By Cynthia Sweeney
North Hawaii News
Thirty-five tasting stations were fired up under the stars and in the grand ballroom at the Hilton Waikoloa, where Taste-goers got a chance to bite into a gourmet sample of beef tongue, braised oxtail and everything in between.
“This is the premier food event on the Big Island,” said Kohala Burger and Tacos chef Cary Peterson. “And we are serious about using local items, from the beef to the tomatoes and lettuce. (Cooking like this) is an art. And to be included here with the best restaurants on the island is a privilege.”
This was the 16th consecutive year for Mealani’s Taste of the Hawaiian Range and Agricultural Festival, which aims to promote, educate and support local agriculture. The event has grown in popularity over the years, and this year was no exception with hundreds of people attending.
“The quality, specialty, and high value of the Big Islands beef product does contribute to this events popularity,” said Milton Yamasaki, former manager at Mealani Research Station (retired last September) and co-creator of the Taste of the Hawaiian Range. “Although the rest of the State of Hawaii’s beef production is also very good,” he added.
This year, local chefs came out of the kitchen to showcase their talents and mingle with the crowd, including five chefs who came from Oahu and one from Los Angeles. For many, this was not their first time participating in the event. They enjoyed the challenge and enjoyed sharing their culinary creations with a large and eager crowd.
This was chef Scott Lutey’s seventh year meeting the beef challenge, and his first year cooking for the newly opened Eddie Aikau restaurant in the Waikoloa King’s Shops. His draw this year was beef clod, or shoulder. He braised the beef for hours over a kiawe grill, shredded it, and served it over crispy won tons with cucumber, local greens and wild yellow tomatoes.
Two months prior to Taste, each chef is notified of which cut of beef they have been selected to work with. All 100 pounds of it. The event challenges chefs abilities to utilize all parts of the animal in preparing show-stopping, mouth watering morsels.
Some are clearly challenged more than others.
“They always throw a curveball to keep you on your toes,” said Lou Mellaci, executive chef at Roy’s Waikoloa. “There are only a few ways to prepare beef heart, and I challenged myself. I wanted to play around and I’m really happy with the way it turned out.”
Mellaci and his crew experimented with 10 batches of beef heart sausage before coming up with the winning recipe. As the chef explained, heart meat is very lean, so they combined it with ground beef and pork fat. Consensus was, the sausage was not too dry or chewy, and was served with “Roy style” cabbage slaw and local kale. Though not an item on the regular menu, the heart sausage is something Mellaci would be comfortable serving at a specialty event, such as a wine dinner.
This year representing the Red Water Café, which opened late last year in Waimea, chef David Abraham returned to the Taste preparing beef bottom round. Abraham and his staff prepared a succulent roast sandwich sampler topped with local tomatoes and greens.
“The meat made the decision for me. I put him in the smoker and he sat there all night. What else do you do with a roast?” he said.
Educational vendors included the Paniolo Preservation Society, who this year honored the late cowboy Walter “Wala” Stevens, widely considered one of the best horseman Parker Ranch ever produced. Taste participants also sampled Kona coffee, organic goat cheese, tea and white chocolate infused with crunchy taro chips.
The challenge of this year’s mountain oysters, or bull testicles, was met by executive chef Jayson Kanekoa and his crew at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott.
“The objective is to get everyone to try it, and make it easier for them to enjoy,” he said, admitting, “It’s more challenging than other meats.”
Kanekoa was inspired by assistant chef, Raylynn Kanehailua, who has a Puerto Rican background. Their mountain oyster pasteles embodied the flavors inherent to that culture.
Mealani Research Station, which initiated this yearly event 16 years ago, is part of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR). Located in Waimea, the research facility tests, investigates and demonstrates products for Hawaii County farmers and ranchers to use.
In 1995, the Mealani Station started to experiment with grass-fed cattle to produce, through selective breeding, a quality grade beef raised entirely on grass. This beef has emerged as a favorite among local chefs that is also free from hormones and antibiotics.
“We believe the popularity of our event is due to its uniqueness in using grass-fed beef and forage fed livestock (goats, wild boar, lamb and mutton) with locally grown products from our island,” said Leomi L. Bergknut, Taste of the Hawaiian Range Event Coordinator. “Grass-fed beef is featured here from “head to tail” and mountain oysters, oxtail, and tongue continue to be popular. People also like meeting the people of our aina and talking story with them, the ranchers, farmers and chefs who make us remember how onlicious food on our island is at our event and can be at home too.”
Lamb, mutton and goat rounded out the evening’s tasting options. The Four Season’s chefs James Babian and Angela Kenyan prepared island goat rangala, using traditional Indian spices with fresh island ingredients which took the “gaminess” out of the goat. This dish was named in honor of two guests from India who regularly stay at the hotel and cook a family style meal for the staff.
For former Kohala resident Teri Martin, back for a visit from California, this was her first time attending the event.
“All the times I worked here and now I’m back as a tourist,” she said. “I always heard about this event but was never able to come until now, and can’t believe how exponentially it has grown.”