Celebrity chef Nobu finds kinship on Wai'anae farm
As he was led on a tour of MA’O Farm Wednesday morning, ideas began to grow in chef-restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa’s head as vigorously as the flourishing rows of scarlet-stemmed kale and emerald collards, wispy baby greens and miniature carrots over which he was exclaiming.
Yuzu (a Japanese citrus), he was thinking. Myoga (a type of ginger blossom). Peruvian peppers aji amarillo and rocceto (one yellow, one red and both spicy hot). Moroheya (Egyptian spinach). All hard to get here.
“You grow, I buy,” he said in a Japanese accent not much tamed by years of living and working first in Peru and then in the U.S.
“We have 3 or 4 dozen crops,” said MA’O’s Gary Maunakea-Forth. “We want to make it 100.” They also want to acquire more land, perhaps on the Windward side or other more far-flung locations.
“New York?,” Matsuhisa said brightly, provoking laughter.
Letting his eyes roam around the verdant bowl of Lualualei Valley. Matsuhisa murmured, “Beautiful. Beautiful the product, beautiful the place.” The internationally acclaimed chef is on O’ahu to prepare a special omakase (chef’s choice) dinner at Nobu Waikiki tonight and teach a sushi and sake tasting class tomorrow. (Call 237-6999 for reservations.)
As he walked, he kept changing the omakase menu, ordering this and that on the spot. Tasting the last of MA'O's Meyer lemons, he told his chef, "No yuzu tonight. We use this."
MA’O (an acronym for Mala — garden; ‘Ai — food; ‘Opio — youth; “the place that grows young people) is part farm, part social service project. In addition to a very lucrative business (close to $1 million in sales last year) selling organically grown specialty produce to high-end restaurants and discerning grocers, MA’O offers Wai’anae high school graduates a chance to go to college on the farm’s dime in return for three half days’ work each week. About 20 interns are so employed; 20 more will follow.
Their guiding values, explained founding member Kukui Maunakea-Forth, begin with an old Hawaiian saying: “When your hands are turned up, you are hungry. But when your hands are turned down (to the soil), you are full. Love, respect, work — these three are all we require,” she told a group of Nobu chefs, visiting federal officials (the federal Administration for Native Americans helps fund farm activities) and press prior to a tour of the 16-acre property — part leased and part owned.
Matsuhisa, who frequently refers to his employees as a family, and who cooks for them with his own hands at his Tokyo home every New Year’s Day, said he was delighted to see the farm and meet the people behind the vegetables he and executive chef Lindsey Ozawa have been buying from MA’O. Their guiding principles, he said, “are exactly like my philosophy.”
Having negotiated the crowded packing plant, not hesitating to taste raw hakurei (a small, sweet white turnip) and baby red Russian kale (lacy, tender, spicy), Matsuhisa and Co. were shown the future.
On land purchased with state aid and the assistance of a private investor, MA’O is turning a one-time chicken farm into a center for work and fun: a much larger packing plant, a courtyard for parties, workshops, cooking demonstrations and gatherings, a covered dining area and chef’s kitchen with a wood-burning masonry oven.
“I know Hawai’i more than 20 years,” he said. “Twenty years ago, was nothing like this. Now the chefs and restaurants are inspired by this. We like this relationship.”