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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 7 of 9)

They look otherwordly, but the alii mushrooms popping out of these containers are Hamakua Mushroom’s best-selling product, prized by chefs.

Photo: David Croxford

The Table

Hilton Hawaiian Village executive chef Jeffrey Vigilla understands Big Island farms. He grew up on one, his grandfather’s farm in Panaewa. “We grew nearly everything we ate.”

After high school in Hilo, Vigilla hit the road, apprenticing as a chef in Monaco and spending the next 20 years cooking everywhere from Florida to Indonesia, mainly for Ritz-Carlton.

Two and half years ago, he took a chance and moved back to Hawaii. “I was fortunate to end up at the Hilton,” he said. The first thing he did was check out as many farms as he could. “It may be more costly, but it’s our obligation to support local farmers,” he says.

He also wants quality. “I like Hirabara because they ship whole lettuces, and you can tell by the greens that they were grown in a cool climate.”

When Vigilla arrived, the Hilton was using Hirabara greens in its high-end restaurants. “I wanted to use them in all our outlets, even banquets,” says Vigilla. “Kurt will plant a whole field just for us.”

Vigilla’s favorite Hirabara dish is the seared ahi salad served in the Tropics Bar & Grill, Hilton’s casual restaurant.

It’s signature Hawaii regional cuisine: “A perfect pairing of sushi-grade ‘ahi from the Honolulu fish auction, and crisp lettuces,” says Vigilla. He pours on more Hawaii flavors: edamame, pickled Maui onions and a seaweed called arame. Plus a ponzu wasabi vinaigrette.

“I eat it myself all the time,” says Vigilla. “You can tell the reaction when visitors taste it for the first time: It creates memories.”

Roy's Hamakua Mushroom Pioppini Bisque

The Farm

Roy’s mushroom bisque looks like cappuccino, but it delivers all the flavor of pioppini mushrooms.

Hamakua Mushrooms has a beautiful Big Island setting, with a sweeping view of rugged Laupahoehoe Point and the Pacific Ocean. If you’re lucky, you can see whales cavorting offshore.

The farm itself, however, is hidden indoors. Enter it—not many people get to do so, because it’s a sterile environment—and you are in another world. Damp, cold, a little dark, with near-alien life forms, fungi of all descriptions, popping out of racks all around you, growing so fast you can almost see them move.

When Bob Stanga sold his Oahu helicopter business in 1996, he decided to grow gourmet mushrooms. He can’t really explain why. The first mushroom farmer Stanga consulted tried to talk him out of it.

He and his wife, Janice, bet their life savings on this tricky and complicated business. They lived for years in their office until the farm generated enough income for them to have a house of their own.

Stanga walks you through. He grinds locally grown, non-aromatic eucalyptus into sawdust, adds ground corncob and wheat millrun, and packs the mix into high-tech Japanese plastic containers that look pretty much like old-fashioned Mason jars.

Then everything, the substrate, the containers and all, goes through an autoclave, where an hour of 125-degree steam ensures no spores or microorganisms will be hitching a ride into the plant.

Then, in a sterile room, the mixture is seeded with mushroom spawn that has been carefully cultivated in their lab.

Quietly, slowly, almost invisibly, the fungus grows in the sealed jars for weeks, sometimes months.

After the incubation period, the jars go into racks, in temperature-, light- and humidity-controlled rooms. In a week or so, a bouquet of mushrooms bursts from the top of every jar.

There are stunningly large alii (king oyster) mushrooms, the farm’s best-known product. Also shimeiji mushrooms, both brown and white, and darker brown pioppini.

Plus a product found nowhere else on Earth, pepeiao, Hawaii’s indigenous variety of a forest fungus. Usually called “wood ear,” it ends up as dark strips in Asian soups and stir-fries.

Stanga found his pepeiao in the wild. It took him two years to get it to grow. Finally, frustrated, he tossed several bottles of it outside, where, in days, it blossomed. Now he grows it outside under a roof, in the open air, with a mist system to reproduce rain.

 “I’m always amazed at what the chefs can create out of our mushrooms,” says Stanga. “You think you’ve seen it all, and then somebody comes up with something you’ve never thought of.”

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Honolulu Magazine May 2019
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