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From Garden to Table By Wanda A. Adams Advertiser Food Editor
KULA, Maui ? Here, half hidden by a creeping Kula mist that offers only occasional glimpses of rolling pasture land and neatly plowed rectangles, is the reality and the dream of an unusual restaurant endeavor: a farm meant to completely supply a pair of restaurant's produce needs, to provide needed respite and outdoor time for staff, perhaps even to be the source of a line of bottled foodstuffs and an inn or cooking school. The dreamers are chef James McDonald of i'o and Pacific'O restaurants in Lahaina, restaurant partners Louis Coulombe and Stephan Bel-Robert and farm manager Robbie Vorfeld.
The reality is a little over eight acres of sloping land off Waipoli Road, several tilled rectangles, one small grape arbor and another of kiwi, scattered trees in mulched beds, and a whole lot of weeds and grasses interspersed with wild alyssum and fennel and a couple of stands of tangled blackcap raspberry canes.
McDonald, a flamboyant figure in red-checked chef pants and two-tone golf shoes (for better traction in the rich, crumbling soil), leads a small group of press over the property, outlining the vision. "I see i'o and Pacific'O evolving into very seasonal restaurants," he said. Last week, for example, the farm's small supply of strawberries was used as garnish. Already, 20 percent of produce used in the restaurants ? mostly herbs and greens ? comes from the farm.
The farm project got its start more than a year ago when Coulombe and his wife started looking for land for a weekend getaway. He had seen the parcel off Waipoli Road from the air, when he was paragliding, and admired it.
Coulombe's goal is to bind the farm and the restaurants together in a self-perpetuating circle. "I have always been looking at all the waste we have in the restaurants. When you trim a head of lettuce you have all these ends, and where do they go? In the garbage. Now they go to the farm, to make compost," he said, proudly. They're even talking to some local pig farmers about recycling the table scraps from the farm, perhaps trading the scraps for manure to be used to make fertilizer for the farm.
"It's a small scale, but this kind of thing really makes you feel good," Coulombe said.
Meanwhile, McDonald is looking forward to a chef's dream: a custom-tailored fruit and vegetable supply.
"I made a list of the things I wanted to see produced, then we researched to see what would and wouldn't grow here," McDonald said. "When we couldn't find out for sure, we bought seeds and just chanced it. We're in the experimental phase." We trail him through the damp grass, his discourse interrupted only by bird calls and horses whinnying.
Here will be the yurts: commodious, all-weather tents modeled on those used by nomadic Mongols. "We want employees to be able to kind of decompress; they'll be able to come here on weekends," he said. Every Wednesdays, any employee who likes is welcome to come up and work on the farm and enjoy a picnic on the property.
Here is the shiitake and oyster mushroom farm: a few downed trees into which holes have been bored. The holes have been seeded with mushroom spores shielded by cheese wax; the mushrooms will emerge like ears on the woody medium. "Once they start, they keep going for several years," he said.
Every few feet are slender saplings tagged with silvery markers, an ambitious array of good things: kaimana lychee, bonita peach, Desert Dawn nectarine, pluot (a plum/kumquot cross), Einsheimer apple, Eversweet pomegranates, apple persimmons, nutmeg, walnut, Tahitian lime. The trees are bedded in mulch made from the wattle that once covered the property, McDonald said. "Our goal is to recycle everything in the same way," he said. There will be 400 or so trees.
In the garden, a row of healthy lemon grass ? said to deter certain garden pests ? forms a border. One corner is Vorfeld's test kitchen: artichokes (seemingly thriving, with buds the size of Arnold Swarzzenagger's fist), asparagus, purple bulb onions.
Long beds mulched with hay and lined with drip navigation hoses produce the Bloomsdale upright spinach that is featured in McDonald's lobster salad, as well as bok choy, tot soi, purple curly mustard, two varieties of chives, an exceptionally tender-leafed romaine. An herb bed contains chocolate mint that smells exactly like hot chocolate with a drop of peppermint in it, pineapple mint that brings chutney to mind, rosemary, curry leaf and gorgeous purple-gray young lavender bushes.
It is a delightfully crisp Saturday morning, perfect for a picnic, and McDonald serves a luncheon that elegantly entwines the two strains ? present and future. First, our small group breaks up into teams to fan out over the property and harvest the vegetables for the salad, and fruit for dessert.
Our dining room and prep area is an open-sided shed with a roof made of scavenged, warped corrugated tin and poles of old wood. Behind it is a small, crumbling farmhouse, ready to be moved to a corner of the property where it will become a tool shed. It is still surrounded by the remnant's of the farmer's flower garden.
We wash our pickings ? mizuno, baby bok choy, romaine, cilantro, parsley, nasturtium leaves, arugula and radicchio ? squatting beside an old plastic tub with a garden hose. The odd, purple-hued blackcap raspberries have to be picked over for leaves and tiny fugitive spiders; the fruit is tart but refreshing. The strawberries are small and achingly sweet and glisten after a washing.
A sagging plastic picnic table is stylishly set with linen and real glasses, and one of us cuts ruffled double hibiscus and lavender hydrangea for a centerpiece, surrounded by a few poha berries, their straw caps pulled back. Chilled pinot grigio is poured as McDonald tosses the salad with his signature smoked tomato vinaigrette and brings out plastic tubs of seared 'ahi and crumbled goat cheese as accompaniments. He sliced a tear-shaped onion paper thin and it is so white and sweet that it seems to melt into the dressing.
As is so often true with al fresco meals, the food, accompanied by views of horses racing each other in the paddock across the road, and a farm worker's children playing along the fence, is as delicious as any feast McDonald has prepared in his edgy Lahaina restaurants.
Later, he pulls a quart of cream and some mango puree from an ice chest, whips the cream by hand and serves the berries atop a dollop of the mixed mango puree and cream, with more mango drizzled over. He is, we laughlingly decide, "the drizzle king."
This place has inevitably been dubbed "McDonald's Farm," although kupuna Hokulani Holt Padilla will come soon to see the land, research its roots and find its proper Hawaiian name.
Here, the dream and the reality do really live side by side. Next door is a prosperous-looking hydroponic greens operation that sits on land that, not too many years ago, was the site of someone else's vision of a large, year-round strawberry farm ? an enterprise that came to naught although an eager market of chefs tried to make it work.
As he leads a tour of his own plantings, Vorfeld matter-of-factly recalls another farmer who was driven literally crazy, trying to keep up with an asparagus venture, because of all the cutting and digging and managing these coveted vegetables require.
Vorfeld knows the risks; he is a former manager at Pioneer Mill and holds a degree in crop science. He still heads up Pioneer Mill's diversified agriculture project when he's not working on the farm. He is working to sequence the produce, planting every few weeks so as one row is harvested, another is coming into production. "I call it a clock because it goes in a circle," he said.
He was pleased to learn after recent heavy rains that the soil on the farm, rich in volcanic ash, drains well. He's still figuring out what will and will not grow. "It's pretty easy to grow all of the leaf greens ? it's cool at night and warm during the day ? but it's hard to get some of the things that need more warmth," he said.
Coulombe said he doesn't think the dream is too far removed from reality, even when you consider the failure rate for both farms and restaurants. Their research showed one of the biggest challenges for farmers is pricing, selling and delivering their produce. But they won't have to deal with those issues at all.
Our picnic broke up just as the mist rolled in. "We would like to do some things like this on a regular basis," Coulombe said later. "Little cooking classes or a gardening class, seasonal events where we entertain groups. We have a lot of ideas."
I think there is a restaurant in Oahu like that too, but everybody tells me it is'nt like that. But there is this small farm right next to a mall, and a big restaurant, and I thought , cool they do their own farming also, but it is just some guy who did'nt want to sell his land. That guy will probraly be rich!
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