Orchids at the Halekulani Hotel / Everyone, it seems, loves sustainable foods and farmers–but it’s going to take more than affection to save them.
Organic comprises just 3.7 percent of all US food sales, while 86 percent of the US corn crop is genetically modified (GM); GM alfalfa and sugar beets won USDA approval this year, while fast-growing GM farmed salmon wait in the wings. Consumers have to make the commitment to choose local foods produced in ways that protect natural resources, and to do so, they need to be informed.
In a healthy trend, restaurant menus are listing the farms from which items are sourced, and starting April 1, Orchids at the Halekulani Hotel debuts a new menu that’s free of GMO (genetically modified organisms).
Vikram Garg, Halekulani’s executive chef, explains how it came about.
“It started about a year back with a conversation between Peter [Shaindlin, Halekulani chief operating officer] and myself, inspired by our wives, Susan and Abhilasha, who are really into healthy foods,” he says on the seaside terrace at Orchids before a GM-free preview lunch.
“Personally I’m not against anything GM, but if it’s in a plant you eat, it’s going in your body. And do we need it? Of course not!” Garg, a tall, dark, barrel-chested man, gives a quick warm smile.
Expressing dismay about the copious amount of processed food Americans consume, most of it containing unlabeled GM corn, canola or soy, Garg says he chooses food that’s “fresh, minimally processed–the less we use, the more information we have.”
Cutting through the confusion of green labels and claims, he says it’s important to know that certified organic foods are GM-free by definition, but that “GM doesn’t have to be organic.” From non-organic local farmers, Garg requires assurances that they don’t use GMOs. Environmentalists and heritage food advocates fear that pollen drift from GM crops is contaminating non-GM crops and threatening biodiversity.
What matters most to Garg, is the superior taste of the fresh, sustainably produced local foods that are the focus of his GM-free menu.
As if on cue, the GM-free salad arrives, composed of lightly grilled, moist Hamakua Farms mushrooms, Wailea hearts of palm, red onions, sea salt and dark green, spotless Sumida Farms watercress. The only non-local ingredients are the Italian olive oil (“no olives are GM”) and aged balsamic vinegar (“for the sweetness, less acid”) sprinkled on top.
“The main idea is that people not think that with GM-free you can’t have a dish that tastes like this,” Garg says. “On the contrary, you get the best of all these flavors.”
The entree is organic green lentil risotto, Hamakua tomatoes and organic brown rice, seasoned with turmeric, cumin, salt and asafoetida. This is pure comfort food, with a delicate, light texture and taste.
“We call it kichidi, and this is my mom’s recipe; when I go home to India this is always my first dinner.”
Garg was born and raised in the Andaman Islands. His parents still grow vegetables in their kitchen garden, eat a meat-free diet and compose each meal based on what they find fresh in the market that day; Garg grew up without a refrigerator or canned food. There is no can opener, he says, in the Honolulu home where he and Abhilasha are raising their daughters, Veda and Iya, but there is food growing in container gardens.
The new, non-GMO menu will also offer quinoa tabouleh with roasted organic chicken, local ‘ahi crudo and daikon, and Hawaii grass-fed veal with Nalo Farms arugula, local tuna and macadamia nuts instead of the pine nuts used in traditional vittelo tonnato. All illustrate Garg’s philosophy: “Cook globally, source locally.”
Indeed, Garg’s respect for local tastes outweighs his scorn for cans.
“I’ve never tasted Spam, but I’m going to try it this week, at the insistence of my staff,” he says with a smile that’s brave by default.
AN EVENING OF SUSTAIN-A-SAMPLING
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Hawaii Regional Cuisine and the birth of farmers’ markets here. March 11 is the Halekulani’s “Evening of Sustainable Cuisine,” a benefit for the Culinary Institute of the Pacific featuring small plates sourced from Hawaii’s farms and fisheries, made for a lovely coming-of-age celebration.
Chefs and their staffs manned tasting stations, serving food prepared on the spot. Guests pounced on Halekulani Chef Vikram Garg’s ahi crudo with Kahuku corn, Big Island abalone fritters with Nalo greens, Kona lobster with Sumida Farms watercress. Town Chef Ed Kenney’s all-from-one-Shinsato-pig table brought out the pig in everyone with his coppa di testa with beets, meaty pork belly with Savoy Cabbage; and chipolata sausages with radicchio and saba–all produce came from Ma’o Farms.
Chef Roy Yamaguchi’s Hamakua mushroom soup (with truffle foam) and sandwich nearly eclipsed his stellar rounds of fresh ono sashimi with vanilla vinaigrette, Big Island heart of palm and Kahuku sea asparagus. More than one pescatarian “mistook” his red veal tartare with quail egg for raw fish, but happily swallowed every bit.
Organic red and white wines came from Hall, California’s first LEED Gold-certified winery, and the charming Julie Reiner, local-born beverage artist now based in New York, mixed cocktails saturated with local fruits.
Halekulani Chef Mark Freismidt presented Kona coffee creme brulee, Big Island goat cheese and macadamia nut bars, apple ice cream and lilikoi sorbet; coffee was 100 percent Kona Peaberry.
So, what do they do for an encore?