wanderlust oahu: a moment with turtle bay resort executive chef conrad aquino
posted: March 2, 2014
It goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway) that the locavore movement on Oahu is spectacular. From avocado and lemon trees to the fresh fish and grass-fed rancher’s beef, the North Shore can now add foodie’s paradise to the long list of reasons to go there. Now imagine what it feels like to be a chef living in this blessed land. I sat down with Turtle Bay Resort Executive Chef Conrad Aquino to talk about the special Sea-to-Table menu he created for Wanderlust Oahu, and what it’s like living his dream
Chef Conrad Aquino in his element and redefining fresh seafood
What did the Wanderlust team task you with for this dinner?
“I was asked to do a sea-to-table menu based upon products that we use on Oahu’s North Shore, products that are sustainable and correct to use. So nothing that endangers the environment—what species, the way a species is captured, something that is not sustainable to Hawaii—and food that stays true to our local roots. So I created a menu that’s true to myself, true to Turtle Bay and true to Wanderlust.”
Did you grow up on Oahu, and were you always a foodie?
“Yes, I was born and raised in Honolulu. I always had an interest in cooking, and at school I took all of the home economics classes. I was what you call a cafeteria rat, where I’d always be in the cafeteria helping the ladies. I originally went to college for aviation, for pilot training, and also I got my A&P license—my aviation and powerplant license—but I was getting kind of burnt out so I went and I did a workshop at a community college. It was Cooking 101. I found my calling.”
Why is being Executive Chef of Turtle Bay Resort such a dream job for you?
“The property of this hotel is very unique because we’re part of an ahupua’a. That’s a land division; during the Hawaiian royalty days they would actually section out a piece of land from the mauka—the mountainside—down to the ocean, or the makai. Within that wedge and you can sustain your village or your family using the product from the mountain (like herbs and the Noni tree, which we use for medicinal purposes), from the kula lands, which is the midlands where you get your taro and your vegetables, and of course the makai which is the ocean, seafood, the seaweed. So in a nutshell we’re practicing that same practice now. We live on an ahupua’a, Turtle Bay is on one, so we’re part of this land now.”
Oahu’s ahupua’a; each coloured section is capable of sustaining an entire community
Is eating locally and sustainably a priority for most Hawaiians?
“Moreso all the time. But growing up you get lost in translation with McDonalds and commercial food and processed foods, like flour. So for our food we use sweet potato, taro and we also like to use a lot of brown rice—it’s not grown on the island but we like to stick with something more sustainable and also more accessible, people like to eat rice. We love our rice. Our Asian culture is Filippino, Japanese and Chinese so we need to keep the rice in our diet even if it doesn’t grow here.”
Yeah, the rice and the Spam.
“[laughing] One time I tried to make my own Spam using natural pork. It did stay together, though it wasn’t as salty. I just put the pork into the food processor. It turned out pretty good, like organic Spam!”
Hawaiians are the largest consumers of Spam products in the U.S.
Salt seems to turn up in a big way in Hawaiian cooking.
“Salt is an essential mineral, right? And in Hawaii we have different types of salts, or what we call pa’akai. On the ahupua’a you have salt pools in the lava rocks. So the waves crash and then evaporate, and then maybe the tide will come in and then it goes back and evaporates, and salt is left. So cultivating the salt there is a natural process that Hawaiians have been doing for a long, long time. It’s right here, so we use it. We put it with pork, over salmon…do you eat poké?”
Oh heck yeah.
“So just add a little bit of that on there… Mmmmm.”
How have you used pa’akai on the Sea-to-Table menu?
“So, salmon’s not native of Hawaii, but it’s part of our diet through our luaus. New Zealand has a sustainable salmon called saikou salmon and it’s really sashimi grade, really delicious. What I like to do is salt it myself with the pa’akai that we use in the restaurants—a big, granular salt. I marinate that for a couple days and make a fresh lomi salmon, which I incorporated for the Sea-to-Table Wanderlust dinner with local tomatoes, local green onions and taro dip. You can also eat that with kalua pork or poi.
Tell me about poi, which is such a Hawaiian staple.
“It’s just taro! Poi is pounded, like on a bench. Then you add water to it, pound it, add more water, and it becomes a mash. But the commercial taro is pushed through a processor and strained, so it’s a little more on the watery side. But in Hawaii that’s what we eat. We go to the supermarket and maybe instead of picking up a bag of rice we pick up a bag of poi. Nothing wrong it. I grew up with that, my kids grew up eating that; nothing wrong with it. But to have taro pounded freshly, oh my God, it’s so good.”
Taro roots, shown on the left, are pounded and combined with water to become poi, seen on the right. For many, poi is an acquired taste
Are your family foodies or farmers or… ?
“My parents grew up with farm-raised pigs and chickens and produce. My grandparents were farmers. Coming from a plantation background you have to be sustainable. My mom is from the sugar plantation side and my dad is from the pineapple plantation side. So there was no Costco, no supermarket, and whenever they wanted fresh fish the fishermen would come to the village. Whenever they wanted cow or goat, they’d butcher one from the country and share it with the community. I’m happy to be tasting that now because we can get rancher’s beef from Kauai or the Big Island. When my mom and Dad came to Honolulu, the first time they went to Safeway and Foodland my mom told me that she couldn’t really eat the pork because it’s so different and not fresh enough. But after a while that’s all you’ve got to eat and you’ve got to eat what you’ve got. I really encourage my own kids to hold back some money to spend on good food.”
Is there any…you know, the Hawaiian state fish. I can’t even begin to say its name correctly. Is there any of that on the Wanderlust Sea-to-Table menu?
“The humuhumunukunukuapua’a. [Ed’s note: yep, that's a 21-character fish name. It's also called a triggerfish or ‘humu’ for short.] No, there’s none on this menu. We used a snapper, which we’re baking in some salt.”
Would you share a recipe from this Sea-to-Table menu with us?
“Of course! So I did a tandoori-style mahi mahi for the menu. When I was growing up in the kitchen one of my favourite chefs was Sri Lankan. One of the dishes that stuck with me was this tandoori marinade. So whatever fish you’ve got you take it and marinate it overnight—a lot of garlic, a lot of ginger—and you can either grill it, bake it or sauté it, and serve it with some nice vegetables and some basmati rice or fingerling potatoes. I’ve never done it with trout, but you could use halibut, turbot, tilapia—whatever is your favourite. Mahi mahi is my favourite.”
One of Chef’s beautiful edible creations
Click here to download Chef Aquino’s tandoori marinade recipe.