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.

Wei Chong and Lexieng Ho in their 1,000-square-foot tomato greenhouse.

Great food, we’ve come to realize, is a partnership.

It’s a partnership among the farmers who raise it, the chefs who prepare it—and the customers who are wise enough to appreciate fresh, locally grown ingredients.

In Hawaii, we’re fortunate that the rich, volcanic soil and the abundance of microclimates mean things grow well here, from livestock to lettuce.

We’re less fortunate that the pressures of development and the availability of inexpensive imported food have put the squeeze on our remaining farmers.

Our chefs have stepped up to do something. They’ve sought out farmers to procure some of the best-tasting ingredients Hawaii has to offer.

We bring you six dishes you can find on Hawaii restaurant tables tonight—and the chefs and farmers who made them possible.

Alan Wong's Big Island Goat Cheese Mousse on Toast with Ho Farms Tomato Salad

The Farm

Alan Wong’s Big Island goat cheese mousse with Ho Farms tomato salad.

Bumping up the road  to Ho Farms reminds you that Oahu has not been given over entirely to housing developments and shopping centers.

These 50 acres, just off the highway in Kahuku, show what’s possible even on the most urban of islands.

In the packing shed today are nearly 40 laundry-size baskets, brimming with deep-green Japanese cucumbers, shiny clean, ready to be sorted by size and shrink-wrapped. The other day there were 300 baskets full, so many that the pickers, exhausted, took the next day off.

Today, cucumbers aren’t even the main event. Everywhere, in boxes and baskets, spread out on wooden tables, are baby tomatoes.

Handpicked and vine-ripened, the tomatoes are little jewels, all colors and shapes. Oblong baby Roma. Cherry and black cherry. Golden and green grape. Kahuku gold. Yellow pear tomatoes. And tiny, round, dark-red currant tomatoes.

A worker packs an assortment, the “Ho Farms Family Tomato Medley,” into two sizes of clear plastic boxes. There are larger, bulk packs for restaurants and Costco, and one-pound packs for Foodland.

“Tomatoes are our signature product, about 4,000 pounds a week,” says Shin Huoy Ho. Ho is 29, looks younger and sports a “Kahuku’s Finest” T-shirt. “To repair the soil we alternate them with cucumbers and long beans.”

This is a family farm. Shin Ho’s father, Wei Chong, her mother, Lexieng, and her younger brother, Neil, are all here, working.

In 1985, when Shin was 3, the family was in a camp for Laotian refugees in Thailand. Her brother was born there.

The family made its way to Hawaii in 1987. Wei Chong, with no farming experience, turned himself into a contemporary farmer. He studied with state ag experts and even traveled to Taiwan to learn in Chinese. “My English not so good then,” he says.

Ho Farms grows its tomatoes in three 1,000-square-foot greenhouses. “Even though we lease the land, we put in improvements because we had to,” says Shin, citing a common problem for farmers on land-starved islands.

The greenhouses not only protect the tomatoes, they minimize the need for pesticides and fertilizer, resulting in a purer product. The farm was the first on Oahu to receive food-safety certification.

“It’s not easy being a farmer. Sometimes we have issues with the tomatoes and other crops,” says Shin. “But we are making a go of it.”

Web Exclusive: For a complete recipe for Peter Merriman's boeuf bourguignon using local grass-fed beef, click here.


The Table

Alan Wong’s Big Island goat cheese mousse with Ho Farms tomato salad.

I end up cooking with Alan Wong in his King Street kitchen. I’ve cooked with Wong before: It’s a mixed blessing. Since Wong’s a genius, you always learn something. On the other hand, he’s constantly scolding you for not doing things the “Wong way.”

He’s taken exception to the way I’ve pitted green olives. “Don’t hack them up. I’m going to call you Hackathorn from now on.”

Now I’m bleeding. Trying to slice yellow tomatoes and talk to Wong simultaneously, I nick my finger with one of his incredibly sharp knives. Sure that writer’s blood is not one of Wong’s preferred ingredients, I run off to get a Band-Aid.

When I return, Wong is laughing heartily. He’s spread the contents of a first-aid kit at my kitchen station. Chef humor.

Despite the distractions, we are making Big Island goat-cheese mousse on toast, a recipe out of Wong’s new cookbook, The Blue Tomato.

As Wong’s recipes go, this one’s simple. I’ve nearly broken my wrist whisking whipping cream. Wong mixes it with the mild goat cheese from Dick and Heather Threlfall’s Honokaa goat dairy, where the animals all have individual names.

We spread the mousse on toast and then pile on a salad of red and yellow cherry tomatoes from Ho Farms, olives, shallots, and torn parsley and basil. The final touch is strips of pipikaula; Wong scolded me until I fried them sufficiently crispy.

The dish has layers of flavor, contrasts in textures and a natural feel.

Wong has lots of reasons for using as many local products as possible. It helps assure the Islands’ food security, is good for the local green economy, supports farmers, and gives him direct access to and knowledge of his food sources.

Why Ho Farms tomatoes in this dish? “Simple,” he says. “Unlike a lot of Mainland tomatoes, they taste like tomatoes.”

Ed Kenney of Town’s Shinsato Farm Porchetta, with Braised Mao Farms Bitter Greens and Breadfruit

The Farm

Ed Kenney communes with the organic produce at the KCC Farmers’ Market.

Tucked into the green Koolau Mountains, set back from the road, Shinsato Hog Farm is a collection of a dozen old buildings, all, in the words of farmer Glenn Shinsato, “in various states of disrepair.”

Brightening up the aging farm are patches of torch ginger and heliconia, tropical flowers the Shinsatos grow as a side business.

Shinsato didn’t start as a farmer. He had a job diving, collecting specimens for the Waikiki Aquarium. Sound fascinating? Shinsato thought it was boring. “No challenge, same thing every day.”

He was dating Amy Tomei, whose father owned Tomei Hog Farm. Amy’s father was looking for a helper. “I thought I might as well try it,” says Glenn.

That was in 1972. He’s been a hog farmer ever since. He and Amy married, and the farm eventually became Shinsato Hog Farm. “She’s still the boss,” says Glenn.

Is hog farming less boring than diving? “Sure,” says Glenn, “if only because you’re always desperate to find some way to survive.”

Hog farms are measured in the number of breeding sows. Shinsato Farms has 75, with more than 200 pigs.

Free-range pigs? “No, no,” says Shinsato. “Our pigs aren’t in the mud. They’re nice and dry indoors on concrete. It’s beautiful here—when it’s not raining. It rains a lot.”

Shinsato says you’re unlikely to find free-range hogs anywhere on Oahu. “We simply don’t have the land they have in the Midwest.” Shinsato Farm is 9 acres, 3 and a half of which are in actual use. “You need at least 20 to 30 acres to raise free-range pigs.”


Glenn Shinsato’s pigs are carefully nurtured indoors, sheltered from the Windward Side weather.

Besides, he notes, pigs are rooting animals. “One of my uncles had a pig in a pasture. In a week, he dug a hole big enough to bury a Volkswagen.”

Shinsato’s pigs are carefully nurtured. “It’s always in the farmer’s interest to treat his animals well. A stressed animal doesn’t grow quickly,” says Shinsato. “We take the time to do a good job, do whatever we need to do to take care of them.”

Shinsato has the only USDA-certified pork slaughterhouse on Oahu, right at the farm, strictly for his own hogs. “Our facility was licensed by the state, so when the feds took over, we were grandfathered in. They’ve assured us that will never happen again.”

Having his own slaughterhouse gives Shinsato total control. “We have to do a good job. We know who’s getting the pig.”

Shinsato sells only whole pigs. That’s sustainable agriculture. Why waste any of the animal? In addition, it avoids competing head-on with Mainland producers who can flood the market with product. “People have to realize that if they want real, locally produced food, it’s going to cost more.”

For years, Shinsato’s niche was ethnic markets. “But the older generation there is passing, and the younger one doesn’t want whole pigs, doesn’t even know how to use them.”

He worked at finding new markets, often giving a whole pig to chefs, just to get them to try them. “They’d take it and hardly ever come back.”

In recent years, though, restaurant business has picked up. High-end hotel buffets have become steady customers. If you see a suckling pig at the carving station at the Kahala or the Halekulani, you’re seeing one of Shinsato’s products.

Smaller restaurants are increasingly interested in making use of locally produced pork, even if they can’t just buy the cuts they want.

“You know, a lot of that is due to Ed Kenney,” says Glenn. “I didn’t even find Ed. He found me.”

The Table

Shinsato Farm porchetta with bitter greens, from Town.

Ed Kenney, of Town and Downtown restaurants, found Shinsato because of a Hanahauoli School father-son picnic.

One of the other fathers brought along a La Caja China. That’s a Cuban invention, an aluminum-lined wood box with a fire grate on top.

“He fired up that thing, and made a suckling pig with the best crispy skin I’ve ever tasted,” says Kenney. “I wanted to make it for a party I had coming up.”

He knew where to get a La Caja box; Roy Yamaguchi of Roy’s had one. He’d call Roy’s corporate chef, Jackie Lau, and borrowed it. But where to get a pig? The fellow parent gave him Glenn Shinsato’s number.

“Glenn and I didn’t have an instant rapport,” says Kenney. “It didn’t mean much to him I was a chef. He’d seen chefs come and chefs go. But the pig he sold me turned out to be good.”

From then on, every couple of weeks, Kenney would buy a bigger pig, a 200-pounder, to serve at Town.

Dealing with a pig that size required four days by the time Kenney picked it up in Kahaluu, broke it down, butchered it into parts. It might be another week or so until the hams were ready, five or six weeks before the salami was cured.

Kenney was forced to come up with innovative ways to use every pound of pig. “Otherwise we could hardly afford it,” he says. Braised cuts, sausages, even head cheese.

What’s the single best thing he’s ever made with Shinsato pork?

“It wasn’t my idea, it was Glenn’s,” he says.

One month Shinsato didn’t have a 200-pounder to sell him. He prevailed upon Kenney to take a small, 70-pound pig.


Malia Bolton planted these coffee trees in Waiono Meadows.

“I really like larger, older pigs. They’ve got more fat, more flavor,” says the chef. “So I said to Glenn, what can I do with this little one, besides roast it whole? He said he had a recipe he’d like to see me make.”

Thus was born Town’s porchetta, a traditional Italian pork roast. It’s often made with pork butt, but Kenney debones the entire side of the pig, from the tubular tenderloin to the rectangular pork belly. He stuffs it with seasoned pork sausage, rolls it up and roasts it slowly.

“Unbelievable,” he says. “Because of the pork belly, it’s self-basting, and it cures itself because of the sausage. On top of that, the outside gets all brown and crispy just like you’d want it to.”

Kenney serves slices of the porchetta, offsetting its richness with bitter greens from MAO organic farm, kale and Swiss chard sautéed with garlic, raisins and macadamia nuts.

It’s usually served with polenta. Now that ulu, bread fruit, is in season, Kenney’s preparing ulu the way French chef Joel Robuchon prepares his famous mashed potatoes (i.e., lots of sieving and lots of cream and butter).

“It’s not exactly a health-food plate,” says Kenney, “but oh, oh, it’s good.”

The Best Espresso in the United States, Kona Coffee and Tea Co. at Waiono Meadows

At the Barista Bar

How do you get named the best barista in the United States?

“You’ve got to make four espresso-based drinks in 15 minutes before a panel of seven judges,” says Pete Licata, who grabbed the title of U.S. Champion Barista in Houston last May.

Pete Licata's signature leaf pattern atop a cappuccino.

You’ve got to pull a perfect espresso, and present a foamy cappuccino with a design in the foam. Licata, who’s director of coffee quality for Honolulu Coffee Co., could do all that. He’d entered the competition many times, and often placed.

This year, he kicked it up a notch.

He traveled to Waiono Meadows in Kona to pick his own coffee cherries off the tree, making sure to get perfectly ripe, red ones, with fully developed sugars.

“Picking is hard,” he says. “It takes me more than an hour to fill a basket.”

A coffee picker’s basket, tied around the waist, can hold 25 pounds of coffee cherries. That’s not a lot of coffee by the time the fruit and the parchment coating are removed, and the bean is dried and then roasted. Maybe about three pounds of coffee.

Once he had picked enough coffee, Licata went to a friend’s place in Holualoa and processed, sundried and roasted the beans himself, blending them with some coffee beans he had picked at Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee in Kau. “Just for that extra kick of spice.”

The competition is essentially a performance, with music pulsing in the background, and, in Licata’s case, a digital slideshow of the whole process.

Licata even added a cup of tea to his array of drinks, made from the parchment he had removed from the beans. “I wanted the judges to taste the sugars, then taste the beans, understand what they were drinking.”

Other competitors used Hawaii coffees, but no one else took the journey from tree to cup. Says Licata, “I didn’t grow the coffee, but I told its whole story.”


The Farm

Licata went out into the fields to pick a full basket of Waiono coffee cherries.

It’s raining in Waiono Meadows, as it does almost every afternoon. “We’re blessed with sunny mornings, wet afternoons,” says Malia Bolton. “And with elevation.” Waiono Meadows elevation stretches from 2,200 feet to 3,400 feet above the South Kona coast, with 122 acres of coffee, about 150,000 trees.

Bolton planted the first acres herself, in 1998, she and her then-boyfriend laboring during the summer after their sophomore year in high school.

“We hand-planted 1,000 trees,” she recalls. “Fortunately, I was in Santa Barbara in college when they planted the next 40 acres. My brother and sister had to do it.”

The land belongs to Malia’s parents, but the farm was always intended for Malia and her siblings. “We wanted to keep it in ag. It was perfect for coffee.”

It does seem perfect. Like wine grapes grown high on mountainsides, the coffee at this elevation ripens slowly. Most Kona coffee is picked from September to February. Waiono is still picking ripe coffee cherries in May, June, even July. The sugars and flavors have a chance to develop fully.

“The trees take their time to give us good coffee,” says Bolton. In 2003, a mere five years after the first planting, Waiono Meadows beans won the Gevalia Cupping Competition at the Kona Coffee Festival.

Pete Licata, at Honolulu Coffee Co., where he’s director of coffee quality.

“People said, you’ve got a good product, you should market it,” says Malia. Now 29, she’s transformed herself into the young lioness of Kona coffee.

Under the banner of Kona Coffee & Tea Co., she processes, dries and roasts her own coffee beans, packages and retails them. On the side, she’s marketing director for the Kona Coffee Festival.

Bolton flew to Houston to see Licata compete in the nationals. “I didn’t realize what a big deal this competition was or that Pete was already a star,” she says.

There was also a downside. “When I talked to specialty coffee brokers, I realized Kona had lost a great deal of prestige. They’d say, oh, it’s expensive and uneven.”

That made her more determined. “If we don’t want to lose coffee like we lost sugar and pineapple, we’ve got to keep the Kona name strong. The way to do that is to produce quality coffee. Quality, quality, quality.”


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.”


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.”


Hamakua Mushroom’s Bob Stanga shows off his pioppini crop.

The Table

Jason Peel, the executive chef of Roy’s Waikiki, drew a tough assignment.

Roy Yamaguchi’s restaurant was featured at an “Evening of Sustainable Cuisine” at the Halekulani. Peel had to come up with what to serve.
“I use all of Joyce and Bob Stanga’s mushrooms I can get. I knew they would be at the event, so I wanted to do something to showcase their product,” says Peel.

But what? Every foodie in Honolulu has eaten Hamakua mushrooms, in sauces, risottos, salads, sauteed medleys, even in mac and cheese. What would be new?

Mushroom “head cheese” from Jason Peel of Roy’s Waikiki.

“It was simple,” says Peel. “I made a bisque. Most mushrooms don’t have enough flavor for a bisque, but the pioppinis they grow are really strong.”

The dish was only simple by chef standards. Peel roasted the dark-brown mushrooms, made a stock from the stems and cuttings. “Oh, and I threw in some bacon,” he says. “I love bacon.”

From then on, just lots of butter and cream. The resultant bisque was the color of a cappuccino, so Peel served it in a coffee cup, topping it with a foam concocted from truffle oil.

A soup requires a sandwich, so Peel also used the Hamakua pepeaio, setting it in gelatin from reduced stock. The mushroom “head cheese” went on a baguette with a slice of ham hock.

“That soup was amazing,” says Stanga. “That pioppini is so pungent. Even when you’re wearing gloves, it leaves a scent on your hand when you pick it, almost sort of cinnamon. The flavor of the cap is deep and sweet. I don’t know if I’m describing it right, but when you tasted that soup, you could taste what I’m saying.”


All cowboy: Greg Friel of Haleakala Ranch.

Photo: Ryan Siphers

Peter Merriman's Boeuf Bourguignon with Maui Cattle Co. Beef

The Ranch

We’re late to Maui’s Haleakala Ranch, because chef Peter Merriman insists on stopping for breakfast. It’s not exactly a high-end affair. We eat off the trunk lid of his car, poi and poke right from the container, standing in the parking lot of Upcountry Maui’s Pukalani Superette.

That’s OK with Haleakala Ranch manager Greg Friel.

Friel is all no-nonsense cowboy: jeans, boots and sweat-stained hat. “In this life, you never know when you’re going to drop dead,” he says. “You don’t want to do that on an empty stomach.”

In Friel’s childhood Hawaiian home, the poi always sat in a calabash bowl in the center of the table. He’s well-educated, his mother insisted. “Still,” he says, “all I ever wanted to be was a cowboy.”

“He’s the Steve Jobs of cowboys,” says Merriman. “An innovator.”

Friel’s innovation is the herd of grass-fed cattle we find around the corner.

Angus cattle graze on the grassy slopes of Haleakala, no feed-lot, no growth hormones.

Since World War II, Hawaii ranchers have shipped their young cattle to Mainland feed lots to be finished. “That doesn’t make sense,” says Friel. “The transportation cost has gone up three times this year alone.”

Friel has banded together with four other Maui ranches—Kaupo, Nobriga, Hana and Ulupalakua—to sell fresh Maui Cattle Co. beef. The cattle are finished not in a feed lot, but on grass, rotating pastures so they always have optimal nutrition. No antibiotics, stimulants or artificial feeds.

“Hello, girls,” says Friel. The 700-pound Angus, black and white, some red, look up briefly and return to munching the tall grass.

“Bright eyes and glossy coats,” notes Merriman. “Maui Cattle produces the best grass-fed beef I’ve ever tasted, tender, better for you than corn-fed beef.”

“We’ve had some growing pains, but we are ahead of the other islands,” says Friel. “We have the infrastructure in place. We’re on our way to breeding better grass-fed cattle.”

Maui is the only county that has posted a gain in cattle and calf sales, up 25 percent, though drought over the past year has been tough on ranches across the Islands.

“On Maui this year, we had winter rains and some spring storms,” says Friel. “We should be good for the next year.”

Since 1982, Merriman has been cultivating ranchers and farmers for his restaurants; he now has five. He also seldom stops working. The whole time we’re at the ranch, he’s been fielding cellphone calls.

“You’ll love this irony,” he says. “Up in the pasture, I got a call from one of my chefs. Our supplier dropped the price on beef from Uruguay, and could he buy it?”

Merriman shakes his head sadly. “It may be cheaper, but it’s missing the whole point. We use local beef.”

He looks around at the sweeping green fields. “If we don’t … does anybody want to see all this covered by subdivisions?”

That chef no longer works for Merriman.

The Table

Photo: Ryan Siphers

“I have to teach my chefs that you have to cook grass-fed beef differently than corn-fed,” says Merriman. “It’s sometimes better to use cheaper cuts, which have a lot of flavor when you braise them slowly. You know what turns out great with Maui beef? Boeuf bourguignon. Anybody could make it at home.”

For this French classic, Merriman uses Maui Cattle Co. chuck or even a cut he calls clod. “I don’t think they even sell clod any more, they usually grind it into hamburger. But we’ve got to learn to use the whole cow, not just the steaks and tenderloin.”

To Merriman, the taste of grass-fed beef falls somewhere between game and corn-fed, feed-lot beef. “Just as you add lemon to fish, you should add acid while cooking grass-fed. All that red wine in boeuf bourguignon does the trick.”

 Merriman suggests a decent, inexpensive jug wine. “Get lots, drink the leftovers.”

Another Merriman secret: Use what looks like too many onions, a half pound to every two pounds of beef. Use regular cooking onions, because during cooking their acids will turn to sugars. Save the Maui onions, already sweet, for garnish.

Garlic, chopped celery, carrots, herbs like rosemary and thyme.

“Thyme in both spellings,” he insists. “I always tell young cooks the single most important ingredient is time.”

You start the dish on the stovetop, but pop it in a low oven (300 or 325 degrees) for hours.

“In a restaurant, you have to coach your staff to take their time, but, at home, of course, you’ll want to do this,” he says. “What could be better on a Sunday afternoon than smelling boeuf bourguignon slowly braising in your kitchen?”

Web Exclusive: For a complete recipe for Peter Merriman's boeuf bourguignon using local grass-fed beef, click here.