No offence to your preferred local food movement, but it can’t hold a sugar-cane stalk to what’s going on in Maui right now.
To be fair, Hawaii’s Valley Isle has a bit more reason to have its food – in the parlance of proud born-and-raised locals who apply it to their origins as well – “grown here, not flown here.”
The Hawaiian archipelago is not only the most remote state in the union – 4,000 kilometres from the nearest California fish and chips place – it is also the largest human population living in such isolation on the planet. Given that more than 85 per cent of the state’s food is imported, even the slightest disruption in the supply chain would be catastrophic. It happened in 1985, when airline pilots and barge company employees went on strike and the Hawaiian Islands quickly realized that the local supply chain only had enough food for a week.
But today, Perry Bateman isn’t interested in discussing his island home’s local culinary infatuation as a means of food security. The executive chef of Mama’s Fish House – long included on culinary bucket lists not just in the state, but the entire U.S. – much prefers to point out a more important benefit of eating his home’s bounty. “It just tastes better than anything from anywhere else,” he says, shrugging.
It’s Thursday just before the dinner rush and Chef Perry is giving me a tour of his kitchen as we dodge what seems like a majority of the 325 employees this economic powerhouse, launched exactly 40 years ago, employs.
Chef Perry, a local from Haiku town 15 minutes west of here, worked the Mama’s line for six years before taking over more than 15 years ago. He seamlessly weaves the culinary and the economic – his restaurant’s role in fostering today’s localism-on-the-plate over four decades, to how it’s one of the biggest business players on the island. “If this place closed, you’d see it in the New York Times,” he says. “On the North Shore of Maui, few places give jobs to so many.”
And throughout his sermon, he keeps bringing it back to Mama’s Fish House founders Floyd and Doris Christenson – about how they eschewed “vacations to Vegas” and poured profits back into a menu that not only searched for local ingredients, but celebrated the people who brought them to the kitchen, famously putting the names of the people who pull fish out of the ocean next to the tantalizing seafood plates on the menu, a practice that continues today.