Last year, Four Seasons Resort Hualalai Chef James Babian put out a call for a long list of produce items he would buy if Hawaii Island farmers would grow them.
Farmers responded, and Babian was able to add locally grown asparagus, potatoes, watermelon radish and black radish to his restaurants’ repertoire, the chef told a gathering of Big Island farmers and wholesalers Wednesday afternoon at the resort.
“Those are victories,” Babian said. “Those are things we aren’t importing.”
Wednesday, for the third year in a row, Babian celebrated his suppliers with a lunch, and issued a revised plea for local produce. From bulk items for stock — carrots, celery and onions — to several varieties of peppers, mushrooms and peas, Babian highlighted the needs he still has for his own kitchen.
At the Four Seasons, 80 percent of the types of produce Babian buys may be local, but about 40 percent of the produce, by weight, is still from the mainland, he said.
Maureen Datta, of Adaptations Inc., a Kealakekua-based wholesaler and produce delivery company, credited Babian with taking the lead in seeking out seasonal, artisanal and regional produce has resulted in an expansion of agricultural markets across the island.
“What you need is a guaranteed market in order to take the risk and plant” new types of produce, Datta said.
When farmers know they have that guaranteed market, they often plant double or triple the amount the one buyer needs, and then can sell the excess produce elsewhere, she added. That brings new varieties of produce to other restaurants, as well as grocery and health food stores and farmers markets.
Locally grown produce has the added benefit of having a lower carbon footprint, because it doesn’t have to travel as far, and comes with less packaging than something shipped from the mainland, Datta said.
“(Babian is) the essential ingredient to Hawaii sustaining itself,” she added. “His priority has always been, ‘How can we serve each other?’”
Babian was the first chef to ever approach Kulana Foods Ltd. and ask for a whole head of beef, Sales Manager Tom Asano said. Not the first in recent memory, Asano said, but since the company opened in the 1939.
“I call him a pacesetter,” Asano said. “This wish list is to enhance his desire of being sustainable and local. That really warms my heart. It really is a joy.”
Lesley Hill, executive director for Hamakua’s Wailea Agricultural Group Inc., said farmers appreciate the kind of work Babian is doing to drum up business for them.
“It’s encouraging for people to know if we grow it, they will buy it,” Hill said.
Even better for farmers is the recognition and appreciation they get when chefs serve the local produce to consumers who enjoy it, she added.
In the next five years, Hill said she expects more farmers will experiment with new and different varieties of produce.
“We try a lot of different things because it’s fun,” she said. But for farmers to grow something commercially, “it has to make economic sense.”
Reece Asakura, of Armstrong Produce, another wholesale produce delivery company, said until five years ago, he didn’t see much of a push by restaurants to use local produce.
“Hands down, the tides have turned,” Asakura said. “Now there’s not enough farmers.”