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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Acclaimed chef goes hands-on at MA'O Farms

 •  Bento!

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa samples some of the vegetables in the packing shed of MAÇO Organic Farms in Lualualei Valley, Wai'anae, with Manny Miles, manager.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa, middle, and his executive chef, Lindsey Ozawa, left, prepare a lunch salad during a tour of MA'O Organic Farms in Lualualei Valley, Wai'anae.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Nobu Matsuhisa may be one of the world's most renowned chefs, with critically acclaimed restaurants from Tokyo to Cape Town and friends among the world's elite, including business partner Robert De Niro.

But at MA'O Farms in Lualualei Valley out Wai'anae way, he's just another visitor, expected to stand respectfully while a guide chants in Hawaiian, asking permission to enter. Then he sits in an open-air shed amidst a gaggle of his chefs, press and visitors from the federal Administration for Native Americans (which helps fund farm projects). He politely participates in MA'O's getting-to-know-you exercise, taking his turn to give his name and place of residence (Tokyo and New York), his favorite fruit or vegetable and ending with the farm's mantra, "No Panic, Go Organic."

"My specialty is fish," he said in a Japanese accent not much tamed by years of living and working first in Peru and then in the U.S. "But I love any kind of vegetable."

Matsuhisa's local outlet, in the Waikiki Parc hotel, buys MA'O products. The chef, known for Japanese-South American fusion cuisine, was visiting last Wednesday to see the Islands' largest open valley and the 16.5-acre farm that has grown there over the past decade.

MA'O (an acronym for Mala — garden; 'Ai — food; 'Opio — youth; "the place that grows young people") is part farm, part social service project. In addition to a very lucrative business (close to $1 million in sales last year) selling organically grown specialty produce to high-end restaurants and discerning grocers, MA'O offers Wai'anae high school graduates college tuition and a stipend in return for three half days' work a week. About 20 Youth Leadership Training interns are so employed; 20 more will follow.

Throughout, though founding members Kukui Maunakea-Forth and her husband, Gary, participated, the young staffers, particularly Kamuela Enos, served as guides while the elders looked on. "We believe the interns ARE the leaders," Gary Maunakea-Forth said.

Matsuhisa bantered with intern Jonathan Abell, an agriculture student at Leeward Community College, asking Abell whether he knew how to cook. "Small kine," Abell said, cautiously. "Stir-fries."

"Stir-fry. Saute. Fry. Steam. Grill," Matsuhisa responded. "You try. You learn. You want to grow (vegetables), you have to know how to cook."

The farm's guiding values, explained Kukui Maunakea-Forth, begin with an old Hawaiian saying: "When your hands are turned up, you are hungry. But when your hands are turned down (to the soil), you are full. Love, respect, work — these three are all we require," she said.

As he walked the dirt roads between fields, Matsuhisa learned how to harvest baby kale and munched a stem of citrusy agretti herb. Ideas were popping into the chef's head as energetically as the farm's flourishing rows of scarlet-stemmed kale and emerald collards, wispy baby greens and miniature carrots.

Yuzu (a Japanese citrus), he was thinking. Myoga (a type of ginger blossom). Peruvian peppers aji amarillo and rocceto (one yellow, one red and both spicy hot). Moroheya (Egyptian spinach). All hard to get here.

"You grow, I buy," he said.

"We have three or four dozen crops," said MA'O's Gary Maunakea-Forth. "We want to make it 100."

On 10 acres acquired recently with the aid of the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs and a private investor, MA'O workers and volunteers have remodeled three immense sheds, once the poultry houses of the Takahashi Chicken Farm. The land had lain fallow since the farm closed in 1986.

They cleared weeds, mucked out the knee-deep chicken manure (valuable fertilizer) and are close to completing a new packing shed, chill room, offices, chefs' kitchen and garden for cooking demonstrations, an outdoor masonry oven, and indoor-outdoor areas for entertaining and workshops.

All the buildings were constructed in a "green" manner, with nail-free construction using invasive eucalyptus, found stones and adobe-type walls made from clay, cinders and straw, explained natural building workshop leader Tim Rieth.

Though they're not equipped to conduct regular public tours, once a month, on a Saturday, anyone who likes can participate in a volunteer day, getting a sense of the farm's workings, and experiencing the truth of another name for the area, "the sharp teeth of the sun," said guide Kamuela Enos. (Call 696-5569.)

They also want to acquire more land, perhaps on the Windward side or more far-flung locations.

"New York?," Matsuhisa said brightly, provoking laughter.