Da Dean of Greens

Published in the Nichi Bei Times, Sept. 21-27, 2006, issue

If you’ve had the fortunate opportunity to dine at any of the finest Honolulu restaurants such as Alan Wong’s, 3660 on the Rise, L’Uraku (or even Side Street Inn), chances are, your meal included a salad of Nalo Greens, a perfectly balanced combination of twelve greens from Dean Okimoto’s Nalo Farms.

Nalo Farms was founded by Dean’s father, the late Charles Jitsumi Okimoto, a member of the famed 100th Battalion, who was awarded a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts during World War II. Seriously wounded in France, he spent ten years in West Coast hospitals, including the San Francisco Veteran’s Hospital, where he met his future wife, Lily, who was his nurse at the facility.

When he started Nalo Farms in Waimanalo, Oahu in 1955, the elder Okimoto raised papaya and guava, eventually adding green onions and daikon. In one “small world” kine coincidence, we wen find out dat Japanee Bruddah Kyle’s father wuz da mailman fo’ da Okimoto family fo’ long time.

Dean Okimoto had no intention of following in his father’s footsteps, and in fact, was planning to be an attorney. However, when he missed the deadline to apply for law school, he returned to the farm to help his father while he tried to decide what he wanted to do with his life.

After several years, the business was doing well and the younger Okimoto realized that he not only enjoyed farming, but had a natural knack for it. By that point, Nalo Farms had moved from papaya and guava to herbs, primarily basil, which they exported to the Mainland.

Then, in 1990, disaster hit, as Nalo Farms lost its entire basil crop to disease. There was no income and he was seriously ready to quit farming, and as he says, “find a real job.” Then, in a karmic twist of fate, Dean Okimoto was introduced to chef Roy Yamaguchi through a mutual friend, Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya.

Little did he know that this meeting was to be a blessing to Hawai’i restaurants and diners and eventually make Nalo Farms and Dean Okimoto household names throughout the Aloha State.

Roy Yamaguchi was one of a group of twelve talented young chefs, which also included Sam Choy, George Mavrothalassitis and Amy Ferguson Ota, that was starting to redefine the fine dining landscape in Hawai’i. Their new culinary movement, which they referred to as Hawai’i Regional Cuisine, stressed the use of the freshest locally raised products in an innovative cooking style that fused cuisines and celebrated the cultural diversity of Hawai’i.

Yamaguchi happened to be looking for someone who could supply his Roy’s Restaurant with locally grown mesclun-style greens beyond the standard Manoa lettuce.

Conventionally, lettuces and salad greens are grown in cooler climates. Most growers believed that Waimanalo was much too hot for these crops. It turns out that Waimanalo was ideal for what Yamaguchi was seeking.

Like fine wines, salad greens are a direct reflection of the terroir, the land and microclimate in which the crops are grown. Apparently, Waimanalo’s unique volcanic soil and hot weather produce salad greens that have a unique flavor that is more piquant than greens grown in other areas. Ho, can really taste ‘em in da Nalo Farms arugula.

Today, Nalo Farms provides greens to over 100 restaurants, with 40 to 50 deliveries each day. At any given time, there are generally 35 to 40 different crops being grown on the four-acre farm. These include various micro-greens, baby greens, lettuces, mizuna and lesser known crops such as peppercress (ey, we no keed you, taste jus’ like wasabi) and amaranth (da pink fluorescent tops stay mo’ bright den one bad sunburn on top one tourist ).

While touring Nalo Farms, Dean Okimoto also introduced us to sea asparagus, crunchy little stalks, resembling asparagus, which are grown hydroponically in Kahuku and taste a little like the beach.

Capitalizing on Nalo Farms’ reputation for high quality and its well-established distribution network, Dean Okimoto formed a sister company, Local Island Fresh Edibles, to help connect other small specialty farms with restaurants and markets. Through this distribution channel, Dean Okimoto has helped to get products such as Hau’ula Vine Ripened Tomatoes, Kahuku Super Sweet Corn, Kula Country Strawberries, and now sea asparagus onto the menus of some of the finer restaurants in Hawai’i.

By da way, aftah you wen read dis, we know you like try ‘em, but wen you stay go Hawai’i, no look fo’ Nalo Greens at Foodland or Times Supahmahket, cuz can only get ‘em at restaurants or directly at Nalo Farms (41-574 Makakalo Street, Waimanalo).

Keith Kamisugi and Kyle Tatsumoto are da Two Japanee Bruddahs.

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