`Aina Honua

 

DEAN OKIMOTO CAPTURES
TASTE OF THE ISLANDS IN NALO GREENS

BY MARI TAKETA

A gentle mist drifts down from the Koolaus as Dean Okimoto surveys his terrain. On this modest piece of windward O`ahu, acres of baby greens stud the earth like strands of rubies, emeralds and jade, their evocative names spanning the globe: Lolla Rossa, tatsoi, Kyona mizuna, Red Russian kale, French sorrel. Personally selected by Okimoto for
their taste, color and nutritional value, his signature Nalo Greens have become a staple of Hawaii Regional Cuisine.

“On the mainland, salad greens are usually grown in cooler conditions,” he explains. “Ours grow in volcanic soil, in 70- to 90-degree weather. The flavors are much bolder and zestier.”

Okimoto leans back in his folding chair in an open-air shed, surrounded by stacks of produce boxes. His shorts and sneakers are clean and white against the dirt of a working farm. Today the 53-year-old owner of Nalo Farms leaves the bulk of day-to-day operations to his 15 employees and spends half of his time as president of the Hawaii Farm
Bureau, lobbying legislators, supermarket executives and the community on the benefits of sustainable local agriculture. The ring of his cell phone interrupts his thoughts every few minutes.

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It wasn’t always so.When Okimoto joined his dad, Charles, on the family fruit and vegetable farm in the 1980s, it was almost as penance. His parents had put him through prep school in Honolulu and the University of Redlands in California, and then, in applying to law school, the brash Okimoto had missed the deadline by one day.When
he was growing up, weeding had been his punishment for breaking the rules. When he missed that deadline, he had dirt caking his nails every day.

But he stayed. When his dad retired, Okimoto took over and planted his acreage in herbs. Most of the land, in fact, was planted in basil in 1989, when the Fusarium wilt fungus decimated the crop and left 90 percent of his fields fallow. By then Okimoto was married and the father of a toddler.

“I was ready to quit. I would have gone on food stamps,” he recalls. “Then a friend of mine brought Roy over, and Roy told me to plant baby greens.”

Roy was Roy Yamaguchi. One of the founders of the fledgling Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, the young chef had recently opened his first Roy’s restaurant in Hawaii Kai and was looking for some multi-flavored local salad greens. Okimoto had nothing to lose. Together with one employee he started planting, cutting, packing and delivering a variety of greens, tailoring the mix to Yamaguchi’s requests. As Roy’s took off, so did Nalo Greens, which began appearing on menus throughout Hawaii. An invigorated Okimoto looked up menus of top restaurants across the country, and when he stumbled across an unknown green, flipped through his catalogs, ordered the seeds and experimented. Over time his four acres would eventually grow anywhere from 35 to 40 varieties of lettuces, microgreens including peppery
Roquette arugula, red mustard and curly cress, and delicate corn and pea sprouts.

Then master sommelier Chuck Furuya—the friend who had introduced him to Yamaguchi—invited him on a trip to California. They rented a car and spent 10 days tasting their way through vineyards from Eureka to Santa Barbara. Revelation came to Okimoto somewhere in between, when Furuya had him taste two Chardonnays—one from a
sea-level vineyard, the other from grapes grown at 3,000 feet.

“This was exactly the same grape, but the difference was dramatic. The sea-level Chardonnay was pungent and bold. The one from the higher elevation was buttery and mellow,” Okimoto says. “Chuck said, ‘What is wine? It’s farming.’ I thought, ‘Yeah!’”

With that, Okimoto came home and started buying salad mixes everywhere he could find them, including Costco. All were from the mainland; salad greens were considered non-mainstream, diversified agriculture in Hawaii, and no grower had the production capacity or the processing facilities to meet the food safety standards required by most supermarkets. Okimoto found that the taste differences between his warm-weather, sea-level produce and the mainland imports were as dramatic as those from Furuya’s Chardonnay lesson: his cresses and arugulas popped off the plate with their pungency, anchoring the sharper side of his flavor profile and balancing out the softer red and green oak leaf lettuces and the sweet bursts of his Swiss chards and Bull’s Blood beet leaves.

The flavor distinctions sharpened his marketing. Okimoto’s greens, grown with organic pesticides and tons of compost, commanded high prices compared to mass-produced mainland imports. He had on his side the powerful arguments of freshness (Nalo Farms’ mission statement: “We cut in the morning, we deliver in the afternoon,
and it’s on the customer’s plate that night”) and local sourcing, which island chefs liked.

Now he could add terroir: the presence of theWaimanalo climate, soil and landscape in the taste of his greens. His land was in the shadow of the Koolaus only a mile from the ocean, catching the northeasterly trade winds and the rain from the clouds that stacked up against the green-curtained peaks in the winter and spring. He even began to notice
that the peppery microgreens he grew softened their flavors during the cooler months and roared back in the heat of summer.

Those who liked to eat noticed the differences as well. The popularity of Hawaii Regional Cuisine percolated from upscale down to mid-range and even some mom-and-pop plate lunch eateries, and helped spur a resurgence of farmers’ markets throughout the state.

Okimoto made sure Nalo Greens were a fixture at every level. He brought back herbs and braising greens to his offerings, and found they did well too.With Yamaguchi, now a good friend, he recently launched Da Farmer and The Chef, selling salad dressings through supermarkets in Hawaii and California (dafarmerandthechef.com). And when
his processing facility is completed this month, Nalo Greens should become available on more supermarket shelves on O`ahu and other islands later this year.

Okimoto glances out over his fields. Today’s misty drizzle follows several days of pounding rains. It’s been another rainout day, when drops push tender leaves into the soil and fleck them with dirt, killing some and making the rest impossible to harvest. He knows that throughout the state, other farmers are looking out over waterlogged
crops and calculating their losses as well. As president of the 1,600- member Hawaii Farm Bureau, he’s grown into the habit of thinking collectively, and has plowed his marketing energy into forming Local Island Fresh Edibles, which uses Nalo Farms’ infrastructure to distribute other growers’ Hau`ula Vine Ripened Tomatoes, Kahuku Super Sweet Corn and Kula Country Strawberries to restaurants in Honolulu.

Okimoto’s political energy, meanwhile, is focused on sustainability. He worries that the high cost of agricultural land and infrastructure is a disincentive to would-be farmers. He worries that only 4 percent of the gross state product comes from agriculture, even as demand for locally grown food continues to rise. He worries that if he and others
fail to raise the alarm with legislators and the public, Hawaii in the future will become even more dependent on imported foods.

“If I walk into a place and see they’re already using local greens, I don’t even try to compete,” he says. “As long as they’re buying local, we all win.”

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