Hawaii is a dream of lushness, of exotic fruits like lilikoi, tamarind and kaffir limes. Over the past decade chefs have begun abandoning tired Continental cuisine and have started using these ingredients to create spectacular dishes like scallop and tobiko ravioli with limeginger sauce and grilled cured nairagi with sesame tahini. Now, Alan Wong, George Mavrothalassitis, Philippe Padovani and other Hawaiian talents are aiming higher: they’re making salads.
Of course, these are exceptional salads–Caesar salad with crisp shredded pork, lettuce and fennel salad with a tangy tangerine vinaigrette, lobster salad with herb-flecked cantaloupe relish. But integral to each is one basic ingredient: beautiful greens. And getting these greens isn’t easy. Until very recently, Hawaii’s tropical, leaf-wilting climate meant that chefs had to rely on limp mesclun that had been airlifted from the mainland.
Five years ago, Kurt Hirabara, a crop scientist on the Big Island, and his wife, Pam, who worked in the marketing department at a bank, decided to tackle this problem. Traditional Hawaiian agriculture–sugar, pineapples–was in decline, and growers were looking for alternatives to coffee and macadamias. The Hirabaras’ first farm, a tiny experiment on half an acre, was near the slopes of an active volcano on the Big Island. Volcanic soil is some of the most fertile in the world, but winds blew chemical vapors from the volcano’s eruptions to the fields, causing a residue to settle on the leaves. After four years of fighting the “vog,” they moved north to Waimea (also called Kamuela), a cradle between two extinct volcanos. There they found soil and a climate that were hospitable to their Big Island Babies–13 varieties of tender baby lettuces that are now served at some of Hawaii’s best restaurants, including Alan Wong’s, Chef Mavro, Padovani’s Bistro & Wine Bar and the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. “They pick the greens in the morning, and I put them on your plate at dinner,” Wong says.