and gardening duties of the farm, which is a veritable botanical garden. Orchards include citrus, avocados, coconuts, papaya, and bananas; lilikoi vines hang on a fence. Herbs such as cilantro, parsley, green onions, chives, basil, sage, and tarragon sparkle in the morning dew.
If the food served in the Cookhouse isn’t grown on the farm, it’s locally sourced, such as fish from Kawaihae or fresh pork from Waimea. All the livestock on site is grass-fed. A custom-built smoker, built by barbeque guru David Davenport, sits on the makai side of the parking lot next to an imu, along with stacks of split keawe. On the days when the smoker or imu are going, Vidlak is up at 3:30 a.m. to start them.
One idea, Vidlak explains, has lead to another. When they decided to start making laulau, it was time to plant taro. The imu needed ti leaves, so in went rows of those. Fresh food called for herb gardens, and beehives were installed for the orchards. There is even a small gift shop located near the restaurant.
A covered pavilion sits near the cookhouse, with stunning mangowood counters. Small tents also dot the property with additional seating. There is an area for entertainment – hula and music. On the first and third, enjoy a brisket and rib barbeque, plus live music.
As lunchtime approaches, a festive air begins to fill the pavilion and lines form at the counter. People choose spots at the ocean-view, open-air pavilion to eat their lunches. Our lunch is ready, and it is served on charming Fiestaware dishes. Popular choices that day are the smoked brisket, Kalua pork, and lamb burger. I hadn’t eaten a lamb burger in years; it was full of flavor and I ate every bite, along with the fresh, crunchy coleslaw. I doubled back to buy more food to take home, and could not resist a lilikoi bar, an absolute marriage of both sweet and tangy.
A visit to the farm is a wonderful reminder of how great food can be and of how much effort it takes. Vidlak is busy, but pleased. “Our vision for food sustainability is actually taking place.”
Waipi’o Cookhouse is located at 48-5370 Waipio Road in Honoka’a. Hours of operation are 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. For menu information call 775-1443. Parking is ample; you may BYOB.