How We Choose Restaurants
Readers wonder how we choose restaurants, so I thought I’d share our process with you. I’d also like to take this opportunity to clear up a huge misconception. Many residents tell me that “Kauai doesn’t have good food” or some form of that. One gentleman even told me that Kauai was a culinary wasteland. I completely disagree and I hope I prove that by the end of this post. But first, a little background.
As Kauai’s only full-time food writer, many people think of me as a food writer. But I’m really an advocate for food that’s grown in a way that benefits everything on this planet. Not just the people who eat it, but the people who grow and harvest it, as well as the land, rivers, oceans and wildlife that thrive in ecosystems created within diversified farms. I’m not hard-core about it though. You won’t find me staunchly trying to convert anyone. For me, it’s more like “activism by lifestyle” as my friend and North Shore farmer puts it. I try to make food less scary and more fun by writing about people who grow and make good food. I also don’t try to be perfect.
I avoid fast food chains, but there are times when I eat food that was not responsibly produced. I’ll grab a Spam musubi when it’s warm and available, and I’m rushed and hungry. It is what it is. I’m not going to drive myself crazy trying to buy and eat 100-percent organic and local food. I’m not going to be rude when invited into someone’s home. I’ll eat what they make and appreciate that they made a food writer a meal.
At home, my pantry is not stocked with boxes of ready-made food. It’s stocked with spices, cans of organic tomatoes, pasta and grains. I make meals with produce from my small garden, a CSA membership with Govinda Farm, and a cow share where I get raw cow’s milk and goat kifer every Monday from a guy up the street. I buy vegetables from the Kapaa farmers market, fresh fish from Foodland and local grass-fed beef from the natural foods grocery store. Because of my job, we don’t eat out very often, but when we do, we choose places that cook food from scratch and use local ingredients whenever possible. There is no way to source a tasty, filling meal with 100-percent local ingredients. The island just can’t do it. Now, if you want a vegan meal, it’s absolutely possible.
Often, I am described as a food critic, but I am not. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong, I choose to focus on what’s right by profiling chefs, cooks and restaurants that make food from whole, fresh ingredients and use local products whenever possible. When deciding who to cover for my Tastes of Kauai column for Kauai Midweek, I go by taste. I may see a new place while driving, or a reader or friend may recommend something. My husband and I go and have a meal as regular customers. If we like what we eat, I call them up and schedule an interview.
When we arrive, I talk with the chef, restaurant owner or cook and learn how they make their food. Most people are intimidated when being interviewed for a newspaper story, but since I’m not there to pick out what’s wrong, people quickly become comfortable and their passion soon spills into the conversation. That’s what it is really, a conversation called “The Interview”. I am a foodie at heart. I read cookbooks, food magazines and watch the Food Network for fun. I’m a certified personal chef who only cooks at home and a graduate of a 12-week organic farming class who grows vegetables in pots.
During the interview, I get to ask questions that I couldn’t as a costumer or food critic. If you’re a critic, you go in unannounced several times. You go incognito at busy hours and choose to eat something different every time. As a food profiler, I get to ask how they source and make their food. “Do you source locally?” is a question I always ask. If they say yes, I ask who the farmers are. My husband and I have been to more than 70 farms for my other column in Kauai Midweek called Farmers Markets, and I have called farmers after an interview to verify if the restaurant does source from them.
I get a copy of the menu and go over it with the chef. Their passion becomes clear when I learn the lengthy steps taken to make good food. Three days to make french fries; house-cured bacon; whole, local animals broken down and made into delicious, nourishing meals; smoked meat; whole, local fish cut just before it’s cooked; house-baked bread; fresh vegetables bought at the farmers market; house-made mustards, pickles and sauces; and handcrafted cocktails are just some of the things restaurants do here everyday. I learn how they got into the business and why cooking makes them happy. I learn about their struggles and triumphs. It is my hope that their passion gets transferred to the page.
There’s a certain level of trust during my interviews. I trust that the restaurant knows about their food more than I do, so I let them choose the food that will be featured. My husband Dan takes the pictures and then we eat it. I know this sounds glamorous. Believe me. When I first got the job in September 2010, I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to write about food! But, it turns out that it’s a lot like work. I learned that I take good food seriously and during a meal, I take copious notes of how things taste, look, smell, feel and even sound. I notice the atmosphere, if guests are having a good time and how clean the place is. We’ve also gained a lot of weight since we started this job. Despite this, I am very grateful for this work and feel it is my calling to find these people and share them with the world, so we can all eat better!
If we like a restaurant, it goes in our restaurant guide book. If we really a restaurant, it gets a pink hibiscus. Sourcing locally takes a lot of extra time and effort, and we highlight those who make that a priority by giving them a pink hibiscus. Dan’s color photographs are throughout the book, which he designed, laid out and helped me publish through Amazon. He also created whimsical icons. Kauai is full of great cooks who make healthy food and a lot of people can’t eat gluten, or are vegetarian or vegan. Dan’s colorful icons point out these options as well as price range and dress code.
While there are more than 200 restaurants on Kauai, our book is an exclusive listing based on our work. The collection includes mini profiles and insures that you will eat well while referring to it. In it, I describe food that I have tasted so you can get an idea of the type of food served. Our book gets updated every spring, but restaurants change their menus more often than that. Restaurants also change hours. For these reasons, our e-book and print versions include a link to a restaurant’s website so you can find current menus and hours. Restaurants that have closed are removed from the updated version and we add those that we have covered during the year. We also replace full-page images for current ones. If you subscribe to our blog, you’ll get updates on restaurant closures and openings. Pau Hana Friday blog posts lists Kauai food news and events.
Passion for promoting good, local food drives us. We don’t earn advertising money on this website for two reasons. One, I want this to be a peaceful place where you can get lost in Kauai and her food. Two, I don’t want pressure from advertisers to compromise the integrity of the content. We also put a lot of work into our culinary tours, but don’t receive a sustainable income from them. Since we self-published a full-color book, we only get paid a small amount when people buy our book. Not a single restaurant has paid us to be in this book and they don’t even know they’re included until it’s released. Since we feel very fortunate to have our kitchen stocked with vibrant, fresh food, we give a portion of book and culinary tour sales to the Hawaii Food Bank – Kauai Branch.
The Garden Island is home to a lot of passionate cooks who make really good food. While Kauai’s food can’t be compared to New York or Spain, our little paradise holds its own. It is my hope that people like you (who support what we do) combined with the restaurants listed in our book, will help Kauai become more sustainable.
Images on this website were contributed by Daniel Lane of Pono Photo.