I have the morning off! So it’s time to update the blog.
The past two mornings have required that I be out of bed and ready to go quite a bit earlier than I'm accustomed to, but this was really no hardship as Hawaii is six hours behind New York during daylight savings time (the Aloha State does not observe the twice-yearly clock adjustment practice, so it’s five hours behind during the rest of the year).
On Friday I was picked up at 6:15 a.m. — a time I’m more likely to see from the other side, before going to bed — by chef George ”Mavro” Mavrothalassitis and his wife and publicist Donna Jung.
Donna was the main protagonist in getting me to O‘ahu. I normally see her and Mavro about once a year, when he cooks at the Beard House in early May, and she wanted me to try his food in their restaurant. So she made some calls and here I am.
We were meeting so early because they wanted to take me to the Honolulu fish auction, which starts in the very small hours of the day. The first picture in this blog entry is what the auction looks like. Those are wholesalers bidding on big-eye, or ahi, tuna. They really do have big eyes, but I didn’t have the good sense to take pictures of their eyes. I was more interested in the carcasses, which you can see in the next picture, and the flesh samples taken from each of them for the bidders to examine. One sample's from the tail, one's from the midsection and the third is like a core sample, drilled from the center of the carcass.
Mavro and I spent most of the time talking with Brooks Takenaka, general manager of the United Fishing Agency, which is what the auction company is called.
Donna took a picture of us talking, in case you need proof.
I should stop slouching.
Brooks said that in his 30 years working with the United Fishing Agency (he did various fascinating things involving marine biology before that) this year’s catch is the worst. He’s not sure why, as the Hawaiian wild fishery is one of the most strictly regulated on the planet.
And there’s no need to panic. One year of bad fishing doesn’t mean ecological breakdown.
And on Friday the catch was good. Three boats came in, and apart from ahi, there was also opah, which you can see in the next picture, and swordfish, which you can see in the picture after that.
Our conversation with Brooks focused mostly on regulation, and on how the rules that are made tend to be based much more on what sounds good than on what actually helps to protect fisheries. It is very aggravating for Brooks. I told him the story of goose farmer Jim Schiltz, who wanted to sell his geese in Whole Foods, but that self-righteous grocery chain wanted him to raise his geese on all-vegetarian diets.
Vegetarian diets became de rigueur for cattle after it was discovered that “mad cow” disease developed when cattle were fed other cattle, including their brains and other parts of their nervous system, which contained prions that catalyzed the formation of prions in the cattle’s brains, which is how they developed bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease).
Now, that’s all very gross, but what does it have to do with geese, who in fact are not ruminating herbivores like cattle, but waterfowl, for whom it’s natural to eat fish? Jim says if he didn’t give them fishmeal at specific stages in their life, a third of them would die.
So we all had a good laugh about that, and then after taking a look at some of the fishing boats, Mavro and Donna took me to Nico’s at Pier 38, a restaurant by the wharf where I had breakfast of Hawaiian coffee (hurray!) and marlin and eggs, with a scoop of rice. Donna had the same thing, while Mavro had loco-moco.
From there we went to Sumida Farm, where about 70 percent of Hawaii’s watercress is grown.
The farm is on a wetland fed by natural springs — scratch that, obviously they’re natural. They’re springs.
Anyway, a number of hard-to-find birds frequent the farm to eat insects and snails and crayfish and other creatures that live in the water in which the watercress grows (the plant itself roots itself in gravel). My first bird picture is of a black-crowned night heron. I’m not sure why it’s called a night heron, because there it was, sitting around in the middle of the day (okay, it was actually around 8 a.m., but it felt like the middle of the day to me).
The next picture, the blurry one, is of a Hawaiian stilt.
David Sumida explained that a lot of Asian cuisines use watercress as a vegetable, stir-frying the stem, for example.
The farm is on a slight grade, so water is always flowing around the cress. Their main weed is a sort of algae, that has to be removed daily, although Filipinos do eat that particular type of algae. David knows that because his workers are almost all (maybe all, but I didn’t ask) ethnic Filipinos, who make up a big chunk of the Hawaiian community. David allows his workers to have garden plots on the outskirts of the farm, and some of them let the algae grow longer and harvest it to eat.
Each plot of watercress is harvested every eight weeks. The plant is pulled up, the roots are chopped off and the rest of the plant is bound into 1-pound bunches, which are then wrapped into 35-pound bundles and vacuum chilled. They are delivered to David’s customers three times a week.
Mavro insists that it is the best watercress in the world. He’s French, so you’d think he’d declare anything French to be the best, but of course he left his hometown of Marseilles many years ago (he used to say that only Marseillais knew how to cook fish, then he learned about Japanese cuisine). One of Mavro’s early jobs in the U.S. (maybe his first, but I don’t remember) was in my hometown of Denver, at a fine-dining restaurant called Château Pyrenees, where he worked for a couple of years before being courted by the Halekulani, where he worked at its French restaurant, La Mer, before moving to Maui to work at The Four Seasons.
After we left the farm, we went to Leonard’s which is famous for its malasadas, a type of Portuguese doughnut coated in granulated sugar. There was a long line at Leonard’s which pleased us all, because it’s nice to see a restaurant doing good business.
Then we drove to Kaimana Beach, to eat them. Donna took a picture of me eating a malasada. That’s a plain one, but I also sampled one filled with haupia. In case you’re wondering, I didn’t finish either one, because, believe it or not, I do believe in practicing restraint from time to time.
Donna and Mavro dropped me off at my hotel, at around 10:30 a.m. After I regrouped, I began to explore the city.
To view all the blog entries about my trip to O‘ahu, click here.