Farm-to-table Cuisine In Kilauea

Farmer Jillian Seals

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Hippocrates, a Greek physician who believed disease was a product of environment, diet and living habits, spoke those immortal words more than 2,400 years ago. Today, practitioners of Hippocratic medicine base their approach on the healing powers of nature.

As a population, America has become a fast food nation: People want cheap food, fast. Scientific studies, including the comprehensive book The China Study by Thomas M. Campbell II, demonstrate that heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, osteoporosis and high blood pressure are diet-related. And childhood obesity rates have risen to levels that predict parents could outlive their kids.

The Garden Cafe at Common Ground in Kilauea seeks to neutralize this epidemic one bite at a time. With a newly hired chef and an intimate connection with local farmers, the cafe prepares delicious, healthy meals made from freshly harvested produce.

Chef Rodman Machado is fresh from Oahu, where he was the chef de cuisine responsible for making Palm Terrace at Turtle Bay Resort into a local and international favorite. There, the world was his palette, and he could order truffles from France or heirloom tomatoes from California.

The Garden Cafe’s garden

At The Garden Cafe, the distance between chef and farmer is short, and Machado embraces the change.

“I’m fine-dining trained, but I bring a humble approach to healthy, wholesome, organic cuisine,” says the Oahu native who grew up in Haleiwa. “I’m an artist and this is what I do.”

In a modest kitchen, Machado and his team create flavorful meals from a garden that is 40 paces away. Freerange chickens strut and provide fresh eggs, while North Shore farmer Jillian Seals grows tidy rows of vegetables including kale, eggplant, beets, carrots and celery.

Seals is known for her organic farming course and community-supported agriculture program, the Kaua’i Farm Connection (KFC) at Kauapea Farm. Recently, Just Green Solutions, KFC’s parent company, partnered with Common Ground to grow food exclusively for the cafe.

Chef Rodman Machado. Daniel Lane photos

“We’re trying to keep the cost at a minimum while providing something that’s healthy from this garden to the restaurant,” says Seals, referring to the high cost of organic farming. “People want a good deal on everything, so let’s give them a good deal with awesome stuff from our garden!”

The vision of Common Ground is focused on sustainability by serving the community through programs such as the School Garden, Farm to School Nutrition Network and the nonprofit Malama Kaua’i. At The Garden Cafe, the vision includes unprocessed food.

“I can get organic ketchup, but I’m against the processing that goes into it,” says Machado, who offers a garlicky yogurt sauce instead of ketchup, mustard or mayonnaise. “The yogurt sauce is like a healthy ranch dressing.”

The sauce is served with many dishes, including the 7-ounce Kaua’i Beef Burger ($14) with Tropical Fries made with beef from Medeiros Farms and sweet potatoes from Kolo Kai Organic Farm.

Chard Ahi Wrap stuffed with kelp noodles and Wooten's avocado

“The flavor of the meat was a stop-sign in flavor town,” says my husband Dan. “The yogurt sauce complemented the flavor of the meat. If you put ketchup all over it, it would totally mask the flavor.”

Coconut milk and macadamia nut cream are the base for the Thai Curry Vegetable Chowder, a thick soup studded with chunky eggplant, carrots, okra and green beans.

“There are green papayas, kalo (taro), green banana all from Kauapea,” says Machado. “Those additions keep the island feel going down in the food. The kalo is White Mana, a dry land variety.”

Machado wants to put organic poi on the menu, and is planning to revise local favorites by creating dishes such as a deconstructed lau lau.

“I have a Tahitian leaf kalo huli (baby taro plant) for Jillian. It tastes just like taro, but it’s spinach. You can do lau lau with it, you can do luau stews with it, but it’s not itchy” as undercooked taro can be.

Two types of tender kale, shredded green papaya and crushed macadamia nuts are folded with a flavorful basil vinaigrette, making the Mighty Green Salad ($10) something I craved for days after enjoying it.

The Garden Cafe’s modest kitchen. Daniel Lane photos

“This salad is 100 percent Kauapea; it has Jillian written all over it,” says Machado. “We sell more of this salad than anything else.”

You would think making meals from your own 1,600square-foot garden and sourcing from local farmers would be easy. But it’s a delicate dance involving cost, availability and season a dance that chef and farmer orchestrate on a daily basis.

“It’s a challenge because, like right now, the seasons are changing so there isn’t much available,” says Machado, who can only predict specials two days out. “Jillian has a good variety, but other farmers are going through a transition.”

Regular diners embrace fresh, local food and look forward to a menu that changes with the seasons. Outside beneath the awning, lazy ceiling fans whirr and patrons line communal-style tables. Today’s special is Chard Ahi Wrap ($10) with cilantro lime vinaigrette and papaya salsa. Shades of red and green vegetation surround the cafe and rustle in the breeze as Chef Machado darts from the kitchen for a last-minute harvest of pohole (fern) and papaya.

The Mighty Green Salad can be addictive

The Garden Cafe 4900 Kuawa Road, Kilauea, 828-2192

Open Monday-Saturday, breakfast from 9 to 11 a.m.; lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; weekend brunch, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

CORRECTION: Hula Baby Biscotti can be reached at 212-5918. The number is incorrect in the Oct 19 issue of MidWeek Kaua’i.