TasteMakers: Dave Caldiero

Dave Caldiero portrait

Having spent the last few weeks in Hawaii, it only seemed appropriate to spotlight a Hawaii-based food person as this month’s TasteMaker. Dave Caldiero immediately came to mind not only because he’s a friend, but also because he’s at the front lines of the local, organic, sustainable food movement in Hawaii.

Dave is a native New Yorker and his cooking reflects both where he’s from and where he’s been. As the chef de cuisine at Town, a restaurant started by chef-owner Ed Kenney, Dave has embraced the flavors and ingredients of Hawaii while paying homage to his Italian-American upbringing. The crew at Town has been so successful in creating seasonal, local food that they have become synonymous (along with sister restaurant, Downtown) with Hawaii’s local food movement. As the next generation of chefs bring a new voice to food in Hawaii, Dave and Ed continue to lead with their mantra: “Local first, organic whenever possible, with Aloha always.”

Here’s a bit about Dave and what makes him tick; and be sure to check back tomorrow, when Dave shares his top ten essential kitchen tools.

Photo by Town Kaimuki

Q: Give us a bit about your background: How did a New Yorker end up cooking in Hawaii?

A: I was born and raised in an Italian-American home in New York until the age of 25. I worked my way up through the industry, before traveling around the world for close to a year, and winding up in Hawaii.

Q: How would you describe your cooking style?

A: Simple, ingredient driven, farm fresh, with an Italian sensibility.

Photo by Hungry to Happy

Q: Who or what are your greatest influences in food?

A: Initially it was my family that influenced me. As long as I can remember, I’ve been surrounded by people who love to cook and eat. My mother and grandmother were forever feeding people, though everyone in my family cooks and participates in the kitchen activity. That’s where it all went down in my house. Memories were made and my palate was formed. We ate out, but not much, and we cooked together — no way around it!

Professionally Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver, and Danny Meyer are my greatest influences. Their convivial philosophy about food and hospitality continue to intrigue me.

Q: Where do you find your food and cooking inspiration?

A: Aside from the web, zillions of cookbooks, and my garden, I’m inspired by my “business” partner, Ed Kenney, and what’s in the walk-in refrigerator. The ingredients in there provide endless inspiration. At the restaurant, we are very fortunate to have one of the most abundant selections of locally sourced produce and proteins. I walk in there sometimes and feel like a kid in a candy store.

Photo by Hungry to Happy

Q: What flavor combinations do you see yourself constantly coming back to?

A: Though I have definitely embraced the Asian and local foods while in Hawaii, I find myself going back to the flavor combinations I grew up with. I love pasta with broccoli and anchovy, I will never get tired of fennel and chili in my pork sausage, lemon and capers with fish, crusty bread with tomatoes and good olive oil. I like sweet browned garlic and butter in my bitter green vegetables, and for the wee bit of French in me, I like my steak with lots of black pepper. (sorry for the run-on but my mouth started watering and I just had to get that out)

Photo by Lauren Caldiero

Q: It seems Hawaii is undergoing a bit of a food moment right now with high quality local produce, many emerging local artisans, and a lot of new restaurants that are trying new ways of cooking with local foods. Has that always been there and only now becoming more evident? Or is there a movement simmering?

A: Traditionally Hawaiians were farmers and I think there has always been a great local food scene here. However now with the constant rising cost of limited land, it has become difficult for farmers to afford to grow food. People are slowly starting to farm the land again but unfortunately the Darth Vaders of agriculture have most of the land and they’re only growing genetically modified crops for seed.

Twenty years ago the Hawaii regional chefs put Hawaii on the culinary map with the Pac-Rim cuisine; it was around then, while still living in New York, that I had first heard of fusion food. With all due respect, it died shortly after the bell pepper confetti, raspberry coulis, and continental American cuisine of the nineties and there has been very little going on here since.

While the food scene in most other cities in the country has been at a rolling boil, here we’re working our way up to a simmer; we’re notoriously behind the times. There are now producers of all types: artisan bread makers, bean to bar chocolate makers, food trucks, pop-ups, and farmers markets almost every day of the week.

Farmers are growing things that have never been grown before in Hawaii, producers are creating, chefs are experimenting, and most importantly, consumers are becoming more adventurous and more aware of where their food is coming from and who they are supporting.

Q: What do you see as the greatest stumbling block for food in Hawaii? What is your hope for the future of food in Hawaii?

A: There is definitely not enough affordable agricultural land in Hawaii. It has become uneconomical to farm, so we have been importing a huge percentage of what we consume. My hopes for the future would be greater awareness of the general public and chefs alike about food security. I’d like to see more land given to the right people who are going to manage it properly. I’d like to see a more cohesive restaurant industry that becomes the driving force of food security and sustainability in Hawaii.

Photo by Hungry to Happy

Q: While a lot of food people talk the local and sustainable talk, you, Ed, and Town have become living proof of how to do local, sustainable, delicious food in Hawaii. What are some ways that you keep your restaurants cooking local, sustainable, and respectful of the community?

A: Initially, it was a bit difficult because there was not as much being grown, but now its actually quite easy. The first thing we did and still continue to do is get to know the people that grow the food. We go to the farms and we meet them at the markets. We found out what they were growing and what they needed us to use. As we formed relationships we eventually were able to make requests and give suggestions on what to grow.

Second, was changing our menu daily and not locking ourselves into any one ingredient. With a limited supply of particular items we sometimes need to swap ingredients in the middle of dinner service. We have made a practice of accepting almost anything that comes to the back door. Sometimes it’s a few sprigs of fresh laurel from a friend and other times it’s way more then we can use of one product. That’s the fun part, encouraging cooks to be creative. We pickle, candy, and preserve things while constantly building our pantry for a rainy day.

We hope to keep attracting customers that are open to a menu that changes according to availability of fresh local ingredients.

Photo by Food GPS

Q: You’re really active in Slow Food Hawaii. How has the state embraced the Slow Food mentality?

A: The majority of Hawaii residents aren’t aware of Slow Food. We are just small group that is trying to grow this movement and commit to what is “good, clean, and fair “ in our islands.

Q: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to talk about?

A: Something I didn’t get to mention was my ever-growing passion for handmade pasta; I find nothing more satisfying in the kitchen. We are constantly tweeking our gnocchi recipe and method on a quest for the fluffiest gnocchi. I truly enjoy turning the butt ends of sweet salumi into moist little agnolotti or kabocha into ravioli. We make cavatelli and hand-cut pasta of all shapes and sizes. I think its these little creations that people can truly taste the love!

Photo by Lauren Caldiero

Photos (from top to bottom) by: Lauren Caldiero, Town Kaimuki, Hungry to Happy, FoodGPS, and Lauren Caldiero

TasteMakers is a monthly interview series with people I’ve met who have inspired me and a chance for them to share some of their wisdom.

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