It’s an uncommon dining experience: you turn mauka off the highway in Kilauea, there are no advertisements, no string of cars looking for parking, no delivery trucks dropping off packaged food. No, it feels more like you have stumbled upon a 60-acre farm that happens to have a tranquil, open-air restaurant, where bananas and coconuts hang from the doors. A few feet beyond the tables are herb gardens. Beyond that is a massive garden, with rows and rows of vegetables. “You can sit down and look at where your food is coming from,” said Jay Sklar, chef and food-services director.
The Garden restaurant at Common Ground — a resource center for the community with many projects focused on sustainability — is leading the way to show what is possible for restaurants who embrace the “farm-to-fork” concept. When Common Ground — formerly Guava Kai Plantation — began the farming process over two years ago, the old guava trees, which were no longer able to produce fruit, were cut and chipped into a nitrogen-rich compost to make the soil healthy. They now continue to make their own compost with various materials on site, and mix it with oxygenated water in order to make a “tea” they spray on the crops. Sklar said they use no petro chemicals, and the practice of permaculture is used, meaning the landscaping is edible and plants are strategically placed in order to naturally benefit each other.
There’s only a small number of products that need to be ordered for the restaurant that cannot be grown on site, such as Kaua‘i beef, fresh-caught fish, and certain grains, beans and oils, Sklar said. However, he hopes to eventually be as self-sustaining as possible, or at least support local companies or individuals, for example, coconut sales. “We use coconut oil in as many dishes as we can in the hopes we will support and nurture the cottage industry,” he said, adding they have the ability to press and make their own oil on site.
Sklar calls the cuisine at The Garden “tropical Mediterranean,” with mainstays such as fresh-fish tacos, arugula salad with goat cheese, a grilled steak sandwich and a grilled veggie wrap. “I basically build my menu around what’s growing,” he said, adding that he comes to harvest each morning, and gives his employees at The Garden the first 15 minutes of their day to be on the land and in the garden, which he said allows them to “feel empowerment and pass it on.”
The empowerment apparently translates into a happy, relaxed crew, which was assembling colorful plates of food to a nearly full room midday last week. The grilled-fish sandwich was served with fresh, tender 0pah, over shredded cabbage, papaya salsa and an avocado-lime sauce. The side of pumpkin and taro fries seasoned with coconut oil and herbed salt are outstanding, which Sklar came up with after having a surplus of pumpkins. His creativity and resourcefulness comes from experience as a chef and a lifetime of living close to the land.
“I started as a private chef and catering on-island 10 years ago,” he said. “That helped me understand what people wanted to eat.” Before that, he was managing Organic To Go in Seattle, the first organic retailer which serviced 15 cafes at headquarters such as Starbucks, University of Washington and Microsoft, the latter having 40,000 employees. Sklar has also had a personal lifelong connection with the natural world, and considers himself a “hunter/gatherer.” “I started spear fishing at 10 years old, I fish, I hunt goat and pig, I collect coconuts, exotic fruits,” he said.
“It’s so abundant here, it should be shared,” Sklar said, looking out on to the land beyond The Garden, then to the rack of ripe bananas hanging near the kitchen. “The fruit we have here — it’s about sitting down and having a banana together, not to charge you 50 cents for it.” Soon, Common Ground will have a farm stand, and plans to donate the excess they don’t sell. They also have a HI-5 recycling bin on site open to the public.
The Garden is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday for lunch. To get there, turn left off Kuhio Highway onto Kuawa Road right before the right turn into Kilauea. Follow the road until it dead ends at Common Ground. For more information, call 828-1041.