On a recent vacation to my hometown of Honolulu, a few friends and I sat down to a feast at Mahina & Sun's, Hawaii chef Ed Kenney's new restaurant in Waikiki's Surfjack Hotel, an impossibly cool spot kitted out with everything that any island hipster would love: pineapple-emblazoned coffee cups, old surfer flicks on repeat, intimate Hawaiian hip-hop concerts. Just as Hawaiian culture endeavors to stay rooted in tradition even as it breaks new ground, Kenney's food—here and at his other Honolulu eateries, Town, Kaimuki Superette, and Mud Hen Water—is no different. At dinner that night, the dishes were decidedly uptown, yet warmly familiar.
As we happily devoured mochiko-fried snapper, buttered 'ulu (bread fruit), and pohole (fiddlehead fern) salad, I understood why Kenney, in his faithfulness to local crops and heritage cooking, is utterly suited to host the Emmy-winning PBS food and culture series, Family Ingredients. In episode four, Kenney's anthropological quest to trace the lineage of traditional Hawaiian foods leads him to our neck of the woods, talking story, as the locals say, with chef Traci Des Jardins over a humble and beloved Mexican dish. Tune in for the Bay Area premiere of Family Ingredients on KQED Life and KQEH Life on July 4 at 9 p.m.
Why is it important for us to track food legacies?
I was born and raised in Hawaii and I've always seen the effects our food choices have on preserving the land. I've always focused on looking forward and telling the stories of the farmers and the people who are doing incredible work to keep this place beautiful, but I didn't spend much time looking back. I felt like I had an obligation to more deeply understand the food culture here. In each episode, we identify a Hawaiian dish and trace it back to its roots. It's a little more difficult than we ever imagined.
What Hawaiian dish brought you to the Bay Area?
I think many people think of Hawaii as surfing and hula and aloha shirts, but there's this place on the Big Island where there's not a palm tree in sight. There are rolling pastures and cattle and these Hawaiian cowboys called paniolo. They wear big giant belt buckles and cowboy boots. I mean, they look like they could have just ridden on horses straight out of the West. Anyway, they make this dried beef—essentially beef jerky—called pipi kaula that we traced back to the Mexican vaqueros in California who made spiced, dried beef called carne seca [also known as machaca]. When I found out that we'd be cooking machaca con huevos with San Francisco chef Traci Des Jardins—who's half Mexican—I was like, "I'm not worthy!" She's incredible.
Will you come back this way for season two of Family Ingredients?
We are starting filming next month. I've been sworn to secrecy, but I can tell you that we'll be filming again in Northern California. We'll also probably stop at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to learn about sustainable seafood. It's really important to me and for all of my restaurants.
Do you have any personal ties to the San Francisco?
My wife's mother is from Nob Hill and we make it a point to visit the city a couple times a year. I write it off as research and development since I'm a chef and San Francisco is the culinary epicenter of the universe.
We'll take the compliment. What spots do you usually hit up while you're here?
When we get off on the plane—the Hawaiian Air flight gets in at 10:30 p.m.—we always go straight to Nopa because it's the only cool place that's still open and bustling. We order those little fried fish and those giant wood-oven lima beans and one of their famous cocktails. To me, it's the quintessential San Francisco restaurant.
My favorite restaurant in the world is Camino in Oakland. We've become good friends with Russ Moore and Allison Hopelain, the owners. It's hard for me to identify just one dish that I love because the menu always changes, but I had mind-blowing duck breast there once.
Delfina definitely inspired my first restaurant in Hawaii, Town. It's 11-and-a-half years old. I still remember my first tastes at Delfina—calamari-and-white bean salad and this really simple tomato spaghetti.
Last time I was in San Francisco, I went to Liholiho Yacht Club. I love supporting [Oahu native] Ravi Kapur and seeing his take on the food we grew up with.
// Chef Ed Kenney's PBS series, Family Ingredients, debuts in the Bay Area on KQED on July 4.