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Farm to Table: 6 Dishes from Hawaii Restaurants

Here are six locally grown dishes you can order in Hawaii restaurants right now—and the farmers who made them possible.


(page 6 of 9)

A worker tends the precise beds of lettuces, in cool Waimea.

Tropics Bar & Grill, Hilton Hawaiian Village, Seared Ahi Salad with Hirabara Farms Greens

The Farm

It’s small, 3 acres, half of which are planted. Still, it’s the most beautiful farm in perhaps the most beautiful agricultural spot in the United States.

Hirabara Farms slopes up toward Mauna Kea, just outside the Big Island town of Waimea.

Its red-dirt fields look like a painting—precise swatches of color, trim beds of green and red baby lettuces, arugula, spinach, asparagus and, hiding in the soil in wooden boxes, fingerling potatoes and radishes. Or almost anything else a chef orders in time to grow it.

In a world of dirt and unruly growing things, Kurt and Pam Hirabara’s farm is neat and tidy.

“Oh, the farm is the only place where Kurt is neat. You should see his office,” says Pam.

Kurt Hirabara was a scientist, an ag researcher on Oahu. Pam was in marketing, first at a bank, then for Hawaiian herbs.

The two met the original Hawaii regional cuisine chefs at a 1992 event at St. Andrew’s Priory. They had come to bring then-Halekulani chef Philippe Padovani, who they’d never met, some chervil. Another chef, who shall remain nameless, pretended to be Padovani and stole the herb.

At that point, the Hirabaras decided these chefs were serious about finding local ingredients, and needed more farmers.

In 1993, the Hirabaras moved to Volcano on the Big Island. That turned out to be a mistake; the vog there took its toll on delicate lettuces. In ’98, they moved to Waimea, where the cool elevation, the mountain mists, turned out to be perfect. Hirabara baby lettuces, tight little buds of leaves only a few inches tall, are cut whole. They ship crisp and stay crisp.

The lettuces stay this small, flavorful and crisp, at Hirabara Farms.

Photo: David Croxford

Their Waimea property is deliberately small. “We’re high-yield, low-acreage farmers,” says Kurt. “Which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense for Hawaii.” Still, they’ve been forced to lease another half-acre of shaded fields for their baby romaine. There may be another few acres in the offing. It wouldn’t take much to double the size of the farm.

In ’98, the Hirabaras were radical newcomers to Waimea. “Now, we’re the old-timers,” laughs Kurt. “A lot of people go into farming, but don’t stick.”

“You have to roll with it, all the ups and downs, lots of downs,” adds Pam.

Chefs love Hirabara Farms. One wall of the packing shed is covered with autographs from nearly every prominent Hawaii chef plus some culinary superstars like Mario Battali, Hubert Keller, Jonathan Waxman and Michael Shapiro. Alan Wong’s mother inscribed the wall: “I taught Alan everything he knows.”

Every day a truckload of carefully packed produce leaves the farm for major restaurants and resorts. Of their customers, the biggest is not on the Big Island, but on Oahu: Waikiki’s Hilton Hawaiian Village.

“They take 300 pounds of lettuces a week, red romaine, red and green oak leaf, green batavia, tango, red butterhead,” says Kurt. “We have to be grateful. They were our first major O‘ahu account, and they’ve helped stabilize the farm.”

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Honolulu Magazine May 2019
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