Winners of the Tasting Kauai Coconut Cook Off
On a bright Saturday afternoon, Ron Miller strides into our cooking tent wearing a crisp white chef jacket with short sleeves. His restaurant, Hukilau Lanai, is embroidered across his left breast and a black apron with white pinstripes is tied around his waist. Michael Young, executive chef at Sheraton Kauai, pulls his ponytail from the apron strapped over his chef’s whites. Ron and Micheal shake hands as Michael Sterioff, owner of Passion Bakery, delivers bags of baguettes and ciabatta breads, still warm from the oven. As the six remaining chefs trickle in, they greet each other with smiles, handshakes and claps on the back.
The chefs pace the length of two pantry tables, quietly rub their chins and examine produce that is freshly harvested by Rising Sun Organic Farm in Moloaa, and Kealia Farm in Kapaa. There’s also fresh coconut, provided by Kalalea Juice Hale in Anahola. Half-gallon jars of chilled coconut cream, milk and water are surrounded by containers of spoon meat, mature meat and coconut sprouts.
Coconuts are trendy today, but they’ve been a mainstay since Polynesian voyagers tucked them into canoes and settled in Hawaii. On Kauai, the Kapaa Business Association celebrates the Royal Coconut Coast by hosting the Coconut Festival, now in it’s twentieth year. We are honored to sponsor the inaugural Tasting Kauai Coconut Cook Off, which enables some of Kauai’s top chefs to cook coconut in creative ways.
Pantry tables are also stocked with Mason jars that are filled with herbs. Sprays of purple basil, cilantro and mint sit near nobs of fresh ginger, scallions, kaffir lime leaves, chili peppers, lemongrass stalks and one head of garlic. Piles of Swiss chard, collard greens, arugula, and baby lettuce are flanked by beets, broccoli, eggplant, wing beans, cranberry beans, rainbow micro carrots, cooked taro corms, cucumbers and bok choy. A colorful arrangement of tropical fruit includes purple sugarcane stalks, magenta dragonfruit, blushing pomegranate, sunrise papaya, yellow passion fruit and apple bananas and green avocados, as well as noni, breadfruit, star fruit and Kauai Sugarloaf Pineapple. Bowls of oranges, Tahitian limes, kaffir limes, key limes, Meyer lemons, variegated lemons and calamansi are placed next to bottles of Koloa Coconut Rum.
Up to 90 percent of the food in Hawaii is imported, but at this event, about 90 percent is from Kauai, including beef from Makaweli Meat Co., opah and mongchong from Garden Isle Seafood and Kauai Shrimp. Maui Nui Venison, Niihau Ranch lamb and sea salt as well as ground pepper, and oil, sugar, flour, and vinegar made from coconut, round out the imports. All of these produce and proteins can be purchased at Hanai.
Emcees Addison Bulosan and his partner Juno Apalla begin the competition by drawing chef’s names from a hat, and paring them into four teams. The results are:
- Team I: Rodman Machado, executive chef at Kauai Beach Resort and Thomas Fuquay, owner and executive chef at Nom Breakfast & Burgers food truck.
- Team 2: Ron Miller and Michael Young.
- Team 3: Sean Smull, executive chef at Oasis on the Beach, and Adam Watten, owner and executive chef at Hanai.
- Team 4: Joe Fox, executive chef at Kauai Beer Company and Eric Sudeth, executive chef at the soon-to-open Kauai Bar.
“How many stages of edible coconut are there?” Addison asks the chefs, which begins the protein selection process. It’s a tough question, but Team 1 is close when they answers six, which is one shy.
“How many colors do coconuts come in?” Juno asks. While Team 1 selects their protein, Team 2 gives the correct answer of four.
“How long does it take before you can eat a sprouted coconut?” Asks Addison. (Here’s a hint for you: sprouts are edible after a coconut ripens on the tree, falls to the ground and a baby palm tree grows through the shell. Inside, a tuft of airy and moist endosperm is embossed with crevasses from the shell.)
The question stumps the chefs and after two tries, Team 3 answers, “Eleven months,” which is the closest. Coconuts mature on the tree for 12 months then sprout in one to four months. Team 3 forfeits their protein selection because each chef is allowed to bring one secret ingredient, and Adam’s is cured bacon that’s for sale at Hanai.
As the timer begins to countdown one hour, chefs race to gather ingredients while the audience stands, or sits, craning their heads forward, on rows of wood benches. The smell of Maui Nui Venison sizzling in coconut oil reaches the judges’ noses, who sit with scorecards and pens ready to rank taste, use of coconut, originality and presentation, on a scale from one to ten.
Addison invites the crowd to cruise the chef’s stations, watch them cook and ask questions. Ten minutes before Round 1 is over, two giveaways are announced. Valerie Barko, who moved to Kauai two weeks ago and now lives in Lihue, as well as California resident, Nancy Bennett, win guest judge positions.
One by one, each team presents their dish to the judges. Team 1’s banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) is made with a Passion Bakery baguette toasted in coconut oil, filled with coconut-braised lamb and topped with a green papaya, cucumber and cilantro salad.
Team 2 quick-smokes Maui Nui Venison, and serves it with paiai (pronounced pa ee eye) fritters made with coconut meat, spoon meat and sprouted coconut, then rolled in coconut flour and fried in coconut oil. Paiai, Michael’s secret ingredient, is cooked and ground taro corms. The venison rests on sautéed sprouted coconut, wing beans, micro carrots and scallions which are surrounded by a pool of curry sauce made with lemongrass, coconut spoon meat, sprouted coconut, curry leaf, cilantro, mint, and basil that are gently sautéed, simmered in coconut milk and pureed. The dish is finished with coconut oil infused with Tradewind’s Spice Company’s Madame Pele’s Heat and garnished with nasturtium and basil flowers and amaranth sprouts from Kauai Micro Greens.
Team 3 presents rounds of taro fried in coconut oil and topped with bok choy, bacon, diced mature coconut, ribbons of coconut spoon meat, heirloom baby lettuce and nasturtium flowers, while Team 4 prepares crostini topped with Koloa Coconut Rum drunken Kauai Shrimp and breadfruit slaw with avocado and shrimp-infused coconut oil.
The judges’ scorecards reveal Team 2 as winners for Round 1, and celebrity chef Sam Choy appears as a special guest judge for Round 2. After tasting Kauai Kine Shrimp and Grits, Sam gives the winning team tens across the board. The grits are cooked with diced mature coconut, coconut oil, coconut water, coconut milk and scallions. Collards, which are cooked in coconut water, are added to the grits. Whole Kauai Shrimp tossed in a mixture of coconut flour and Madame Pele’s Heat are deep-fried in coconut oil and placed on the grits. The final touch is a fresh salsa made by sautéing Kauai Sugarloaf Pineapple in coconut oil, delegalizing the pan with Koloa Coconut Rum, and adding Hawaiian chili pepper, cilantro, coconut vinegar and coconut sugar. Team 1 takes the second round and wins first place overall.
The giveaway table earns $159 for the Hawaii Food Bank – Kauai Branch. Mary Nakamura of Kapaa wins an autographed copy of Sam Choy’s poke cookbook. Kim Wright of Lihue wins one Tasting Kauai Royal Coconut Coast Kauai Food Tour. Dale Rosenfeld wins the Tasting Kauai app and Derrick Green wins an autographed copy of “Tasting Kauai – Restaurants: An Insider’s Guide to Eating Well on the Garden Island.” Kim Shields of Kapaa wins signed original art from 10,000 Hands. Kimi Cardwell, also from Kapaa, wins a basket of autographed “Tiki Goddess Mystery Series” novels by Hanalei-based author Jill Marie Landis. Bright Smith of California walks away with a heavy cooler full of ingredients used in the competition. Cody Meyer, owner of Rising Sun Organic Farm, leaves to take his toddler, Rosa, home for a nap. Afterwards, she gathers her plastic cooking toys and pretends to compete in a coconut cook-off.
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