Cooking with Aloha. An Interview with Ed Kenney

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ED KENNEY IS A BUSY MAN. The successful restaurateur owns four popular restaurants, sits on several community boards and is to host the PBS culinary travel show, “Family Ingredients.” The chef has had many accolades, including being named as a finalist several times for Best Chef: West by the James Beard Foundation. Kenney’s first three restaurants, Town, Kaimuki Superette and Mud Hen Water, are all within a few blocks of each other in this vibrant community Kaimuki, and are known for fresh farm-to-table ingredients and traditional Hawaiian flavors. In April of 2016, Kenney made the leap to Waikiki when he opened Mahina & Sun’s in the Surfjack hotel. All of these restaurants go by Kenney’s mantra, “Local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always.”

 

What caused you to make the leap to Waikiki from your base of restaurants in Kaimuki?

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When doing some research for the Surfjack’s restaurant concept, the original owners found the style and taste of cuisine they were looking for when they dined at Town. Our Kaimuki restaurants’ ongoing mission to create community gathering places that reconnect people to the food they eat and those they eat with was aligned with their vision. Spending a lot of time in Waikiki during my childhood, it brought back a sense of nostalgia when we were asked to partner with the Surfjack. My parents were performers at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and Halekulani back before the properties became sprawling resorts, so I spent a lot of time in town watching them perform. With Mahina & Sun’s concept, we’re treating both visitors and locals to an authentic taste of Hawaii with what is offered on the seasonal menu.

 

What sets Mahina & Sun’s apart from your other restaurants?

Mahina & Sun’s menu has been created from the same set of values as my other restaurants, utilizing local, organic produce and sustainable seafood. We wanted to turn the restaurant into a community gathering place in Waikiki, where visitors and locals feel comfortable and “come as you are” for spontaneous cocktails, a special occasion or even just a great cup of coffee.

The theme of our menu is elevated home-cooking with an emphasis on sustainable seafood. The dishes are new and stylish, like the Surfjack, but are influenced from childhood upbringings – growing up on Oahu and my mom’s cooking – from the Portuguese Bean Soup to the spicy ahipalaha (tuna) found in the Mahina’s Bowl, most of these recipes were from my childhood.

 

You’re known for partnering with Hawaii farms like MA‘O Organic
Farm to showcase local ingredients. Tell me a little about why that
is so important to you individually and to the dishes you serve.

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Most restaurants are proud to note locally sourced products on a menu, but, for me, it’s more important to have the physical relationships with the farms and farmers. The farmers we collaborate with, like MA‘O, are now ohana. By purchasing and consuming locally sourced product, we are committed to our community, to our farmers and to our aina. In sourcing and eating local, we look at how we are able to give back to the planet that ultimately provides us with the food we eat.

 

You’ve been able to cook for former First Lady Michelle Obama.
What was that experience like?

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It was an honor! And, actually, it was one of my dreams to cook for her. When she planted a garden at the White House, she sent a message about nutrition and connecting oneself to the land. We both have strong beliefs regarding food education and policy. Mrs. Obama visited us at MA‘O and we provided her with a firsthand look of the farm of which we source most of our ingredients. MA‘O not only gives back to the community, but also educates our state’s youth by providing them with an opportunity to attend college while learning about the land. The Obamas also dined with us at Mahina & Sun’s over the 2016 holiday upon the former President’s approval to expand Papahanaumokuakea, making it the largest protected place in the world. This impacts the fishing industry and forces us to help protect our supply of sustainable seafood. We’re very grateful to have had them experience our menu offerings.

 

Many of the people who read Waikiki Menus come from out of town. Do you have any recommendations on bringing Island inspired flavors into dishes back home?

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On the menu, guests will not only be able to eat local products but most important, get to try indigenous plates based from Hawaiian canoe crops such as paiai (undiluted taro) and ulu (breadfruit). Most of our menu items are listed as their traditional Hawaiian names, such as akule (big eye scad), hee (octopus) and au ku (swordfish). These offerings are not normally found in Waikiki’s popular restaurants nor are they listed in Hawaiian. It may be some vacationer’s first experience hearing the Hawaiian name as well as tasting the Hawaiian dish!