The Ho-Lee Alliance: Ho Farms and The Pig & the Lady Present a New Farm-to-Table Paradigm

The Pig & the Lady, located in Honolulu’s Chinatown district, has developed a steadfast following for its unique Vietnamese-inspired menu, whimsical personality and family narrative. Chef de cuisine Keaka Lee has elevated the original concept with elegant fusion dishes that emphasize local ingredients and fresh, vibrant flavors. Keaka’s style focuses on a seasonal menu that highlights the restaurant’s affiliations with the community. For Keaka, strong relationships between chefs and farmers are central to achieving a sustainable, effective local food network. Chefs and farmers partner to provide a complete farm-to-table culinary experience. 

This symbiotic relationship was on display when The Pig & the Lady joined forces with Ho Farms, a family farm located on Oahu’s North Shore, to host a collaborative six-course farm-to-table dinner with wine pairings designed to stimulate conversations about food, community and culture. Sounds informatively tasty.

Let's wine and swine

The Commercial Agriculture Dilemma

Here in Hawaii, we like to eat. A lot, frequently, and with friends. This passionate food culture is an expression of Hawaii’s broader cultural and ethnic diversity. This commingling of culture and cuisine is wonderfully expressed at any family gathering or potluck at the beach. It's not a party without poke, manapua and kalbi.

The culinary cognoscenti creates ...

Hawaii’s geographic isolation, however, complicates this culture. With large commercial farms abroad that can utilize economies of scale to produce cheap, abundant crop yields, there is economic pressure to procure ingredients from offshore sources.  Even when accounting for shipping expenses, it becomes a more cost-effective model for ingredients to be farmed elsewhere, and transported the 2,500+ miles on container freight. With the exorbitant cost of living in Hawaii, residents welcome any reprieve. This model, however, leaves local farmers vulnerable to large, offshore commercial operations with better profit margins. Competition is relentless. Consumers ultimately lose as well, receiving an inferior product with poor flavor and nutritional integrity. Cheaper isn’t always better.

The Sustainable Agriculture Paradigm

Several decades ago, a local chef collective, including Roy Yamaguchi, George Mavrothalassitis and Alan Wong, realized a gastronomic epiphany: to create unparalleled cuisine, premium-quality ingredients are essential. This vision shifted the collective culinary focus to a local, ingredient-driven philosophy. The pursuit of great flavor invariably relies upon great agriculture. In this model, local farms were indispensable. Sorry, Big Farm. The farm-to-table recalibration resulted in a distinctive local cuisine that featured the best of Hawaii: fresh seafood, tropical fruits and produce in a fusion of ethnic food traditions from across the Pacific. Aloha, Pacific-Rim revolution. 

A new generation of local chefs, including Keaka, are expanding the farm-to-table movement. Keaka strives for a more intimate knowledge of ingredients that facilitates the best possible preparation, combinations, and, ultimately, customer experience. His curiosity is a catalyst for experimentation with unique flavors, aromas, and obscure ingredients. At its best, this is a harmonious integration of agriculture and culinary art.

Keaka also believes that sustainable agriculture is fundamentally about people. Rather than simply relying on purveyors to convey what local ingredients may be available, Keaka visits farms and learns firsthand what is cultivated locally, when it is available, and how to broaden his ingredient repertoire. Farmers work tremendously hard, and chefs like Keaka recognize their dedication and value. Food constituents are no longer a distant source of produce and products; they are strategic ecological relationships to be developed and strengthened. A culinary collaboration that begins on the farms and in the dairies, butcher shops and breweries.

Farmer’s Market Fusion

There is no better representation of this trend than the local farmer’s markets that thrive across the islands. Embark on a culinary adventure where farm and food collide in a wonderful accord of flavor, vibrancy and excitement. These markets are packed with patrons procuring vegetables, coffee, flowers and fruits while enjoying made-to-order foods ranging from Brazillian Pão de Queijo to Laotian Grilled Chicken Bahn Mi, Hawaiian Poke Nachos and Lilikoi Chiffon Pie.

Farmer’s markets are one of the most intriguing ways to join farmer and chef in an environment that fosters ingenuity, quality and community. The Pig & the Lady started as a small pho noodle and bahn mi stall amongst the market mainstays, and this setting is still vital to the restaurant’s ethos.

The Ho Lee Grail of Dinner Collaborations

Ho Lee Crickets, that looks like a fantastic lineup.

When chef meets farmer, the culinary culmination is an environment that enhances and showcases the talents of both. Ho Lee Grail did just that. Playfully titled for its masterminds, Shin Ho and Keaka Lee (friends since 2009 when they were a part of the American Culinary Federation Student Team Hawaii at Kapiolani Community College), the dinner colorfully illustrated the lighthearted creativity that has become a hallmark of The Pig & the Lady. Eating should be fun, and the overall experience memorable. The Pig & the Lady has excelled at giving the customer a good time. This dinner was no exception.

Ho Lee Shiit-ake! The first course, a shiitake mushroom galette, with Ho Farms spigarello and baby carrots, set the tempo for a long and delectable evening. A wonderful, flaky pastry covered with a savory mushroom filling imparted an outstanding pot pie sensation on the palate, with the spigarello and baby carrots providing earthy flavors and texture. To pair, a glass of prosecco.

Wait, what? At first glance, this was a curious pairing. Prosecco, native to Veneto in northern Italy, is a light, dry sparkling wine with bright expressive aromas and flavors of green apple, honeydew melon, pear, and honeysuckle. With all of this fruit bursting from the glass, prosecco usually presents rather sweet. Not the first wine to come to mind for this rich, earthy, creamy course.

This wine, however, was no ordinary prosecco. The Bele Casel Colfòndo Prosecco uniquely utilizes a fermentation process similar to the Champagne method, with secondary fermentation occurring in the bottle (rather than large tanks typical for prosecco). In a diversion from the Champagne method, the yeast is not disgorged and instead remains in the bottle until consumed. As a result, the wine possessed complex flavors of fruit and earthiness, with a texture that paired excellently with the creamy mushroom filling and flaky pastry. In typical prosecco style, the finish was dry, cleansing the palate and leaving you ready for the next course.

The second course, seared Hawaiian Mackerel with Ho Farms cherry tomatoes and okra in a yuzu ponzu sauce, featured Ho Farms’ venerated specialty tomatoes. Ho Farms has deservedly earned a reputation for producing the best tomatoes on the island. For me, quality tomatoes are paramount; diligent pursuit and procurement is an absolute necessity in life. Ho Farms dependably delivers (metaphorically, not literally, or else my diligence pursuit would be substantially mitigated).

These tomatoes, however, demonstrate a fundamental problem for small farmers. Effective farm management requires careful selection of a diversity of produce to maintain healthy, resilient soils. Some produce provides soil with necessary nitrogen, while others build soil structure. Still others assist in cleansing soils of pathogens and diseases. Farmers cannot produce those tasty tomatoes without a host of other crops. Each item has a role in the overall health and sustainability of the farm. If restaurants and consumers only buy delicious Ho Farms tomatoes, these other critical plantings go to waste. Collaborative dinners such as this can help chefs and consumers to understand the full spectrum of produce being cultivated by local farms, their role in farm health and sustainability, and how to utilize more of them in the culinary context. In this way, we can truly and more comprehensively support local agriculture.

Ho Lee Mackerel, this fish is hard to pair with wine! What was Keaka doing to his poor sommelier? As the somm admitted, this was the evening’s most difficult pairing, but he was up to the challenge. The wine, a Quivira 2016 Sauvignon Blanc from Dry Creek in Sonoma County, was expressive with stone minerality and flavors of green bell pepper, cut grass, tropical fruit and lemon peel. Mackerel is a tough partner, given its distinct, strong and oily characteristics, but this wine's medium body and well-developed texture held up, and the citrus and vegetal profile paired wonderfully with the yuzu ponzu sauce and okra. A tough pairing executed with precision.

The third course consisted of braised pork belly with a Ho Farms butternut squash mole and puffed wheat berries. The variety of ingredients on the menu, including this course, showcase the variety of Ho Farms’ produce. It’s not only about the tomatoes (as delicious as they are). Want to make a thick, creamy mole for your burrito or pork belly? Ho Farms squash is on the job.

The mole brought a thick texture and mild spice to the palate, with saltiness from the pork belly providing a full flavor profile. The dish was paired with a Vina Bujanda Tempranillo from Rioja, Spain. The spices and jammy fruit flavors of the Tempranillo matched the dish and accented the salty pork belly and spiced butternut squash mole. The puffed wheat berries brought crunch to the dish and some pleasant wheat accents.

When transitioning to an ingredient-focused, farm-to-table methodology, local chefs had two tremendous advantages: abundant, fresh seafood and exotic tropical flavors. The fourth course exhibits the riches of the Pacific with squid ink farfalle pasta, made in-house, with smoked Ho Farms baby Roma tomatoes alla vodka, Kauai shrimp, Parmesan cheese and a lemon confit.

Ho Lee Smokes, is that a red wine pairing with all of this seafood pasta? At first glance, the dish might inspire a white wine, but the smoked tomatoes afforded the opportunity for a less traditional pairing. Enter one of South Africa’s contributions to the vinous world, Warwick Estate’s Pinotage from Stellenbosch. The Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, was fruit-driven, light and refined in texture, with bright acidity that helped to pair with the cheese and shrimp. A food-friendly wine, Pinotage is definitely worth exploring. 

The primary entrée course for the evening was a koji-aged rib eye au poivre with Sichuan peppercorns and Ho Farms Romano beans and eggplant. Never heard of koji? It is actually the same ingredient that is central to the sake-brewing process, as I explained in my Sake Science 101 post.

Ho Lee Cow, this entrée was bold, flavorful and rich, requiring an equally bold wine with firm, astringent tannins to counterbalance the proteins and fat on the palate. Cabernet Sauvignon was a natural choice.

Frog’s Leap Winery, located in Napa Valley, adheres to a terroir-driven vinicultural philosophy that produces wines reflecting their native soils, climate and geography. The result is a wine that is less fruit-dominant than most of its Napa counterparts, with pronounced earthiness and aromas of dark fruits, blackberry and cassis with coffee accents. The wine's firm tannins, complex structure and flavor profile matched wonderfully with the koji-aged rib eye and vegetal components of the dish. 

Not every ingredient or beverage can be purchased from a local vendor. If that was a requirement, Hawaii’s vinous options would be severely (and excruciatingly) limited. When it is necessary to reach beyond Hawaii’s shores, it is imperative for restaurants (and consumers) to nonetheless consider the business practices, policies and philosophies of potential vendors. The Pig & the Lady found a like-minded vinous partner in Frog’s Leap, an organic vineyard that strives to maintain healthy and resilient soils through meticulous viticultural standards and practices. A great wine produced responsibly.

In a tribute to one of Hawaii’s most popular desserts, the final course was a fresh, deep-fried malasada (Portuguese doughnut) dusted with Ho Farms kalamungay, a small-leafed bushy tree known for its health benefits. The malasada was accompanied by a refreshing cucumber-basil gelato. Inspired by the playful vegetal tradition originating in Japan, Ho Farms began to grow some of its cucumbers in heart- and star-shaped molds. Chefs shouldn’t have all the fun. The decorative and delicious cucumbers were a satisfying reminder that vegetables can play an aesthetic role in any dish.

This dessert could have easily been paired with a number of sweet dessert wines, but our esteemed sommelier went off the beaten path to provide a lesser known (but equally delicious) alternative: the Royal Tokaji Late Harvest from the Tokaj appellation in Mád, Hungary. The Tokaj region has a long history of distinguished winemaking and produces a relatively rare wine made with fruit affected by noble rot, induced by the Botrytis fungus, that shrivels grapes and concentrates their sugar. The result is a sweet wine valued for its richness and complexity.

The wine, pale gold in color, presented delicate aromas of stone fruit and spice with balanced acidity and a wonderful, silky texture. The wine coated the palate and paired excellently with the warm, light and fluffy malasada, particularly the tea-like flavors provided by the kalamungay. The cucumber-basil gelato was an excellent palate cleanser that left you refreshed and content.

Ho Lee Balls; that was a fine finish.

The Farm-to-Table Recombination

Ho Lee Grail is a delicious reminder that our food habits can, and should, reflect our local ecological reality. Are your dinner plate components and proportions truly sustainable?

Agricultural sustainability can only be achieved if we possess a genuine intellectual curiosity and desire to know food origins, contents, and nutritional benefits. The initial farm-to-table movement was a terrific start; we can make it better. Want to join the revolution? A few simple suggestions.

  • Traverse the farmer’s markets to support local endeavors. Enjoy a Basil-Calamansi Thai Gingerade and some Deep-Fried Okinawan Sweet Potatoes. It will be delightful.
  • Dialogue with farmers and learn about their methods and products. They are passionate and love to share their stories and expertise.
  • Consider crop rotations and seasonal vegetables, and adjust your grocery list accordingly.
  • Try new ingredients that are available locally; don’t be afraid of a little culinary experimentation.
  • And, of course, support restaurants and collaborations such as Ho Lee Grail that aim to present the dining experience in a responsible, sustainable manner.

Eat well. Eat smart. Eat local.

Cheers!