At the beginning of the month, Shake and I were invited to Maui to attend the Maui County Agricultural Festival, affectionately called “Maui AgFest.” Last year, Shake was one of the judges for the chefs’ cooking competition, but this year, we were JAFOs. (OK, I’m usually always JAFO, I admit. I’m a professional tag-along. But this was a first for Shake. He’s usually supposed to do something when we go places. He felt weird about it.)
This event is FANTASTIC! Our friend Melissa came out to Maui for the day to attend, as did a few other Oahu Twitterati, and we agreed that the Maui AgFest pretty much kicks the Hawai‘i State Farm Fair’s butt. It’s not a huge event — you can walk it easily and there are only a few tents — but it’s jam-packed with farmers, products and information. I love seeing all the new items being grown and the value-added products being made.
It’s an outdoor event and hot, hot, hot — the vendors offering drinks and cool treats did a brisk business. I must have directed at least a dozen people to the Aloha Bars Maui booth after they saw our drinks!
Maui has some serious chef action going on and I think they get the best fresh produce to play with. The biggest draw of the AgFest is the Grand Taste Education — chefs, farmers and other food-related folk give presentations in the main tent, and for just $30, you get to try 12 dishes from some of the top chefs on Maui. Each chef is partnered up with a farmer and has to use ingredients from that farm. Some of the chefs already have close relationships with the farms and even go so far as to work with the farmers to grow specific ingredients. A panel of judges picks a winner who best showcases the farm ingredient, and there’s also a vote for “fan favorite.” It’s also a great way to discover the newest items local farmers are cultivating.
You more than get your money’s worth for the $30 ticket. As we got to the last few dishes, I could barely take more than a single taste, I had gotten so full! Here’s a tip for you: get your hands on one of the AgFest program guides — it lists (at least it did this year) the dishes the chefs are preparing, so you have a better idea of what you might want to hit first. Also, it calls out the ingredient(s) that the chefs are tasked with showcasing. Not all the booths have good signage explaining what their highlighted ingredient is supposed to be, or even what the dish is. They’ll tell you, but it’s hard to hear sometimes. Melissa was super-clever and got the chefs or their helpers to explain the dish in a six-second Vine clip. Check ‘em out in her event recap for Nonstop Honolulu. (And for some really great photos of the event, check out photographer Peter Liu’s Flickr stream. He did a lot more roaming around than I did — I was the designated table guard while others went off to forage food.) The dishes themselves are almost unanimously excellent, but some chefs do better than others at highlighting their showcase ingredient.
Here are the twelve chef-farmer pairings and dishes. The showcase ingredients are all marked in bold, and my thoughts on the dishes are below the photos.
Chef Jojo Vasquez (The Plantation House) with Sylvestre Tumbaga (Syl’s Produce) — Cauliflower Curtido on Cauliflower and Cheese Pupusas
I was not familiar with pupusas, but when I posted a photo of this dish, blogger Malia Yoshioka quickly commented that she LOVED pupusas after being introduced to them by an El Salvadoran friend. (She also consulted with him to provide me with the correct spelling — I was thinking “papoosa.”) I liked the tortilla (the actual pupusa part), which was “stuffed” (this is a misleading description — it’s actually embedded into the tortilla) with cheese and cauliflower; I wasn’t as much enthralled with the cauliflower curtido (pickled slaw, a traditional accompaniment to pupusas).
This dish ended up the Fan Favorite. It was excellent — the mozzarella was fresh-made and hand pulled. The little basil caviar were so cute. Everyone on our table loved this. BUT my problem was that I felt it was all about the mozzarella (it was a very generous portion, too!) and not about the produce. Then, when I later read the program, I discovered that the highlighted ingredient was the papaya…which seemed like a total afterthought and not fully integrated.
I gave this dish my vote for Fan Favorite. The fact that this and Chef Tylun’s dish further down were the two I considered for my vote — a dish featuring eggplant and a dish consisting of nothing but carrots — surprised even me. These are two vegetables that are pretty far down on my “like” list. I picked this one because I thought that it was excellent as a full, composed dish while showing off the ingredient. Also, the farm partner is a non-profit community program that allows kids to grow food. The tortellini were made with Japanese long eggplant grown by students at Kihei Elementary. I’m a sucker for the feel-good story, especially when it comes to kids learning about where food comes from.
Chef Eric Faivre (Grand Wailea Resort) with Walter Evonuk (Evonuk Farms) — Pickled Beet and Fennel Salad with Malama Farm Spicy Chorizo (The program description of this team’s dish is considerably different, but this is the description we got from the booth.)
I felt the chorizo was way spicy, but Shake and others on our table really enjoyed it. Didn’t really feel that anything particularly creative was done with the vegetables.
Chef Sheldon Simeon (Star Noodle; Leoda’s Kitchen & Pie Shop; Aloha Mixed Plate) with Bobby Pahia (Hoaloha Farm) — Sous Vide Short Rib and Mana ‘Ulu Taro and Poi with Sweet Potato Greens and Kalua Pig Powder
Sheldon’s definitely made better food than this. But I know he was exhausted coming off Top Chef and doing all sorts of special events. I did learn about a whole new type of taro: mana ‘ulu taro, which is yellow (instead of the purple you normally see) and a bit sweeter; the poi Sheldon made from it wasn’t as glue-y as the purple poi. Also, kalua pork powder. Yeah.
This was a fun dish — who knew we had local escargot?! One of the more adventurous dishes but I only had a small bite because halfway through the lineup, I started getting full!
Not actually sure which chef did this dish — the ticket card said Chef Ricky, the program says Chef Neil. The ragout was basically like BBQ-style kalua pig. Since I was getting full, and taro is soooooo filling, I just nibbled the pork and the goat cheese.
Chef Riko Bartolome (Asia-Vous) with Ian Cole (Breadfruit Institute) — ‘Ulu with Strawberry-Beet Compote, Burnt Black Pepper Marshmallow and Pesto Dolce
All the folks sharing our table agreed — this was a very interesting dish, but we were confused by it. Was it a dessert? Was it two dishes on a single plate? The way it was plated, the beet compote and marshmallow seemed like its own thing, next to the ‘ulu with pesto. The compote was super sweet (yet still so beet-y I couldn’t handle it. Eccch. Beets).
Chef Wesley Holder (Pūlehu, an Italian Grill at The Westin Kā‘anapali Ocean Resort Villas) with David Horsman and Manu Akana (Ho‘opono Farm) — “Risi Bisi” English Pea and Parmigiano Risotto with Mint Pesto and Pea Tendril Salad
Admittedly, Shake and I were pre-disposed to like this dish because we’d met Chef Wes the previous night and heard all about how he hand-planted the peas with the farmers. Also, the whole English peas growing here thing was ultra-cool. Shake gave it his vote for Fan Favorite. Chef Wes invited us to check out the farm the next day, and I’ll be putting up a future post on that.
Chef Tylun Pang (Kō at The Fairmont Kea Lani) with Bryan Otani (Otani Farm) — Baby Rainbow Carrot Tempura with Sweet Soy Glaze, Spicy Sesame Aioli and Furikake
Voted the Judges’ Choice winner. I definitely think this one did the best job of keeping the ingredient front and center while also being an excellent dish that I’d want to eat in a restaurant. I didn’t vote it for Fan Favorite because I had a feeling the general audience was not going to vote for an all-carrot dish.
Chef Jeff Scheer (Maui Executive Catering) with Gerry Ross and Janet Simpson (Kupa‘a Farm) — Panko-Crusted Pork with Polenta and Veggie Chips (This is another dish that was described to us differently than what was printed in the program; the program called out Espelette Chiles as the featured ingredient. They may have been in the sauce.)
I wasn’t particularly excited by this one. Probably because it was the second BBQ-flavored pork dish that we’d had. And I wasn’t sure what the highlighted ingredient was — I assumed it was the veggie chips on top; my guess now is that it was the chiles mentioned in the program, which were probably in the sauce.
Chefs Chris Schobel & Ryan Luckey (Hula Grill Kā‘anapali) with James Simpliciano (Pā‘ina ‘Āina/Simpli-Fresh Farms) — Fried Green Tomatoes with Poha-Tomatillo Crema & Chilled Tomato Gazpacho with Thai Basil Caviar
This was a welcome dish because it was so cool and refreshing! We had it toward the end, so again, I was full, but I still drained the cup of gazpacho. I didn’t have more than one bite of the fried green tomatoes, which I usually enjoy, but these were a wee bit hard. I know fried green tomatoes are supposed to be firm, but I like them a little bit squishy in the center!
Phew! So much good food in one afternoon!
I know that not everyone who attends is as interested in the importance of ensuring that our local farmers keep producing more and more food as we are. And they might not be as fascinated by the variety of new items farmers are starting to cultivate — among them, garlic, blueberries and English peas —that were formerly thought “impossible” to grow in Hawai‘i. But it’s encouraging to see so many people attending the Fest — hopefully they’ll learn and try something new that sparks an interest in buying more locally grown items. If nothing else, if they like the food these chefs serve, maybe they’ll patronize those restaurants who are dedicated to buying more and more local food — Kō at The Fairmont Kea Lani and Pūlehu, an Italian Grill at The Westin Kā‘anapali Ocean Resort Villas are two that are already using over 80% local produce and committed to the “buy local” mission, and I know there are many others doing the same.
We did more eating on Maui over the four days we were there, so stay tuned for more!
Disclosure: Sugar + Shake were hosted by the Maui Visitors Bureau, The Fairmont Kea Lani and The Westin Maui. Travel for Shake and accommodations were provided by the hosts, but no compensation was received for this post, and the opinions expressed are strictly my own.