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VOGUE | September 19, 2016

Why Oahu Is a Culinary Hotspot – A Food Crawl With Chef Ed Kenney

Chef Ed Kenney offers locals and visitor's an authentic taste of Hawaii at Mahina & Sun's

VOGUE editor Jen Murphy spent time with Mahina & Sun’s Chef Ed Kenney discovering Oahu’s best culinary delights. Here’s an excerpt of what she had to say:

Poke, plate lunch, and other Hawaiian staples are suddenly trendy thanks to buzzy restaurants like San Francisco’s Liholiho Yacht Club and Noreetuh in New York City. While Hawaiian food is having its moment on the mainland, it’s also having a renaissance in its birthplace. After years of cooking from a more international flavor palette, a young generation of Hawaiian chefs is embracing their culinary heritage, and smaller, local farms are finally emerging from the grips of plantation and export agriculture to provide chefs with an abundance of native products. In addition, creativity and culinary mystique are no longer limited to white-tablecloth establishments. “The casualization of fine dining has certainly taken root,” says chef Ed Kenney, a beloved leader in the Hawaiian food community. “Authentic Hawaiian food can be found far and wide at food trucks, cafés, pubs, and neighborhood restaurants.”

Of all of the islands, Oahu has emerged as the leader of this food revolution, fueled in large part by the creativity of chefs like Kenney, a pioneer of Oahu’s farm-to-table movement. The Honolulu-born chef grabbed the mainland’s attention when he opened his first restaurant, Town, in the Brooklyn-esque neighborhood of Kaimuki. What started as a Mediterranean-California inspired menu has evolved into a menu driven by traditional food products, like taro and kalo. In 2014, Kenney opened Kaimuki Superette, a farm-focused grocery store and casual breakfast and lunch spot. Here, Kenney reinvented mainland classics like the South Shore He’e Roll, an island twist on the lobster roll that stars poached octopus. Last year’s opening of Mud Hen Water cemented Kaimuki as a legitimate foodie neighborhood. Many consider the restaurant Kenney’s culinary opus, a return to the food he grew up eating, but with a sophisticated spin. The restaurant’s signature dish, a reinterpretation of Kenney’s favorite Hawaiian staple, squid lū’au, exemplifies “new Hawaiian” cooking. The traditional dish is basically he’e (octopus, also known as squid in Hawaii) braised with lū’au (the leaf of the taro plant) and coconut milk. “In most cases, it’s better to not mess with a dish like this that so many people have a primal connection to,” says Kenney. “So, we did very little different except the tender braised octopus is grilled like is often done in Italy and Spain resulting in a crispy smoky exterior. We also sprinkle the dish with a seed blend of sesame, toasted coconut, kukui nut, and dried chile.” The most significant change, and at the same time the most basic, was to revert back to braising the lū’au in fresh coconut milk, the way the Hawaiians did. “Everyone in Hawaii cooks with canned coconut milk now,” he says. “The act of husking, grating, and squeezing fresh coconut milk is virtually lost. We process six to eight coconuts per day for our lū’au. Even those that were born and raised on this dish love our version.”

Kenney spread his culinary creativity to Oahu’s touristy Waikiki neighborhood this spring, opening Mahina & Sun’s in the retro-hip Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club. Kenney hopes his latest restaurant will offer both locals and visitors and authentic taste of Hawaii that pays homage to a more elegant time: mid-century Waikiki. The setting is casual and the ingredients are local with an emphasis on sustainably sourced, local seafood. Don’t miss the Family Feast, a whole local fish accompanied by an array of indigenous sides such as ‘ulu (breadfruit), pohole (fern shoots), and limu (seaweed). And don’t miss these other Oahu spots that Kenney considers essential island eating.

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