The water was a little rough as we rounded Kamala Point on the south coast of Kauai. I knew there was a reason the place looked familiar. After all, it WAS the same spot where Harrison Ford’s character got marooned with Anne Heche in the film 6 days 7 nights. Our boat crew grabbed two 5-gallon buckets from the hold and I assumed one of the girls in the back had gotten sick. No, they replied. It was for Chef Samson. He likes to make his own table salt from ocean water. He evaporates the seawater in a black lava stone bowl on shore. Maybe I’ve been living in a big city too long, but that sounded to me like Robinson Crusoe stuff.
After a few days at the Kukui’ula resort I discovered that salt wasn’t the only thing that the chefs were creating from the island. There was a huge garden on the property where vegetable, spices and fruits were grown. The kitchen was even making its own Spam from wild pigs on the island.
Spam? I’ve always thought of Spam as being the last resort before starvation; food so bad that everything you didn’t like about the Internet was named after it. My opinion was completely changed after I sampled masubi, a Hawaiian creation that was basically a sushi ball filled with a homemade version of this mystical meat. Of course they used the best cuts of meat, a perfect blend of spices, and took it to a different level. Against all odds, it was delicious. Now, I can’t quit thinking about it.
This particular evening I got to attend a chef tasting at the resort. A small group of us were seated at a long table and my curiosity was piqued from what I’d heard about the experience.The resort is well known for it’s fusion dishes and innovative menu items. Chef Samson Arzamendi was running the show and had prepared the lineup for the evening. Originally from California, Samson had traveled around the country working for Ritz Carlton. He explained that he had picked up inspiration and techniques from each kitchen and part of the country he’d worked in. Everything tastes good at the Ritz.
At the chef’s table, there’s no written menu. New food concepts are dished out, the preparation and ingredients explained and there’s a sommelier on hand to explain the wine pairing and answer questions. Most of the guests at the table had attended tastings before, so the chef had prepared some new surprises made with local fare. Since Hawaii is in the middle of the Pacific, locally sourced products are preferred and waste is kept to a minimum. If it can’t be used right away, it can still be dried, fermented or turned into kimchi. I was just as fascinated by the kitchen’s resourcefulness as I was it’s tasty dishes.
The resort buys its fish from local fisherman or uses it’s boat and staff to bring back to catch of the day. In these waters, great choices like Ahi, Mahi Mahi, or Hapu’upu’u (which only exists in the islands) are often found on the menu. Seaweed and sea asparagus (yes, that’s a real thing) are also harvested by the resort and used in many of the dishes. The restaurant also creates it’s own fish sauces. Not just one type, but various “flavors” using only one particular fish to create it. Who knew fish sauce could be so exotic? .
After some amazing sashimi, we were served a delicious duck medallion, with confit de canard. Arugula kimchi, spigariello and local corn that had just been picked that day from the garden accompanied the dish. Next came an aged Wagyu steak with coconut miso and pomegranate vanilla demi-glace. The flavors had familiar elements, but turned up several notches and with surprise endings.
I had never tried chiku fruit until that night. It’s a strong tasting apple-esque fruit that was a nice finish to the meal. Hawaii is full of amazing produce including fruits and vegetables rarely seen on the mainland. There’s no winter season so everything is constantly growing and some of the produce almost looks too good to be real. When I had toured the resort’s gardens earlier, everything seemed so perfect I was reminded of the gardens at Epcot. I pinched a bell pepper to make sure it wasn’t plastic.
I like meals to be experiences when I travel. I can eat my favorite foods at home anytime, so why not take a chance and try something unique I’ll never find anywhere else? After the meal, I took Chef Samson aside and asked him how he puts together a chef’s table. The process he told me, is first, be a little familiar with the where the guests are coming from, their tastes and their dietary restrictions. Take the local ingredients and then blend the best of the hodge podge of cultures that have created Hawaiian cuisine: Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Portuguese, etc. Give the guests something they know and love, but give it a little spin, add some new elements, and it’s no longer just dinner….it’s an adventure.
It is said that no man is an island. What I learned on my stay is that the menu is the island. Hundreds of years of historical influences and ingredients from the “garden island” in the hands of an experienced chef make for a culinary experience that’s not only organic, but delicious.
Now I’m craving that spam again.