The water was a little rough as we rounded Kamala Point on the south coast of Kauai—the same spot where Harrison Ford’s character gets marooned with Anne Heche in the film Six Days, Seven Nights. Our boat crew grabbed two five-gallon buckets from the hold. I assumed one of the girls in the back had gotten sick. No, they replied. It was for one of Kukui’ula's chefs, Samson Arzamendi.
Chef Samson likes to make his own table salt from ocean water. He evaporates the water in a black lava stone bowl on shore. Maybe I’ve been living in a big city too long, but that sounds to me like Robinson Crusoe stuff.
A few days into my stay at The Lodge at Kukui’ula, I discovered salt wasn’t the only thing the chefs source locally. A huge farm on the property produces vegetables, spices and fruits. The kitchen even makes its own Spam from wild pigs that live on the island.
Spam? I’ve always thought of Spam as being the last resort before starvation—food so bad that everything you don’t like about the internet is named after it. My opinion changed after I sampled Kukui'ula's masubi, a Hawaiian creation that's 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.
On one particular evening, a small group of us were seated at a long table for a chef's tasting, our curiosity piqued from what we’d heard about the experience. The resort is well-known for its fusion dishes and innovative menu items.
Samson prepared the menu for the evening. Originally from California, Samson has picked up inspiration and techniques from each kitchen and part of the country he’s worked in, including various locations of the Ritz-Carlton— and 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-pairings and answer questions. Most of the guests at the table had attended tastings before, but Samson had some surprises—I was especially fascinated by the kitchen’s resourcefulness as much as I was its tasty dishes.
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.
The resort buys its fish from local fishermen or uses its boat and staff to bring back the catch of the day. Ahi, mahi mahi, or hapu’upu’u (Hawaiian sea bass) 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 its own fish sauce—not just one type, but various flavors all sourced from one particular fish. 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 from the garden. Next came an aged wagyu steak with coconut miso and pomegranate vanilla demi-glace.
Until this night, I'd never before tried the strong-tasting, apple-esque chiku fruit. It 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'd toured the resort’s farm, everything seemed so perfect that I was reminded of the gardens at Epcot. I pinched a bell pepper to make sure it wasn’t plastic.
From Osaka's deadly fugu to the Seychelle's curried fruit bat, 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 Samson aside and asked him how he puts together a chef’s table. The process, he told me, is to first familiarize himself with where the guests are coming from— their tastes, their dietary restrictions. He then takes local ingredients and blends the hodgepodge of cultures that comprise Hawaiian cuisine— Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Portuguese and more—to give the guests something they'll know and love, but with a little spin and surprise elements.
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.