Updating Hawaii Regional Cuisine

Grow Culture is hosting a pop-up dinner this Mother’s Day at Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens. This will be its 23rd dinner, which is more of an experience than a typical meal. In fact, these events are so hyper-local and innovative that even owner Collin Darrell has a hard time defining them.

Pop-up restaurants, also known as supper clubs, have no permanent location. The restaurant literally pops up for one night and temporarily provides the same services as a traditional eatery. The food is usually high quality, the location and chef may or may not be repeated, and the evening is a slice of life: a once-in-a-lifetime moment where the food, people, location and conversation never can be experienced again.

Grow Culture is a virtual hub that connects farmers and chefs. Darrell’s popup dinners are a manifestation of that network and a means to cultivate conversation about local food among the farmer, chef and consumer.

This June, Grow Culture is partnering with local chefs and restaurants to create a non-GMO, locally inspired, sustainably sourced space at the Taste of Hawaii. Future plans include a brick-and-mortar space that allows him to pop up regularly.

“Our (pop-up) restaurant is restorative and we’re providing hospitality again,” says Darrell. “It’s welcoming, nourishing and goes back to the restorative nature of what restaurants used to be. It’s a place to get sustenance, and we provide it in a very open-minded way. I don’t know what the term for that is yet.”

He may not know how to define precisely the dinners that have “popped up” on farms, in the homes of Kaua’i residents or in the dining rooms of local restaurants, but he does have a vision.

“Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC) is something of the past,” he explains of the style of food that incorporates local products, Asian sauces and European techniques. “No one has done anything with it since the mid-’80s. It seems very regimented in a depiction of things that aren’t true.

“A lot of the time, the fresh fish isn’t caught locally, the orchids come in a big bag and they’re not from here, the ‘Kona Coffee’ is 10-percent Kona blended with 90-percent beans from all over the world. It’s not really Hawaiian or regional. It’s a marketing scheme. We are trying to get to the heart of what HRC is and redefine it.”

Like HRC, Darrell bases his menu on seasonal ingredients. Local fish, beef, lamb or pork are secured weeks before. The rest of the menu is built the morning of the event, when Darrell and his guest chef visit the farmers market to select what’s in season.

“Macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi and prime rib are the reasons people go back to the same restaurants over and over,” says Darrell. “But that’s not interesting. There’s definitely something to be said for comfort foods. I love a simple roast chicken done well, but when it comes to us expressing what we want to do with food, that’s what makes it interesting.”

Previous Grow Culture pop-up dishes include balsamic orecchiette with a tomato salad, goat milk ricotta and basil caviar; Kaua’i beef tongue pastrami, Napa “kraut” and passion fruit mustard; and a turnip panna cotta terrine garnished with Surinam cherries.

“It’s more of an art instillation versus a painting,” says Darrell. “We don’t advertise menus, so that the creativity can be fostered within the chef. That gives them the freedom to focus on the ingredients, the concept, and draw inspiration from all of that.”

This Mother’s Day, the Grow Culture event will be a fundraiser for Aloha School Early Learning. The six-course progressive meal will be served tapas-style and the food will be paired with wines from Spain.

“The menu will eat and drink the way a tasting menu does,” says Darrell. “We intentionally did not make it a sit-down meal to stimulate conversation in a way that a sit-down meal doesn’t, and to incorporate a sense of community into the dining experience.”

Quinten Frye of Salt Kitchen & Tasting Bar on Oahu will be the guest chef. Frye won the 2012 Hawaii Rising Star Sustainability Chef award by pushing for sustainability through supporting a network of Oahu farmers, using whole-animal butchery and making dishes that focus on line-caught fish and local octopus.

“We want to make our moms feel elegant, beautiful and taken care of,” says Darrell. “The food will be interesting, the backdrop lovely, and it will be full of wonderful people sharing experiences and great conversation.”

Grow Culture Pop-up dinner May 12, 5-8 p.m.
Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens
$85 per person

Marta Lane is a Kaua’i-based food writer. For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.