Taste of the Hawaiian Range: Of mountain oysters and mutton

Pili Hawaii's beef skirt with beet chimichurri.


Waikoloa Hilton exec chef Charles Charbonneau's Kona coffee-roasted top sirloin taco with shiso chimichurri, smoked horseradish crema, alii mushroom hay.

For three hours on Friday, 35 chefs and eateries served small-plate dishes at the 18th Taste of the Hawaiian Range. Far from any rolling range hills, the event attracted hundreds of people wandering in and out of the Waikoloa Hilton’s ballroom.

The annual agriculture festival is an education opportunity for Hawaii Island culinary students. Before the grazing began, Justin Yu, former chef of the late The Whole Ox, gave students a rousing talk about sustainability, followed by a “how to cook grass-fed beef” demo by Hubert Des Maris, executive chef at the Fairmont Orchid.

“I’m just an average person. What I love is cooking,” said the charismatic Yu. “He asked the audience of students, all in their chef whites, why they were there. “I want to own my own bakery and be a personal chef for someone famous,” shouted one student. “I wanna work for David Chang,” said another. (Yu is an alumnus of the Momofuku empire, working his way from Ssäm Bar to the 12-seat Momofuku Ko.) Yu told students that sustainability—which can be applied to everything from whole-animal and whole-vegetable cooking to restaurant economics—is as important as knife skills when it comes to running a restaurant. Students mobbed Yu after the talk to get their picture taken with the Brooklyn-born chef.

“He was awesome,” said Kona native Cecille Bernal, who attends the Culinary Institute of the Pacific. “It’s like he doesn’t care about money, just cooking.”

The mission of Mealani’s Taste of the Hawaiian Range (Mealani is the name of one of the UH agriculture stations on Hawaii island) is to market locally raised meat (especially grass-finished beef). Thirty-five chefs and eateries were each assigned a cut of meat. In case you’ve ever wanted to try mountain oysters (bull testicles), this is the place to do it (the texture was like that of Chinese dried tofu, and tasted sort of what Milk Bones smell like).  You can eat your way around an animal—from beef clod to tripe.

Peter Abarcar, executive chef at the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, turned beef heart into a Kona coffee sugo atop pappardelle. Was he bummed to get the pumping muscle? “I was ecstatic,” said Abarcar. “I won ‘em over.”

Oahu was well represented with Town’s Ed Kenney and David Caldiero making a lamb chorizo pod on a stick with cucumber and picked beets, Mark Noguchi cooking skirt steak, slicing it and putting it in a leafy cup with beet chimichurri, and Tiki’s Bar & Grill’s Ron Nasuti smoking mutton and serving it with poha berries, vanilla bean agridolce and kabocha puree.

Taste also reveals that the produce we get on Oahu from a tiny handful of Big Island Farms is just the tip of the iceberg—there are scores of other operations, such as Mother Nature’s Miracle and its kaleidoscope of edible flowers, and Rincon Family Strawberries’ perfect red beauties.

With the recent news about the ongoing drought forcing Hawaii ranchers to reduce herd size, I asked Tom Asano of Kulana Foods, a primary distributor of locally raised, grass-finished beef, if it ever looked like Taste of the Hawaiian Range wouldn’t be able to secure enough meat for the event. “There are still dry areas, but many grazing lands have recovered adequate rainfall,” he said, or were able to move herds to available grass for finishing in time.

It’s worth trying to make a future Hawaii Island long weekend coincide with Taste of the Hawaiian Range.

Taste of the Hawaiian Range, October, tasteofthehawaiianrange.com