Harnessing the power of nature – from the power of the ocean, to the power of koa.
Raised by his grandfather on Hawai‘i Island, Brandan Ahuna grew up in the ocean. Whether surfing or fishing, Brandan was taught to respect the ocean’s energy and nourishing bounty. His grandfather also instilled in him the value of giving, to share what he harvested from the sea. Today, Brandan is a Hawai‘i Island lifeguard and aspiring woodworker, creating functional art under the moniker Ahuna Hana. Quiet and thoughtful, Brandan is a reflection of old Hilo town. He carries himself with the confidence and patience of an old soul, working with an acute focus and attention to detail that translates to beautiful handmade traditional Hawaiian surfboards, skateboard decks, surfboard fins, and bowls.
OluKai: How did you get started shaping ‘alaia, traditional wooden Hawaiian surfboards?
Brandan Ahuna: I enjoy the feeling I get after I make something and I use it. For the ‘alaia, that’s what it started off with, just making my own ‘alaia, surfing it, and realizing that it works. People see the joy it brought to me, surfing it, and they see how much fun I have, and they want to try it too. That’s what I want to share, is that feeling.
What are the challenges to making a surfboard out of a plank of wood?
There are certain things you can do to the board to make it better. I noticed that if I change the pitch of the rail, it affects the way the board turns, or how big the board is determines how good it paddles. There is a little play. Overall, big, small, whatevers, the board rides the same on the wave. To me, it’s more of the person. You have to put your energy into it in order to understand it. You got to try it and keep trying it. It’s always the surfer, not the board. You have to change to make it work wherever you use it.
Sometimes, certain surfboards are made for certain waves, depending on the wood. You have your heavier woods, which are more difficult to surf, and then you have lighter woods for lighter boards. Riding the kiko‘o at Bayfront was epic. The board matched the wave. They are so fast you need a longer wave to ride those boards. You could still surf them at Honoli‘i, but you wouldn’t get that full ride and be able to feel the full energy of the wave.
What type of wood do you usually work with?
Primarily I work with Paulownia. It’s easy to carve and shape out. It’s super light and naturally, it doesn’t absorb salt water. In the ‘alaia, you want it to be a lighter board, you don’t want it to be heavy. It’s so fast already being flat; it’s easier to control when it’s lighter. The koa boards are hard to control because they are so heavy and long.
Are traditional Hawaiian surfboards something that anyone can jump on and get the hang of?
In anything you do in the ocean, you have to know the ocean. You have to know what it does, the currents, the energy. You have to know all that before you go out and into it, no matter if you’re surfing, body surfing, or riding an ‘alaia. You have to be safe.
I learned that from my grandfather. He taught me everything about the ocean. He raised me on the ocean and taught me how to surf, how to fish, how to dive, how to live. It was hands-on. We spent every weekend, any time we had that he wasn’t working. We would go to the ocean for food, for family, especially the kupuna. We’d get fish for them, wana, opihi. He always taught us to respect the ocean. You got to know the right time, the right place, and to always give. You don’t take from the ocean and sell, you take what you need and if you get extra, you give.
Do your grandfather’s lessons about the ocean carry over to the workshop?
I take what he taught me, and then I use my own mana‘o. It’s trial and error.
What’s it like to work with koa wood?
The koa is native, and it’s beautiful and hard to get. Any time I get koa is more exciting. Paulownia is nice, but having the connection of koa, being from the ‘āina at home, and being able to make it into something—putting your mana into it and making it functional, functional art, that feels good. I always like to know where the wood came from, how it was brought to be. I don’t believe in cutting down a tree to make stuff out of it. When I think of koa, I think of kupuna. They’re old. They’re one of the first things on this island. It has a spirit. Working with the koa, you can feel it—hard to explain.
For more on the design of traditional ‘alaia boards learn here!
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Lauren Kapono looks to the past to inform the future.
Hilo native and Native Hawaiian Lauren Kapono is all about the big picture. A chosen Keaholoa STEM Native Scholar with a degree in marine science from University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, Kapono has married her scientific understanding of our natural world with her penchant to create healthier communities in the Aloha State. As Hawai‘i Island program coordinator for Nā Maka o Papahānaumokuākea, a small non-profit organization on Hawai‘i Island that focuses on community health and wellness by supporting the overall cultural, spiritual, and physical health of Papahānaumokuākea, Kapono is using a natural resource management approach to unify the gap between science and people in native communities across Hawai‘i. We caught up with Lauren in an upcountry Hawai‘i Island forest to talk about work, life and aloha.
OluKai: You work for the betterment of the community. What does it mean to be a community member?
Lauren Kapono: For me, being a community member is to be the best you can be and bring the best of yourself forward, not for the betterment of just yourself and your family, which is very important, but to be accountable to your whole community, the people that helped raised you, that told you stories, that helped feed you.
How do you live that in your daily life?
I try to prepare myself with the tools that are available to me. Being a student I have a lot of opportunity and resources. I hope to learn what I can from outside places and apply that to my work. Ultimately, I just want to be a good community member myself. I want to make myself strong and resilient, and have as much knowledge from different lifestyles that are here in Hawai‘i and present it to my community. I want to be a resource and tool for them and I feel like school has an opportunity to become those things.
So, in addition to your work at the non-profit, you’re going back to school?
Yes. I’ll be going back to grad school with the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Sciences Graduate Program at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, continuing the ‘opihi surveys that we do right here in the ahupua‘a of Kaʻupulehu, looking at the harvesting applications that have just been put on that place making it a no-take zone. We’re looking at the no-take rest area versus the can-take area and seeing how that environmental, habitat, and social pressures affect that ecosystem.
How do you translate the knowledge of ahupua‘a land management systems to the way we live in our modern society?
I definitely feel like from the mountains to the ocean is still very much connected and we, as people in this area, are still part of this ahupua‘a system too. For us, it’s our trees, it’s the ocean, it’s this mist that surrounds me. Taking care of every aspect from the mountains to the ocean is our kuleana [responsibility].
I’m sure you’re ecstatic about the recent movement to reforest upcountry ranch land on Hawai‘i Island and the benefits that healthy forests provide coastal environments.
I don’t get the opportunity to come up mauka because I’m at the ocean a lot. I think it’s wonderful. I agree with the fact that if you take care of the uplands, the ocean and the makai area will follow suit. Outplanting is a very important restoration tactic. It helps control the soil and keeps it together, limiting erosion and the degredation of land. Just put your hands down and work and through that you can really become connected with your surroundings and your kupuna around you.
People new to Hawai‘i and Hawaiian culture probably think of aloha simply as a greeting, but what does aloha really mean?
Aloha means many things. It’s just that butterfly feeling in your na‘au, in your gut, that you just want to be happy and share that light with everyone around you. It’s being selfless and helping people that cannot help themselves, and encouraging and lifting people up. All of that is aloha, all of that is ‘āina, all of that is who we are as a people. Aloha is everywhere. It may be hard to find sometimes, but you just have to look for the good in the bad. That’s all it is. That’s aloha.
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On an island, what happens in the mountains can have an effect on the sea, a concept
Native Hawaiians have always been privy to, and why traditionally, a system of roles and responsibilities (kuleana) were implemented in order to keep the balance within the fragile island ecosystems. While many years of development and modernization may have disrupted that harmony, the original customs and traditions have not been lost. For instance, the koa tree—known as the protector of the forest and used to make voyaging canoes—was cut down haphazardly for generations, but is now being replanted. Following a group of Hilo locals, who have made it their life’s work to regenerate the ways of the past in each of their own unique ways, we watch how that kind of stewardship is revitalizing their ‘āina (land).
Traditional Hawaiian Surfboard Design 101
With an island lifestyle that revolved around the ocean for food and recreation, Hawaiians excelled at all manner of ocean activities, especially surfing. Hawaiians are even credited as the progenitors of modern day surfing. Hawaiian chants dating as far back as the 15th century speak of surfing, surfing competitions among chiefs, and even wagering on the outcomes.
In pre-contact Hawai‘i, surfing was known as he‘e nalu, literally wave sliding. It was a popular pastime for all Hawaiians, young and old. It was also a spectator sport, with people lining the beach to wager on surfing competitions. Historians note that many Hawaiian people would work their fields in the evening or at night, so that they could surf during the day. This arrangement of priorities allowed them to work during the cooler hours of the evening and night and enjoy the ocean when the sun was up.
Surfing is also known as the sport of ali‘i, or kings, because it was a favorite pastime of the ruling elite. They rode wooden boards over 14 feet long that were solely designed for the chiefs. Ali‘i were also known to declare a wave or entire beach kapu, or off limits, so that they could snatch the best waves without a crowd. We see the ali‘i’s mark on surfing even today, especially at breaks like Queen’s in Waikīkī, which was named in the early 1900s for Queen Lili‘uokalani. The perfectly peeling wave fronted her beach home and was one of her favorite breaks.
Pre-contact Hawaiians made surfboards out of wood, mainly koa, breadfruit, or wiliwili. There were several different sizes of boards made for different waves and styles of surfing. Paipo boards were under five feet long and could be ridden standing up or in the prone position, like a modern-day bodyboard. Many children would grab a paipo and head for the shorebreak. ‘Alaia surfboards were five to eight feet long and used by commoners and ali‘i. Kiko‘o boards were eight to 14 feet long and olo, crafted from 14 to 24 feet long, were only ridden by ali‘i.
No matter the size, the boards were shaped in a similar fashion. The planks of wood were generally about 18 inches wide and one inch thick with a rounded nose and a square tail. These early surfboards did not have a fin on the bottom. The paipo, ‘alaia, and kiko‘o boards were surfed on the waves just like people surf waves today, sliding across the open face, racing in front of the whitewater and the breaking part of the wave. The olo was used to catch waves far beyond the reef, even before the waves had crested. The boards were so big and fast, they were nearly impossible to turn, and ali‘i would race their craft straight to shore.
In pre-contact times, the boards were shaped with a stone adz and sanded with coral. Hawaiians used the root of the ti plant or pounded kukui tree bark to stain the wood, which gave the boards a durable, water-resistant finish.
Today, the tools might be different, but the process of shaping a traditional Hawaiian surfboard largely remains the same. Hawai‘i Island lifeguard, big wave surfer, and woodworker Brandan Ahuna shares his technique for building ‘alaia.
“First off, I never harvest wood from a live tree,” says Ahuna. Once he has found the right piece of wood, the work begins. “I look at the wood and decide which I want as the surface and which as bottom. I scan the grains and figure out what the wood wants me to do with it—that makes the shaping easier in the long run. I cut the wood into strips and laminate them together, and then I run the wood through my planer to get the thickness right, usually around ¾”. I use clamps and glue for the lamination process and let it sit for 24 hours.
“Next, I work on tapering the rails and usually I’ll do a single concave for the bottom. I laminate some tail blocks, too, put in some inlays, and then plane those the next day. Then I go through a few phases and grits of sanding. Finally, I coat it with a polyurethane seal, then brand my label, Ahuna Hana, on the board, and ultimately ride it, of course. This whole process usually takes about three days.”
For more on Cliff and Brandan, check out their blogs!
Planting koa to save an island and a culture.
At the end of the 18th century, Captain George Vancouver, a British officer of the Royal Navy, gifted four bulls and eight cows to King Kamehameha I. Thanks to a kapu, a restriction he placed on hunting the feral cattle, around 25,000 cattle were freely roaming Hawai‘i Island by 1846, and 10,000 heads more were thought to be semi-domesticated. The cattle were destroying crops and native forests at an alarming rate, forcing Kamehameha I to lift the kapu to allow his people to hunt the wild ungulates. Unfortunately, the damage to Hawai‘i Island’s native forests had already occurred, altering thousands of acres of upcountry forests to grass-covered pastureland.
Fast-forward two centuries from that fateful gift to King Kamehameha I, and over on O‘ahu, a Hawai‘i musician named Joe Souza took first place at a falsetto song contest. The grand prize was a trip to Kaua‘i. Joe and his wife, Kristen, decided to turn down the road less traveled and they spent their vacation checking out parcels of land. It was their dream to one day buy land and plant native trees.
After learning about the need for reforestation efforts on Hawai‘i Island, they turned their attention to the southeastern tip of the Hawaiian archipelago. Their dream became reality in 2014 when they purchased a 96-acre parcel of land in Kealakekua on the leeward side of the Big Island. At an elevation of 4,000 feet, the perfect climate for koa trees, Reforest Hawai‘i was born.
The first task entailed fencing the property to keep out unwanted feral ungulates and clearing invasive plants. For the past two hundred years, cattle had grazed the majority of the Souza’s ranch, leaving only a few mature trees sparsely dotting the property. After a year of hard labor and preparation, all 96 acres were ready for planting. Koa can grow at just about any elevation on any side of the island, but it thrives in the high-elevation, mesic (wet) forests on the Big Island. Lucky for Reforest Hawai‘i, its 96-acre parcel, sitting at about 4,000 feet above sea level, had the remnants of an old growth koa forest. The Souzas were able to utilize the mother trees, the kupuna trees, for their seed stock. Over 5,000 juvenile koa trees were lovingly planted into the red soil.
Koa, Acacia koa, are canopy trees endemic to Hawai‘i and easily distinguished by its sickle-shaped leaves. In pre-contact times, Koa wood was highly valued and was used to make many items, from canoes to hair picks. Since its discovery by the Western world, over 90 percent of all koa forests in Hawai‘i have been cleared.
Anyone who is interested in contributing to the reforestation of the land, even small businesses and corporations, can sponsor a tree. Sponsors receive a certificate of planting with the specific trees GPS coordinates, its forest location and the ID number of the tree. Koa trees are planted by hand at Reforest Hawai‘i by staff and volunteers. After the keiki koa tree is placed in the hole in the ground and covered with the same dirt that was dug from the hole, water is poured from an ipu wai, a watering gourd, over the hands of the planter and the tree, connecting the life-giving water with the person, the tree, and the land.
Reforest Hawai‘i is dedicated to restoring not just koa tree forests, but entire native Hawaiian forest ecosystems. In addition to planting koa trees, they are also planting ‘ililahi (Hawaiian sandalwood), māmane, māmaki, and native hibiscus in hopes of attracting native birds and insects as well.
The first 10 acres were successfully planted out in 2017 and the Souza’s aim to plant 8,800 plants in 2018, followed by 8,000 more plants each year for the next three years. They’ve even purchased a 162-acre parcel in the vicinity of the ranch to expand their reforestation efforts. These trees will live on in perpetuity, a reforestation effort that will provide a critical native Hawaiian forest ecosystem for the land, the animals, and the people of Hawai‘i.
Cliff Kapono is a Native Hawaiian, a published chemist, a filmmaker, and a cultural practitioner. He’s also an amazing surfer with a smooth and fluid style that is so pleasing to watch. He grew up on Hawai‘i Island, living at the coast and in the forest for a time. Cliff is driven by a deep respect for nature informed by his cultural heritage. “I am very honored to be a part of the Hawaiian community. There are so many people doing amazing things for our community—farming, reforestation, medicine, geology, sailing, hula, surfing, arts, language perpetuation—I want to jump in and be a part of that.” We caught up with Cliff in a native forest on the leeward side of Hawai‘i Island to talk story about koa, place, culture, and, of course, surfing.
OluKai: What is the cultural significance of koa in Hawai‘i?
Cliff Kapono: We’re taught from a very early age to respect koa, not just the tree, but what it means—to be a warrior, protector. Within our community, and our identity, it represents something really strong, but also compassionate and caring. It embodies exactly what the koa tree is, a protector and warrior for the forest. It’s also the face of the forest. When people see a Hawaiian forest, it’s the koa they really identify with. The wood itself is one of the most prized and expensive woods in the world. Koa is so valued, not just by the Hawaiian people, but by the world. It’s an amazing part of the culture.
We are in a time when the elder trees have fallen, but we have this new generation that is ready to replace. There will be koa that are big enough to build canoes, but it’s going to take time. Right now we’re sad because we don’t have the huge trees anymore, but that’s only in our lifetime. Seven generations down the road, they’re going to be back. We’re not just planting koa to get some 100-foot tree. We’re planting koa in the earth and we’re planting this perspective in our own minds. It’s not just set it and forget it. We have to go back and nurture, and maintain, and move forward. In that diligence, we’ll see the results. It’s really on us. The koa can grow as big as it can grow. We decide if it’s going to be here.”
Your sister calls you the koa of your siblings.
Yeah, I don’t know (Cliff shrugs with a little chuckle). I’m fortunate to have a family that sticks together. We spent a lot of time during our upbringing in the forest, which was really hard for us because we grew up in the ocean. Due to circumstances, we had to leave the coastline and move up to the forest. It was a time that helped us to understand what goes up in the mountains. Traditionally, the forest is a sacred place. When you go to the forest there’s a level of respect that you have to have, not just for the koa, but also for the ‘ōhi‘a, māmane, māmaki, the parts of the family that make everything work. It’s cool to have a big family that can identify with different parts of the forest in relationship to our responsibilities among each other and with the community.
Hawaiians practiced a sustainable system of land management. Can you break down what an ahupua‘a is?
A lot of people explain it as a land division from the mountain to the sea. Another perspective, that I was taught, is the ahupua‘a signifies what your resources are, which often revolves around water. The ahupua‘a also tells you where you come from. When you have that relationship with the place you come from, you have a level of accountability and stewardship that needs to be maintained, or you can’t say you come from that place.
All these words and expressions describing place, it centers the individual into the surrounding area. That’s why there are so many different ways to describe who you are, or the rain, the waves, the fog, the sunlight, the water—it all revolves around where I am in my space. To have that relationship might not be unique to Hawaiian culture, but it's a real important part, whether I’m mauka or makai, what ahupua‘a I’m in, where I am in relation to the person next to me—it adds accountability to the surrounding environment and we don’t want to disrupt the flow. We want to be in harmony with the surrounding environment.
When you surf on ‘alaia, the traditional wooden Hawaiian surfboard, do you feel that same harmony?
That same perspective goes into surfing, or paddling, or fishing. When you’re in the ocean, you’re a part of something bigger and you have to find your place in that flow. I don’t want to go against the flow of the wave. I want to use the wave to move on that same frequency. If I can do that, I can become a part of the ocean. That same energy in the ocean is moving us forward, and I’m putting in energy too, so we’re both doing our part to come together and make this new feeling. That’s what surfing does for me. It’s part individual and selfish, because it makes me feel so good, but it’s also a way to honor my ancestors and the way they did it, because they were sliding on waves thousands of years before me, and they’re going to be sliding thousands of years after me. I want to do my part to make sure that happens.
For more on the design of traditional ‘alaia boards learn here!
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Nalukai Kapa Boot - Black/Bone (Online Exclusive Colorway)
Hawaiian Canoe Plants, Fish and Meat You Can Find (And Eat) at Kaka‘ako Farmers
More than a millennia ago, when skilled Polynesian voyagers trekked across the Pacific
searching for habitable islands, they packed their canoes with resources for survival on
the high seas and for sustenance on any newfound island. The Polynesians that
discovered the Hawaiian Islands filled their canoes with dried or fermented food staples
like ‘ulu (breadfruit), kalo (taro), ‘uala (sweet potato), mai‘a (banana), niu (coconut), and
ko (sugar cane). They also saved some space for pigs and chickens, and trolled for fish
daily. Today, you can find many of the original 24 canoe plants growing in farms across
the state and available at community farmers’ markets. If you’re in Honolulu, stop by the
Kaka‘ako Farmers Market and scope out these culturally significant, versatile, and
Sweet Potato – ‘Uala
‘Uala was a favorite food of pre-contact Hawaiians because it grows easily in poor soil
and dry climates, is a high-yield crop, is easily propagated from cuttings, and it tastes
downright delicious. The early Hawaiians actually grew about 200 varieties of sweet
potato. While most of us know how to cook a sweet potato, the Hawaiian had their own
methods to making the most of the sweet and nutritious tuber. For instance, the leaves
can also be steamed, boiled, or baked—the tender, new leaves being the most desirable.
‘Uala is also a great source of vitamin A, calcium, and phosphorus. For early Hawaiians,
‘uala was also used for medicinal purposes. Find ‘uala at the Ed’s Little Farm tent.
Banana – Mai‘a
Banana, or mai‘a in Hawaiian, was one of the earliest canoe plants brought to the
Hawaiian Islands. Hawaiian legend tells of a brother of Pele who brought the banana to
Hawai‘i from Tahiti, and mai‘a factors into many other Hawaiian chants and proverbs.
There are more than 50 varieties and some of the early strains of banana still grow wild in
protected valleys. Early Hawaiian used every part of the banana plant, which is actually
an herb. Today, you can find several varieties of locally grown banana at Kaka‘ako
Farmers’ Market. Look for cooking bananas, sweet apple bananas, and the soft
and succulent ice cream banana, a short and plump banana with a bluish-hued
skin. Freeze it whole, then remove the skin before you drop it into the blender for
a sweet addition to any smoothie. Find mai‘a at the Fields of Aloha tent.
Taro – Kalo
Kalo is one of the most well known of the Hawaiian canoe plants and is ubiquitous across
the state. Better known as taro today, it can be grown in dryland patches, or in kalo loi,
terraced, water-filled planting beds, much like rice. To the Hawaiian people of time
immemorial, kalo is believed to have the greatest life force of all foods. According to a
creation chant, kalo grew from the first-born son of Wakea (sky father) and Papa (earth
mother). Poi is the pounded form of the kalo corm and was the pinnacle means of
survival for the early Hawaiian people. The leaves are also edible, but must be cooked.
Cooked kalo leaves, called lu‘au, are often mixed with octopus, beef, pork, or chicken
and served as a thick stew. Kalo can be found at the Fields of Aloha tent.
Pig – pua‘a
First off, let’s set the facts straight. Pigs are not native to the Hawaiian Islands. The feral
pigs that ransack and rummage through Hawai‘i’s upland forests today bear little
resemblance to the domesticated pigs brought to the Hawaiian Islands by Polynesian
voyagers. Those early pigs were a highly valued and carefully managed source of protein
for early Hawaiians, and the pua‘a were much smaller than the feral pigs seen today.
Pua‘a were an integral part of early Hawaiian life and most households had pa pua‘a (pig
pens). Visit the Forage tent to pick up island-grown, all-natural local pork, as well as
pasture-raised Big Island wild boar.
Yellowfin Tuna – ahi
While the land provided early Hawaiians with fruits, vegetables, and animal protein, they
also looked to the ocean and nearshore reefs for an abundance of seafood to complement
their well-managed diet. Today, we can dine on those same delicious fish that call the
Hawai‘i waters home—feeding generations of early Hawaiians across the arc of time to
the present. Through environmental nonprofit Local I‘a, find ahi (yellowfin tuna), ono
(wahoo), he‘e mauli (octopus), opah (moonfish), and other fish sourced by local
fishermen using sustainable fishing practices and adhering to the organizations nature-
based Pono Fishing Standards. It’s a win-win for the ocean and your next meal.
POW! WOW! just wrapped up their fourth annual mural festival in the city of Long Beach, CA. Each year the city's residents look forward to the eclectic roster of international and local muralists collaborating to transform their plain city walls into large-scale masterpieces. The Honolulu based organization has evolved into a global network of artists who see the power of revitalizing cities worldwide through their artwork. Welcome to POW! WOW! Long Beach.
POW! WOW! Long Beach has become one of the largest week-long festivals outside of Honolulu. On top of the wondrous and fantastical murals, the festival promotes a variety of events to celebrate the local community with music, panel discussions and more. This year, we were honored to host the closeout event– a silent disco with Hawaii’s Aloha Got Soul and local dj’s from Expedition Radio– to celebrate the festival’s aloha spirit.
We are a proud partner of POW! WOW! and their efforts to bring art and community to cities around the world. Check out some of our favorite moments in Long Beach below and follow @OluKai for more!
Photos by John Pangilinan
OluKai x ASN collaborated with our ‘ohana Kimi Werner and Kahi Pacarro to take a closer look at how the Hawaii’s oceans are affected by the microplastic crisis in the short film, ‘Finding Away’.
We’re proud to shed a light on this critical issue and do our small part in reducing our footprint through everyday corporate standards, including being plastic and straw free in our in-house kitchen.
On O‘ahu, just about everybody knows Restauranteur and Chef Ed Kenney (or at least know of him). While Ed prefers the solitude of the kitchen over the attention and visibility he receives in the front of the house, his humble and quiet demeanor has not kept him from leading a conscious community of local food and sustainability advocates. He can tell you the best seasonal produce stocked at the farmers’ market or how to process a wild boar caught in the local mountains, but he won’t mention that he was integral in bringing Hawai‘i’s farm-to-table movement into the public eye. With a mission for supporting local farmers and reestablishing food security in Hawai‘i, Ed is one of those people whose actions, as well as his cooking, speak louder than his words.
When Ed opened his first restaurant, Town, in Kaimukī, he coined “Local first, organic whenever possible, with Aloha always.” The catchphrase coalesced a conscious community, people who care about the story behind their food. Sea to table, farm to fork, butcher to bar, however you say it, Ed Kenney serves it up everyday at Town, Mud Hen Water, Kaimuki Superette, and Mahina & Sun’s.
Where did your passion for cooking and sustainability come from? Who first shared their love of cooking with you?
It’s my mom, definitely—single mom, raised two boys. Out of economics she cooked everything from scratch. We had one of those houses where the door was always open and she was always feeding a bunch of us; it was an open-door policy and we were all about sharing food with friends.
How did you come to incorporate a sustainable, local-first element to your cooking?
There was a revelation at some point. As a chef you’re looking for best ingredients, and the best dishes start with best ingredients. Something that’s closer to the source and hasn’t traveled thousands of miles, been refrigerated, picked green, and artificially ripened like the tomatoes they ship in.
When you grow up in Hawai‘i, there’s an unspoken attachment to this place. You want to preserve it. Then you have kids and it changes even more so because you’re not doing things just for self or your customers, but for the next generation. The emotional level of doing the right thing drives me.
I think chefs are in unique position to move a cause forward. Between our four restaurants we feed 350 to 400 people a day. Each one of those people can be exposed to the stories we tell through food.
What is your perspective on local food culture and farm-to-table cooking? And to take it a step further, how has it evolved?
Traditionally, restaurants are profitable based on set menus and consistency. Working with small farms, we knew we had to turn that model upside down. We had to change the menu every day, buy whatever came in the back door, and use it up as best we can. The reviews were mixed at first, but by year three we were busting at the seams and our vision was realized. We got in at right time and were the first ones to democratize local food. At that time the menu was twice as long as it had to be because every item had a place name in front of it—Waimānalo, Mokule‘ia, Waialua. Now, we don’t do that anymore because it’s almost expected.
What type of relationship do you have with MA‘O Farms?
We refer to ourselves as co-producers. It’s not just a farmer and chef relationship; our overall success is a result of each other’s success. There’s no better beet, root vegetables, or arugula on the island, and it’s organic. MA‘O Farms is unique because it’s a nonprofit social enterprise. It provides leadership opportunities to at-risk or underserved youth from the Wai‘anae community, known for its economic indicators of poverty. The farm provides them with the opportunity to get a university degree in community sustainable food systems for free, while at same time reconnecting with the ‘āina, which in native Hawaiian culture is the focus of everything.
How important are farmers’ markets in steering local residents back to locally grown food and making connections with farmers?
Michael Pollan, in his book, In Defense Of Food, said that 11-times more interactions take place at a farmers’ market than at a supermarket. That’s part of the sustainability equation that is overlooked. You’ve got the environmental aspect and the economic, but that social leg of three-leg stool is often not talked about. That’s where restaurants and farmers’ markets really shine. It gives you the opportunity to meet those people, know your farmer, and know where the food comes from.
When you put your heart into every dish you cook, how important is sharing that food around the table and bringing people together?
It’s synonymous. In order to be in this business and stick with it you have to be a sharing, giving person. Otherwise you could work a lot less hours and make a lot more money. It may be a self-defeating prophecy, but it would be wonderful if more people stayed home, cooked and ate together as a family. It would help make the world a better place.
Check out a couple of Ed's recipes: