Lifestyle

Food & Wine Festival Chefs Gain Deeper Appreciation for Kalo

By Tiffany DeMasters
September 30, 2021, 1:09 PM HST
* Updated September 30, 5:13 PM
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Chefs from across the nation gained a deeper appreciation for kalo (taro) after spending several hours on a Waipiʻo Valley farm Wednesday, Sept. 29.

The visit to the five-acre taro patch Kapapa Loʻi o Kealiʻikuaʻāina, owned and operated by the nonprofit Kū A Kanaka, was one of this year’s activities for chefs participating in the 11th annual Hawai´i Food & Wine Festival, which kicks off on the Big Island with its Pele and Poliʻahu event Friday at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

This year’s theme is “Mālama ‘Āina,” meaning to care for the land.

“Sustainability and the importance of food security have always been at the heart of the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival with the pandemic reinforcing our need for our community to support local agricultural and fishing producers,” stated Denise Yamaguchi, CEO and co-founder of the festival.

Facing such unprecedented hardships this past year and a half, Yamaguchi said, mālama also takes on a broader focus for the festival, to care for communities and support Hawai‘i’s economic recovery, much of which centers around promoting sustainable practices, supporting local businesses and bringing mindful visitors back to the islands.

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On Wednesday, ʻIʻini Kahakalau, senior project director at Kū A Kanaka, gave a tour of her family farm to five of the 68 chefs participating in festival events. The nonprofit is a family-owned social enterprise focusing on creating Hawaiian language- and culture-based products. Additionally, the organization provides services from teaching the Hawaiian language to the hosting of Hawaiian language cooking classes to creating games that spark conversation about history and culture.

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Standing in front of the taro patches, Kahakalau explained kalo’s significance to the Hawaiian people.

“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 finally eating, it tastes so much more ʻono,” Kahakalau said. “There’s a lot more pride, a lot more aloha when a dish is being served that way.”

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

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“Itʻs important to show chefs that come to Hawaiʻi that it’s not pineapples and coconuts; it’s a lot more Hawaiian ingredients we can share,” she added. “Sharing that type of information with the Food & Wine Festival shows there’s more connection to food and to planting and to eating these kinds of foods rather than just ingesting.”

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

Del Grande is familiar with taro but Wednesday was the first time he’d seen a taro patch. He said there was nothing like being close to the source.

Del Grande and fellow chefs observed how a taro plant was uprooted from its water patch with an ʻo’o, or digging stick. Kahakalau broke down every part of the plant.

“This is your lau, the leaf, itʻs edible very delicious,” Kahakalau explained pointing to the heart-shaped leaf. “Then you have your hā, or your stem, again edible … then you have the kalo itself.”

The only part of the plant that is not edible is the aʻa, or the long growing roots from the kalo. However, the aʻa can be put back into the taro patch to serve as a nutrient.

Chefs replant a harvested kalo. After cleaning off the aʻa and cutting off most of the kalo root, the leaves were snipped from the stem. The stems attached to the remaining taro root are then replanted. Before returning the kalo to the patch, Kahakalau performed an oli (chant) in hopes to give the kalo life.

“Every time you see a fish caught, how it was caught, how it (food) was grown, it changes your view,” Del Grande said. “Most importantly, you take it less for granted because you understand the work that went into it.”

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

“This festival is second to none in the sense that you get to come to Hawai´i and experience the bounty of Hawai´i and work with really great products and work with seasoned chefs,” Neroni said. “It feels like there’s a great sense of pride here that people rally around and try to exemplify.”

Neroni has worked with taro in the past. He said he was enticed to come into the valley to see the growing process of kalo and its history.

“A lot of times in restaurants, you just see cases of things show up you donʻt really know the providence of them or understanding of them, you just open them,” Neroni explained. “It’s extremely imperative for me as a chef and a restaurateur and as a human to know where your food comes from. If you don’t, I think there’s a lost connection, and you can celebrate it more and better when you know where things come from.”

Chef Edward Lee, of Louisville, Kentucky, owns the restaurant 610 Magnolia. This is his first time participating in the festival.

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

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

Lee has worked with kalo in the past, mostly by creating chips. However, the chef plans to use the food in his dish for the event Friday.

The pandemic continues to impact the way the festival operates and will impact this year’s events.

In 2019, a total of 12,778 people attended with 360 artisans (chefs, winemakers, sommeliers, mixologists and brewers as well as culinary students) participating. This year, the festival will have 68 chefs. Additionally, events have been scaled down and redesigned to be chef collaborations and seated dinners.

Click here for more information on upcoming events.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.
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