04/03/2013 04:26 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2013

The Big Island and Beyond

From the moment I was invited to participate in the James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour in Kona, Hawaii the image that was firmly imbedded in my mind was one of grandiose resorts lining the over populated sandy shores and the obligatory, all you can eat, Luau buffet dinner, tiki torches ablaze highlighting the exuberant and gleeful smiles of the visitors going back for seconds and thirds. Well, that was then and this is now and I had those two things partially right and, well...completely wrong.

The stunning and completely unusual Kona coast, located on the North shore of the island called Hawai'i, also know as 'The Big Island,' does have its share of large beach front resorts most of which do offer a first class Luau show, but the coast is certainly not over-populated. In fact, it is damn near desolate. Barren land blemished by a main road which bisects the sea side tropics and dry desert mountain terrain, ignores the undulating coast line below, but her arteries pulse visitors to barely visible resorts and quiet enclaves that house everyone from waylaid surf bums to corporate moguls to the Ironman elite and of course the local people that have inhabited this area for more than a thousand years.

This land is both breathtakingly beautiful and woefully harsh. Soft beige sand beaches and deep black lava fields seem to frolic and fight on the rugged coast. Vivid greens of some of the world's most revered golf courses literally look ablaze with emeralds framed by iridescent blue diamond-like waters that relentlessly crash into her shore and explode in a fantastic bright white firework display. The lava fields struggle to let life in and out. They are speckled with tiny tufts of scorched brown and pale green grass and weeds that provide homage to the black and gray mountain goats that scour her surface for any bit of sustenance and relief. White rocks and sun-bleached corrals are arranged by locals and visitors alike that bear out proclamations of love and discontent; the obvious and the mundane. These fields flow from high atop the now dormant and slightly eroded grass-covered volcanoes down to the oceans edge, everything in their path decimated, yet flanked by lush tropical forests and fields bearing some of the world's best and most sought-after coffee, live stock, fruits, nuts and vegetables.

Hawai'i is an island built from Volcanoes. The Big Island is home to the worlds most active, Kilauea, and the island is constantly evolving. Maybe it is the youthful exuberance of growth deep at the core of this majestic land that really brings out her true nature and mysterious and insatiable demeanor. Perhaps that is why one of Earth's most amazing creatures, the giant humpback whale, migrates every year from the freezing waters of the Arctic Circle to the warm tides that pass between Maui and Hawai'i in the Hawaiian archipelago. The whales mate one year and return the next to give birth. Their joy and rambunctious play is clearly evident and provides many oohs and aahs from the pristine beaches of the Maunu Lani Resort where our band of chefs resided for the week.

Our mission on the celebrity chef tour was to visit local farms, spend time with the local school kids of Wiamea Secondary School and Jonathan Waxman, Nancy Silverton, Aaron Sanchez, Manny Hinogosa and myself were to host a multi course once in a lifetime dinner at the beautiful and perfectly situated Canoe House restaurant, the Mauna Lani's signature ocean side restaurant.

Day one began bright and early. Piled into the hotels stark white transport van with The Maunu Lani's head Chef, Clayton Arakawa, at the wheel, our destination was Hirabara Farms: a family-run farm, which has operated for over 20 years under the watchful and caring eyes of its owners Kurt and Pam. The 40-minute drive straight from the shores of the Pacific to the hills of Wiamea saw us pass through numerous different sub climates and multiple different flora and faunas. Even though the temperature had dropped considerably from the coast to the mountain side location, we were warmly greeted by the owners and then led through a quick but insightful lesson on the trials and tribulations of sustainable farming on the island of Hawai'i: all the pit falls of relying on others, the hardship of the past and the fully sustainable plan for the future. Even their deep passion and proficiency for all things that grow didn't prepare me for the utterly amazing tasting lettuces, greens, beetroot, radishes and turnips. Nothing too sharp, nothing too subtle, texture and taste spot on. The smells of the sea, the fragrance from the fields and the ripeness from the sun exploded vividly in each and every bite. This product was not just good for an island out in the middle of the pacific but every bit as good as what I have tasted in France, Italy and the heralded growing beds of California. Swiss chard protruding from chocolaty brown soil and stood like colorful lollipops perfectly arranged in the good humored man's ice bin. Watermelon radishes hid shyly amongst the battalions of more confident Asian Mustard greens and the years of growing compost loomed like a strategic battle point that could not be sacrificed. The Garden was reminiscent of Eden. Sanchez snickered, Waxman grinned, Silverton blushed and Hinogosa beamed as we tasted and talked, plotted and schemed while our already printed menus became obsolete and new revelations took their place. Requests where made for boxes of this and bunches of that and our Celebrity Chef dinner morphed into a significantly more local, sustainable and honest to God, Island of Hawai'i experience.

Next stop was at the Wiamea Secondary School. Taste buds still buzzing from the spicy Hilo chilies and earthy tubers that we just sampled, we ambled out into a dusty parking lot surrounded by small single story buildings and a smattering of kids donning back packs and Yankee hats en route to class or wherever. Wiamea is a gorgeous area but the locals are not well-off like those who carouse the beaches, restaurants and resorts just below on the coast. The air is much dryer here and there is a noticeable chill, but we are fortunate to be here on a day when the sun is shining and the rain isn't falling. We are led from the parking lot to a densely wooded area where we find a small, grey wood garden shed shrouded in tattered, rainbow-colored gardening gloves and a black board bearing a mission statement promising stewardship of the land and promoting a relationship between students, their environment and continuous learning. Moments later we are greeted by a large group of seventh and eighth graders chanting loudly and succinctly, a chilling but hauntingly beautiful ancestral prayer that welcomes us to their humble school. We are each presented leis by the students that they wove from the fibrous tropical leaves that grow with fervor on their school grounds. Like Alice through the looking glass, we are ushered into the abundant and somewhat chaotic garden that the students care for and use for education and sustenance. We learn that many of the students don't have food on their tables at home for every meal, so in addition to teaching the kids about the earth and how to grow and sustain its riches, they also bring home their bounty for their families to ensure that they eat well and grow strong and healthy minds.

The next hours are filled with us teaching how to make a healthy and inexpensive ramen style soup from the spoils of the garden. In that time I never saw one single kid without a smile and eager look of excitement on their faces. Not one kid was bored or uninterested in what was being taught. Every kid was genuinely excited to learn and all of them kept exclaiming that this was "the best day ever!!!" And it surly was that.

The next few days were delightfully littered with sport fishing, whale watching, cocktail parties, hula dancers, ukuleles, hibiscus drinks, late nights, long walks, great friends; new and old, fabled tales of the mystical taro root, gorgeous topical birds and fish, more buffet breakfasts than I care to recount and of course the main event, The James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour Dinner.

The dinner was as grand as billed and went off without a hitch, and the meal of local lamb, octopus, abalone, lettuces, fiddlehead ferns, Hamachi, kanpachi, cheeses, honeys and sweets was top notch. But it was not until a few days after the big dinner that I truly found out why we all really came to this enchanted place. Chef Clayton's Chef de Cuisine at the Canoe House, Allen Hess, had offered days earlier to take us on a picnic to the other side of the island to an area called Waipi'o Valley. Allen's family owned a small plot of land where they were growing taro root and he told us that it was there that you can see the real essence of the Hawai'i and the Hawaiian people.

The whole gang once again congregated at the grand entrance of the Maunu Lani Resort, piled into the van, and headed out. Not knowing what to expect or what was to come, we again forged our way over the mountain through ever changing scenery and forests. Homes went from palatial Polynesian oceanfront compounds to more modest ocean-view cabanas to jungle shacks in a matter of minutes. The climate morphed from seaside sunny to mid mountain fog to jungle humidity, and the population density went from sparse to nonexistent.

It was only when we arrived in the parking lot above Waipi'o Valley road that I began to understand where we were heading. The parking lot was not there for convenience to the destination, but an area to leave vehicles that were not meant to descend and ascend a winding badly pocked 25 percent grade barely asphalt path that lead some 1,000 feet to the depths of one of the most stunningly beautiful valleys I have ever seen. Directly across the valley were mountain ridges after mountain ridges that fell abruptly from the skies to the ocean below. The pacific and all her beauty gently lapped against the green and black monoliths that seemed to be watching over the Hawaiian shores like the night sentry standing alert just before battle. The deep green cliffs and black sand beaches seemed to open themselves to the waves of marching white water to the east, while the vertical brown rock face studded with vines and tropical trees, chocked off the valley to the west. At the valleys floor was a world so magical and ethereal that you could almost imagine it just the same a million years before. The descent was hair-raising and once the brakes began to smell and burn. Most of the crew opted to walk the 45-minute route to the bottom.

Once safely at the bottom, we all piled back into the pick-up bed of the Japanese import and Allen drove us the last few miles of road, which often looked more like a river meandering its way up the valley floor to his family's land. The scene at the taro farm was more reminiscent of the Mekong Delta than America. Dense jungle flanking Taro ponds, makeshift huts and bucolic flowers in bloom everywhere. Bananas and coconuts, wild watercress, florescent pink snail larvae and leaves larger than a car reinforced the fact that we were a long way from home, but the warmth of Clayton's and Allen's relatives and friends made us feel as though we were part of the family and we were meant to be there. The Hawaiian people possess a special gentleness and kindness. It is not the fact that they place a lei around your neck when you step off the plane or arrive at the hotel, but that they have a deep respect for their land and they are bound together by the unwavering respect for their ancestors that they hold so dear. Culture, respect and the past guide the Hawaiian path for the future.

The day was spent reveling in a plethora of traditional Hawaiian recipes masterly prepared by our hosts Darci and Toni. They made Laulau, huge steaming pots of pork and butterfish wrapped in luau leaf then wrapped once more with ti leaf; and Pinacbet, a stew consisting of eggplant, tomato, onion, wing beans, shrimp, bitter melon and if you are lucky, (and we were) a little crispy pork. Blazing on the grill were Kalbi, marinated crosscut beef short ribs and Portuguese sausage. Warabi Salad made up of fern shoots that grow on the banks of the taro ponds where we stood and dried shrimp named obi.

The star of the show was, and always is, the poi. Taro root cooked down and pounded with a stone mortar until smooth and creamy. This dish is known as the heart and soul of the Hawaiian people. Kololo, poi cooked with coconut milk; lomi lomi, a recipe of canning salmon that came from trade with whaling ships back in the day and is still served at every luau on islands; raw blue crab kimchee poke that definitely isn't for the faint of heart but Allen's nieces and nephews dug right in -- (us main landers wound up putting it on the grill for a few minutes) -- and shoyu ahi poke rounded out a feast like no other.

Our time deep in the Hawaiian jungle on the shore of the mighty Pacific was one of mystery, beauty, connection, wonderment and a deep understanding of what is right and what really matters. Days like these don't come around often for us all who are embedded deep in our work, passion and the daily grind, but ultimately it is why we do what we do and why we sometimes need time to take a step back, travel and really reflect on how others do things. In reality, it is the essence of travel and discovery.

My path is often forged with cuisine as my guiding compass and I am truly grateful that the arrow was firmly pointing to the Island of Hawaii, the Maunu Lani, and mostly the people and revelations that I found deep in the Waipi'o Valley. Aloha!