Staring down at the roasted pig's head adorning a kiosk at the Mealani's Taste of the Hawaiian Range and Agricultural Festival at the Hilton Waikoloa on the Island of Hawaii, I had no idea the wild boar I had just happily sampled would mark the start of a weekend I can only describe as the ultimate foodie fantasy.
After flying in from Seattle, we checked into our room at the neighboring Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort with just enough time to shower and change before heading to the Taste event. The rush was worth it. The event showcases everything that's great about the local Hawaiian food/agriculture scene, including luscious organic produce and top chefs who bring the best out of locally raised (or wild) pig, beef and lamb. The event has a nose-to-tail philosophy which, depending on the luck of the draw, sees chefs creating delicacies from not only the most popular cuts of meat, but also the least appetizing including tripe and the now infamous mountain oyster, aka bull calf testicles.
Each year participating local chefs draw to see which meat they'll prepare for Taste about a month prior to the event in order to come up with a concept designed to wow the large crowd of foodies who attend annually. This year the mountain oyster challenge was presented to chef Jayson Kanekoa and his chef de cuisine Raylynn Kanehailua from the Waikoloa Beach Marriott, who came up with a kind of bull testicle tamale, which I wasn't brave enough to try -- but fed to my more adventurous partner who gave it a big thumbs up. I did indulge in a taste of heart sausage created by the chefs from Roy's Waikoloa and it opened my eyes as to how the less-noble cuts of meat can be transformed into something delicious.
The next morning I was scheduled to take part in the Chef Shuttle tour offered as part of a package at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott and was surprised to see my personal guide for the day was Chef Jayson Kanekoa of mountain oyster fame whom I'd spoken to briefly the night before.
Chef Jayson and I embarked on our foodie travels at 7 am and headed for two farmers markets in Waimea. On the way, we stopped for breakfast at a local institution called Hawaiian Style Café, where particularly large Hawaiian men cooked up pancakes the size of hubcaps and where you can order the Internet Loco Moco featuring Spam, Spam and more Spam. (My partner and I ended up driving to Waimea twice more to the café for breakfast in the all too-short week we spent on Hawaii.)
Fortified with breakfast, Chef Jayson and I headed for the Hawaiian Homesteaders Farmers Market and Town Market where together we sourced out ingredients for what would later become dinner for a group of us back at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott. Market-goers and vendors alike greeted Chef Jayson with alohas, handshakes and hugs. Maybe it was being in the company of a celebrity chef, but I found the vendors exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable about the organic produce, fish, meat, flowers, treats and coffee they were selling.
I met a coffee grower who had a photo album on display detailing the history of his family's plantation from its start two decades earlier, as well as Mike Hodson, a retired vice cop who now owns and operates one of the most successful organic farms on the island, Wow Farm. Hodson told me that after surviving two decades on the force, there was no way he was going die from spraying chemicals on his tomatoes. The end result? Juicy, delicious, pesticide-free tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes. By the end of our tours of the farmers markets, Chef Jayson and I had chosen the main ingredients for a four-course meal I will never forget.
Our dinner, a deliciously divine example of the farm-to-table philosophy driving the agricultural tourism industry in Hawaii, began with seared ahi tuna accompanied by roasted garlic, Kamuela tomato gazpacho, followed by some of those Wow tomatoes served with the macadamia nut, basil-infused goat cheese I had earlier chosen at the farmers market. Our entrée was a veal chop with poha berry jam, local mushrooms and purple sweet potatoes from the neighboring island of Molokai. Dessert was coffee crème brulee with a cup of brew hand-pressed at our table -- both made from beans purchased earlier from that same grower. Even more delightful was the line printed at the bottom of our menu, "Prepared for Ms. Sandra Thomas..." This personalized touch is part of the Chef Shuttle package.
Completing our foodie fantasy weekend was Sunday night's Sunset Luau at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott during which we indulged in Kalua pig, which had slow roasted in an underground oven all day, Lau Lau chicken and numerous mai tais. Sure there was talented fire knife dancers, beautiful hula dancers and traditional Hawaiian music, but on this foodie weekend, it was all about that sumptuous buffet.