Side Dish: Decade of the Celebrity Farm Boy

Diva takes a look back at food trends of the past year, and a sneak peek at new awards for the 2012 Aipono Gala.

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By Dining Diva

If chefs were the rock stars of the nineties, this has been the decade of the celebrity farm boy. (In an era of technology and cyber romance, who doesn’t love a man with dirt on his hands?) It would appear the ideals of the chefs who founded Hawaii Regional Cuisine have saturated our collective consciousness and soaked down into the earth.

I’m a former Midwest farm girl, so the environmental and sustainability awareness that’s grown on Maui this past year makes my heart flutter and my palate rejoice. (Where I grew up, to have warm earth and summer sunshine and not plant a garden was considered a pitiful waste of resources. We have all that 365 days a year—how can we live on Maui and not grow things for ourselves?)

In  2011, food writers happily reported on three initiatives of the Maui County Farm Bureau: Maui Agricultural Fest, Localicious, and Dine Out Maui—a program that assures diners they are eating locally grown foodstuffs. Whether “Farm to Fork” or “Seed to Saute,” the locavore movement has prompted such offshoots as multiple farmers’ markets, food demonstrations at Whole Foods (yes, we now have one on Maui!), the expanded Slow Food Maui organization, and the Farm Bureau’s latest program, Ag in the Classroom.

In 2011, Maui food writers also penned stories about Mark Ellman, a founding member of Hawaii Regional Cuisine and a force behind the Growing Future Farmers initiative. Never one to rest on his laurels, Ellman opened a new eatery in 2011. Honu, the oceanfront seafood shack just steps from his other wildly popular establishment, Mala Ocean Tavern, delivers outstanding drinks (try the cucumber breeze) and a surprisingly delicious healthy fare (the kale salad shines—grown on Maui, of course!).

Also new on the scene this year, Japengo opened at the Hyatt Regency Maui in Kaanapali in a literal blaze of glory, and then made its significant presence known by capturing top honors at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival. Chef Matt Smith deserved a prize just for coming up with the name of this mouthful of amazing flavors: Abalone, Hamachi, and Compressed Watermelon Shooter (click here for the recipe).

Meanwhile, Monkeypod Kitchen kept HRC Chef Peter Merriman on his toes as he tapped thirty-six handcrafted beers for his new Wailea location, which also sports wood-fire ovens for pizzas brimming with Maui-grown toppings. In Lahaina, the former Canoes restaurant did a presto change-o this summer and became Five Palms (a.k.a. “5P”). Executive Chef Chris Koepp, a new kid on Maui, makes friends easily with his willingness to share and stories of the Alaskan outback. (His recipe for Lavender Nutmeg Creme Brulee is on Page 76 of v15n6.)

I don’t mean to sway any votes, but do you suppose one of these wonderful new dining spots will be accepting the ‘Aipono Award for Best New Restaurant? And which of these groundbreaking chefs will run away with honors at the ‘Aipono Gala in April 2012? It’s up to you—let us know what you think by filling out and mailing in the ballot you’ll find tucked into this issue, or by vote online. New categories this year include “Best Menu for a Small Planet,” “Best Epicurean Twist on a Local Favorite,” “Best Mexican,” “Best Coffee Shop,” and “Best Shorts & Slippers Dining.” Return your ballot by the stroke of midnight on December 31, and be automatically entered in a drawing for a $200 or $100 gift certificate to an ‘Aipono Award-winning restaurant.)

When you log on, have a look at Extra Ingredients, our new and totally cool web series with cooking demos by local chefs, recipes to try at home, and printable coupons good at featured restaurants.

Live well, and dine hearty in 2012! May your garden be fruitful and multiply.

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