This World-Class Hawaiian Chef Is Inspiring a Sustainable Food Movement
Chef Ed Kenney’s mantra is “Local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always”—a philosophy everyone can follow.
Ed Kenney, Sustainability advocate/chef
You may know him as the affable chef and TV host of Family Ingredients who stirs a melting pot of seasonal flavors from his native Hawaii, where he owns four restaurants: Town, Kaimuki Superette, Mud Hen Water, and Mahina & Sun’s. "Food has the ability to bring people together and provoke social change," Kenney says. "It intersects every circle of our lives, from family to transportation to economics." Islanders herald Kenney as a leader in the farm-to-fork movement who prioritizes featuring seafood that can be locally sourced and sustainably harvested.
Below, Kenney dishes on what inspired his passion for saving the environment, his current projects, and more:
Coastal Living: What inspired you to start prioritizing practices that are good for the environment?
Ed Kenney: I don’t even know if I consider myself an environmentalist, even though I probably am. I went away to college, went to Boulder, Colorado, for four years, and I think that’s really where I got aware of my voice and the ability to do change. Boulder’s almost like a beach town in the sky. Everything there was really focused on the air we breathe and the outdoors.
CL: Your menus are centered around local ingredients, especially seafood—do you import any fish at all for your restaurants?
EK: We do make an exception for shellfish, mussels and clams, bivalves. The rational behind that is I love eating them, and it’s been shown [that if] you put these bivalves in an estuary or a waterway, they clean it up. It becomes cleaner than it was before they were even starting to be grown there. I’m part of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Blue Ribbon Task Force, which I think is a dozen or so chefs around the country that have committed to only serving sustainable or traceable food according to their food watch program. But I feel like we’ve got to take it even further. Being out here in the middle of the Pacific, a sustainable food source from Nova Scotia or someplace in the South Pacific like New Zealand isn’t that sustainable to me, just with the food miles and the paths they have to take to get to us. I’ve been pushing with them to try to put that factor into their ranking system, how far it has to travel.
CL: Can you talk about one of your current projects?
EK: Ma‘O. It’s an acronym for Mala ‘Ai ‘Opio, which in Hawaiian means youth food farm, and it’s kind of a play on words. It’s an organic farm that is run and managed by college-aged youth. We are growing organic food, but we’re also growing leaders. It’s in probably the most underserved community in the state, one of the highest concentrations of native Hawaiians. Just like Native Americans, these indigenous peoples have kind of been pushed out and exiled to these small pockets, where you’re seeing rampant high school dropout rates, drug abuse, domestic violence, and diabetes—all these economic indicators of poverty, so this farm is a nonprofit. We’ve gone in and we offer these young adults an opportunity to get back in touch with the earth, and at the same time, a free-ride scholarship to colleges.
CL: How does the TV show you’re hosting, Family Ingredients, play into your environmental work?
EK: I’ve been able to slide my politics in there a little bit. In the first season, I was kind of blindly going along for the ride. I like to think we spoke a little bit about organic agriculture and plastic pollution and those things, but in the second series they gave me license to do more of that, which I’m excited about. I’m seeing it as hopefully a platform to educate people.
CL: Do you see people caring more about the environment?
EK: What we’re seeing, I think, is [as] people get more informed and educated, they’re demanding alternatives. I wait for the day when there are no plastic bottles or straws.
CL: How do you feel about humankind’s ability to save the planet in time?
EK: I would definitely say I’m an optimist. I’m a hopeless romantic. The restaurant business is kind of a show, and it’s about bringing smiles to people’s faces. I can’t go down that negative path because it would carry through in all that I do, and for me it’s about bringing people together, telling stories and informing people. Hopefully everyone else gets on board and makes a change.
Adopt Kenney's mantra: "Local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always." Protect our waters, support regional farmers, and buy seafood from sustainable fisheries.
Responses edited for clarity and conciseness