A Recipe for Sustainability

By John Cox

The problem with following recipes is finding the right ingredients. We assume that recipes tasted good when they were created, otherwise someone wouldn’t have bothered to record them—yet somewhere in the aisles of a giant supermarket decisions are made that set the cook up for failure.

Maybe it was the avocado they pushed on just hard enough to convince themselves it was ripe, or maybe it was the parsley they picked out because the cilantro bin was empty. With so many ingredients it is no wonder people find themselves making concessions and substitutions when following recipes.

“Garbage in, garbage out” is an expression you can hear in kitchens around the country, meaning quite simply that if you start with poor quality ingredients you will end up with poor quality food. Even the best chef can’t overcome this basic law.

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All food is in a constant state of evolution. Fruit, especially the more exotic varieties, has only a few hours to be enjoyed at its apex of ripeness; if eaten prematurely it will be sour and astringent, yet if given a day too long on the shelf it can turn into a pile of cloying mush.

The day after an ahi is caught it is best used as sashimi; the following day it might be used as tartare or ceviche, and by the fourth day it is best cooked. After that, the fish is no longer useful to the chef.

Creating a perfect meal requires that you are able to identify multiple ingredients at their peak and combine them in a way that preserves the integrity of each item—while elevating the entire dish.

The best solution may be to approach your next meal backwards: Start by searching for the perfect ingredients and then use your cookbooks and recipes for inspiration.

There is no better place to begin writing a menu than at your back door. Quite logically, the closer an ingredient can be found, the more likely it is to be fresh and the fresher the ingredient the more flavor it will have. Food that has been harvested by neighbors and friends does not need a fancy recipe to be memorable; even the simplest preparation
will be a success.

Often the most rewarding part of cooking is the never-ending quest for perfect ingredients: the delicate stem of watercress plucked from beside a volcanic streambed or the seductive perfume of a Jamaican lilikoi fresh from the vine.

Hawaii is blessed with countless farms and fishermen, a resource we should not take for granted. Even here in Hana, on the far eastern side of Maui, we are fortunate to have dozens of farms and fishermen as part of our community. Whether I am planning a simple meal at home or an elaborate tasting menu for guests in Ka’uiki, I always start
with local ingredients.

As a chef you can never forget the work and sacrifice that goes into every ingredient before it ever reaches the kitchen. For this reason everything from a humble bag of earth-clad carrots to the most valued cut of sashimi-grade tuna must be treated with respect and care.

I believe in using ingredients that have a soul. I want to know exactly where each item in my kitchen came from. I want to be able to visualize the clearing in the rainforest where the beets were harvested, smell the saltwater at the pier where the fish was brought to shore and picture the perfect rows of lettuce growing high above the ocean in
Kula. I want to know who picked the herbs that are going in tonight’s salad and who caught the snapper that I am about to sauté.

Without a profound knowledge of an ingredient’s past, you cannot identify its future. By utilizing these items in our cooking we not only create incredible meals, we also help support and perpetuate these regional treasures for future generations.