Talking Story with Ed Kenney

On O‘ahu, just about everybody knows Restauranteur and Chef Ed Kenney (or at least know of him). While Ed prefers the solitude of the kitchen over the attention and visibility he receives in the front of the house, his humble and quiet demeanor has not kept him from leading a conscious community of local food and sustainability advocates. He can tell you the best seasonal produce stocked at the farmers’ market or how to process a wild boar caught in the local mountains, but he won’t mention that he was integral in bringing Hawai‘i’s farm-to-table movement into the public eye. With a mission for supporting local farmers and reestablishing food security in Hawai‘i, Ed is one of those people whose actions, as well as his cooking, speak louder than his words.

When Ed opened his first restaurant, Town, in Kaimukī, he coined “Local first, organic whenever possible, with Aloha always.” The catchphrase coalesced a conscious community, people who care about the story behind their food. Sea to table, farm to fork, butcher to bar, however you say it, Ed Kenney serves it up everyday at Town, Mud Hen Water, Kaimuki Superette, and Mahina & Sun’s.

Where did your passion for cooking and sustainability come from? Who first shared their love of cooking with you?
It’s my mom, definitely—single mom, raised two boys. Out of economics she cooked everything from scratch. We had one of those houses where the door was always open and she was always feeding a bunch of us; it was an open-door policy and we were all about sharing food with friends.

How did you come to incorporate a sustainable, local-first element to your cooking?
There was a revelation at some point. As a chef you’re looking for best ingredients, and the best dishes start with best ingredients. Something that’s closer to the source and hasn’t traveled thousands of miles, been refrigerated, picked green, and artificially ripened like the tomatoes they ship in.

When you grow up in Hawai‘i, there’s an unspoken attachment to this place. You want to preserve it. Then you have kids and it changes even more so because you’re not doing things just for self or your customers, but for the next generation. The emotional level of doing the right thing drives me.

I think chefs are in unique position to move a cause forward. Between our four restaurants we feed 350 to 400 people a day. Each one of those people can be exposed to the stories we tell through food.

What is your perspective on local food culture and farm-to-table cooking? And to take it a step further, how has it evolved?
Traditionally, restaurants are profitable based on set menus and consistency. Working with small farms, we knew we had to turn that model upside down. We had to change the menu every day, buy whatever came in the back door, and use it up as best we can. The reviews were mixed at first, but by year three we were busting at the seams and our vision was realized. We got in at right time and were the first ones to democratize local food. At that time the menu was twice as long as it had to be because every item had a place name in front of it—Waimānalo, Mokule‘ia, Waialua. Now, we don’t do that anymore because it’s almost expected.

What type of relationship do you have with MA‘O Farms?
We refer to ourselves as co-producers. It’s not just a farmer and chef relationship; our overall success is a result of each other’s success. There’s no better beet, root vegetables, or arugula on the island, and it’s organic. MA‘O Farms is unique because it’s a nonprofit social enterprise. It provides leadership opportunities to at-risk or underserved youth from the Wai‘anae community, known for its economic indicators of poverty. The farm provides them with the opportunity to get a university degree in community sustainable food systems for free, while at same time reconnecting with the ‘āina, which in native Hawaiian culture is the focus of everything.

How important are farmers’ markets in steering local residents back to locally grown food and making connections with farmers?
Michael Pollan, in his book, In Defense Of Food, said that 11-times more interactions take place at a farmers’ market than at a supermarket. That’s part of the sustainability equation that is overlooked. You’ve got the environmental aspect and the economic, but that social leg of three-leg stool is often not talked about. That’s where restaurants and farmers’ markets really shine. It gives you the opportunity to meet those people, know your farmer, and know where the food comes from.

When you put your heart into every dish you cook, how important is sharing that food around the table and bringing people together?
It’s synonymous. In order to be in this business and stick with it you have to be a sharing, giving person. Otherwise you could work a lot less hours and make a lot more money. It may be a self-defeating prophecy, but it would be wonderful if more people stayed home, cooked and ate together as a family. It would help make the world a better place.