UHH chefs put local first


By COLIN M. STEWART

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Today's college students are increasingly conscious about green initiatives aimed at cutting down on waste, says University of Hawaii at Hilo employee Bridget Awong.

"They're green babies," she said enthusiastically. "They've grown up with it. ... It's more and more important to them. Reducing our carbon footprint. Using materials that can be replaced. Sustainability."

As general manager of the Hilo campus' dining hall, Awong is charged with providing a variety of tasty, healthy and affordable meals to the school community. It's a difficult balancing act to manage the point where all three priorities are provided for, she said, but it serves an important purpose.

"Most of our kids, they say, 'I want something good, but I've only got $5.' We've gotta do what we can to give that to them," she said.

Now, however, the cafeteria has added a fourth priority that must enter the equation as part of a pilot program to place more emphasis on locally grown and produced food.

Known as "Local First," the program is a partnership with Hawaii Community College aimed at providing once-a-month menus that are comprised entirely of Hawaii products. Ordinarily, Awong said, her daily menus consist of about 60 percent locally grown produce. But beginning this week, the first Wednesday of every month will feature 100 percent local ingredients.

"On the one hand, it's about giving back to our community. Supporting our growers and providers. We want them to prosper," Awong said. "And, the food tastes so much better."

Chef Allan K. Okuda, as program coordinator for HCC's culinary program, knows more than a few things about tasty food. A good chef, he said, will always try to use the freshest, most locally produced ingredients he can.

"Everything here is so good. Fresh seafood, beef, mushrooms. ... A lot of the chefs in Honolulu are jealous of us. They order their stuff from the Big Island, because they know it's excellent. World class," he said.

When it comes to produce, one big difference is all about time, Awong added.

"When I need tomatoes, I call our growers in Hamakua Springs, I can get them vine-ripened, and they're here in a day," she said. "You order from the mainland, it gets barged to the USDA, it gets barged to Honolulu, then barged here. You're talking about a three- to four-week window. You can definitely tell the difference."

In addition to quality concerns, the effort is an attempt to support local farmers and providers. It gives them regular business, and serves as a great showcase for their products.

On Wednesday, UHH students got their first taste of a Local First menu. Breakfast included Punaluu sweet bread French toast, garnished with Hamakua Springs bananas and Purity Portuguese sausage. Lunch featured a Hawaiian pizza made with shredded Kulana kalua pork, Frank's Foods Pipi Kaula, diced Hamakua tomatoes, and Maui onions on a homemade flatbread crust. A salad boasted seared Kauai prawns on mixed Waimea greens with a roasted Maui onion vinaigrette. Main entrées included shichimi spiced Kulana grass-fed steak topped with Maui onion rings and grilled asparagus, or fresh opakapaka encrusted in Atebara's taro chips topped with a Maruhi miso ginger glaze. Lastly, the soup of the day was a Kulana kalua pork chowder with Molokai sweet potatoes and Keaau super sweet corn.

"It's great," said 25-year-old Jenna Waipa of Oahu. "It's really amazing the variety of things they offer. It was hard to choose. It's all so good, how can you go wrong?"

Fellow student Hooleina Ioane, 23, agreed. Ioane said she especially enjoys the fish. "It's always amazing," she said. "Last week, they had this crusted ahi that was so good."

Meanwhile, student Kimiko Wilson said she was especially excited about the health implications of using fresher food.

"It promotes health and nutrition," she said, "and that's really prevalent, especially today."

Kyle Kawano, vice president for Suisan Co. Ltd., which provides fish and other products to the Hilo cafeteria, grabbed a plate of food Wednesday after checking on a delivery.

"We employ about 180 people, and we try to focus all our attention on keeping money on the island," he said as he tore into his Kulana steak. "Nowadays the emphasis is all on being self sufficient."

Among the farmers providing food to the Local First program are:

* Berger's Kamaaina Farm;

* Hamakua Mushroom;

* Hamakua Springs;

* Hawaiian Springs;

* Kekela Farms;

* Maebo Noodle Factory;

* Nakamoto Farms;

* Natural Pacific;

* Hawaiian Crown Pineapple;

* Royal Kona Coffee;

* Atebara Chips;

* Lone Palms;

* Kulana Foods;

* Suisan Fish Market;

* Green Point;

* and Amano Fish Cake Co.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.