Bringing The Whole Farm To Table

Chef Aaron Leikam brings more than farm veggies to the table. Dan Lane photos

Mauka side of Kaumuali`i Highway in Lihu`e, just east of Kaua`i Community College, is Kilohana Plantation. On the 105-acre property, tucked inside the 16,000 square foot Wilcox Mansion, is the restaurant 22 North.

It is here, among the manicured lawns lined with rustling ti plants, that chef de cuisine Aaron Leikam cooks elegant yet rustic meals that showcase local ingredients.

The ketchup, ham, pasta and bread are all housemade, and the mouth-watering menu is a who’s who of local food producers: Kaua’i Kunana Dairy, Kaua’i Fungi, Kekaha shrimp, A`akukui Ranch, and Kaneshiro Farms are just some of the star producers.

“A lot of people think farm-to-table means all vegetarian and all organic, but that’s not what it means,” explains Leikam, who also uses produce grown on the Kilohana property.

“There are other parts of the farm. There’s animals, eggs and in some cases, cheese.”

Watermelon and Fennel salad

With a degree in zoology from the University of Oklahoma, a culinary degree from New York’s renowned Culinary Institute of America, and experience in some of America’s top kitchens, Chef Leikam brings more than the farm to the table.

At Primo Restaurant in Maine, he credits his former boss and owner Melissa Kelly as the biggest influence and inspiration for this style of cooking.

On Primo’s 4.5 acres, everything from produce to pigs was grown, and two days a year were dedicated to slaughtering pigs, making sausage and hanging prosciutto.

“Everything has happened serendipitously,” says Leikam of his early days. “I did my extern with Rick Bayless,” a celebrity chef in Chicago who specializes in Mexican food, “and he’s friends with Alice Waters” who pioneered this type of cooking in the early ’70s. “They both embody that return-tonature kind of cooking. The old school, old ways.”

Working with Jan Birnbaum, chef and owner of Epic Roasthouse in San Francisco, Leikam learned to cook over the smokey heat of wood-fired grills, rotisseries and ovens.

Braised Wailua Lamb Shank with saffron risotto

“It’s probably my favorite way to cook, you can do so much out of a woodfired brick oven,” says Leikam, who learned how to cook whole hogs from Birnbaum. “It’s the way your great, great grandmother used to cook.

“My first slaughtering experience was when I was 5, my grandfather used to raise rabbits. I guess I didn’t become a vegetarian because that’s the way I was raised, we always went fishing, we always went hunting. It was just part of the way you did things.”

At 22 North, chef Liekam doesn’t do the slaughtering, but he does butcher sides of local cattle, pork and lamb. Today’s dinner special, Braised Wailua Lamb Shank ($26) with saffron risotto, is an exquisite example of what he can do with whole animals.

Topping the lamb shank is a zesty salad made with local watercress, cucumbers and tomatoes. Strips of succulent lamb effortlessly pull away from the bone and melt in my mouth, leaving it full of meaty flavor. A hint of cinnamon infuses the rich pan sauce made with warm Moroccan spices. The velvety risotto is clean, uncomplicated and creamy.

Bursting with layers of flavor, the Pan Seared Local Snapper ($32) is a dynamite way to combine unique, local products. A generous portion of seared Uku is served on a bed of Okinawan sweet potato and Okinawan spinach hash.

A new twist on traditional aku poke

Surrounding the hash is a luscious coconut-ginger broth that has a mellow heat. It’s a satisfying, earthy fish dish.

In an era when the Food and Water Watch, an environmental group, reports that 84 percent of this country’s cattle comes from four giant corporations, who individually process 5,000 cows a day, it’s rare to find humanely raised and slaughtered beef.

And even though working with whole animals is a challenge, it’s one that Leikam and his staff are accustomed to.

“There are only two New York strips, two rib eyes, and two tenderloins on a cow,” explains Leikam, who goes through one cow a week plus any surplus cuts Duane Shimogawa may have. “Our menu reads, ‘A`akukui Beef’, and the servers explain to diners what that night’s cut of beef is. If we run out of rib eye, we switch to the New York strip or the filet.”

Business lunches are popular at 22 North where supporting local farmers is as easy as treating clients to an Almost Free Lunch ($10).

The meal comes with a salad, soup of the day, and a main dish that changes weekly. Today, diners enjoy a sandwich made with eight ounces of housemade roast beef. Thai veggie wraps, fish, and meatloaf have also been featured.

Local snapper with Okinawan sweet potatos and spinach

The next time you’re in a smooth mood, try 22 North’s Fridayphile. Every Friday night, jazz fans tap and sway to Grammy and Hoku award-winner Michael Ruff while sipping half price drinks and popping half price pupus.

Cooking with the seasons and using whole, sustain-ably raised animals is capricious, but 22 North has perfected this whimsical style.

“Having the same menu all the time definitely has its advantages,” says Leikam, reflecting on the predictability of consistent meal planning. “But this is about being who you are and utilizing what you can.”

22 North 3-2087 Kaumualii Highway, Lihu`e

245-9593 Open everyday. Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.Dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday Brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridayphile 8 to 10 p.m.

CORRECTION: Common Ground is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and weekend brunch is 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The days are incorrectly listed in the Oct. 26 issue of MidWeek Kaua’i.