What I’ve always loved about Kaua’i is that in relation to many parts of the U.S., it is so far behind (in terms of modern American food systems) that in some ways it is ahead. Traditional food systems are still intact – it is almost a time warp. Kaua’i has all of this stuff in place: animal husbandry, amazing fishery, stellar produce, tropical things from all over the world – this collection of ingredients that, in my opinion, doesn’t occur the way it does here anywhere else. That is really special and that reality tied into the ideas that I have been developing over the years.
In Conversation With Adam Watten: “A Long Road to Local”
Adam Watten, Director of Food Systems, Common Ground / Culinary Manager, CG Ventures
Committed to building robust local food systems, Adam is an expert in vertical supply chain integration and product procurement. As an entrepreneur and Executive Chef, he brings decades of experience in the food industry to the Common Ground team. His expertise in vertical supply chain integration is evidenced in his founding of Hanai Market, a local food retail outlet that exclusively sold Hawaii-grown and Hawaii-made products to the local market.
Last time we spoke we talked about the difficulty people face in trying to make a living in agriculture and the work the Common Ground is doing to make it possible for the next generation of farmers and agricultural workers to stay in agriculture. Today I thought we could take a step back to you and how you got into food and where your interest in food systems came from.
I was exposed to food research from a very young age. My mom is a horticulturist and my dad is an aquacultural engineer – that’s how they met. My dad was starting the research department at the University of the Virgin Islands and my mother was doing sub-tropical agricultural research with the USDA. While we were in St. Croix, my parents helped co-create the modern form of aquaponics –combining their two disciplines. There are pictures we have at our place in St. Croix with the kiddie pool outside and my dad figuring out how to use the waste water to grow plants. Growing up around that, I was always just around food and food production.
How do you think your experience compares to how many people are connected, or not connected, to food systems?
Growing up in very rural areas, I went hunting and fishing with my dad. This gave me an appreciation for really wholesome, delicious food that wasn’t necessarily coming from supermarkets. My dad and I would cook the things that we caught or shot. Going into the woods in PA, catching native brook trout, cooking them next to the river... those memories and experiences helped shape my thinking on what is delicious.
Deliciousness in itself was a human experience that I thought was amazing. This is 80s / 90s America, when our food systems had become very industrialized. What was considered cuisine in middle America was hamburger helper, tuna casserole, cold cuts and wonder bread – nothing particularly delicious. I was always kind of looking at this industrialized system in contrast to the food systems that I grew up around that I thought were quite wholesome.
I think the more you learn about how food is produced and its impact, the more concerned you should become with its effect on us. We live in an industrial society where there are strawberries in winter in New York and they’re horrible, but they’re there so we use them. I think that’s an easy way to look at our food system: the food is there and it’s easy and that’s why we use it. It’s convenient and that’s by design, but the effect of that view is that we lose connection. That strawberry most likely came from Argentina – what connection do we have there?
We used to spend a lot more energy nurturing our food systems because that was the only option – if you wanted to eat, you ate from where you were and you needed to either grow your food, or know the people who were growing it. The industrial age has homogenized American food culture to the point where a lot of the food isn’t delicious anymore.
Industrial food has become what we’re accustomed to, what we know. We no longer live in such a way where part of the household work is managing the home garden, where food production is part of what we do together. We’re much more industrialized, we’re much more segregated and I think a lot of people feel that. We’ve always been connected to the land – our relationship with the land traditionally dictated our survival and now we’ve eliminated that. We’ve supposedly made progress but our food tastes worse, we’re less healthy, and are struggling socially.
Did you always know that you wanted to become a chef and be involved with food?
When I was young we moved around quite a bit – my dad kept going back to school until he got his PhD. But his friend group was always very international – engineers, researchers from all sorts of places, so I got to see how food connected people from very different backgrounds. Food was something we all had in common, and I think that struck me at a very early age. At that point I didn’t know that that was what I wanted to do… but it always struck me how a meal could bring people together. It was just this bond that we as humans have – a language that we all speak.
When I was in high school I was trying to find my way. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and I wasn’t sure if academia was really for me. We had a really good community college, so I started taking liberal arts classes and while doing that I started working at a restaurant washing dishes to pay for my tuition.
I already had this appreciation for food and I became sort of enamored with the energy of the restaurant itself and really enjoyed that. Being able to see people’s reactions to food and how it brought people together – that really reaffirmed these things that I had been thinking about.
I became very interested in the art of food, and the art and mechanics of running a restaurant. So, while I was washing dishes I decided a liberal arts program wasn’t for me. In three years I worked my way from washing dishes to running the entire operation and I came to a point where I asked myself “what am I going to do?”
This is when I first started looking into going to culinary school. And right at that time there was this renaissance in America around food, a lot of discussion around food, and what makes it good. So, I started culinary school and met a couple of chefs who took me under their wing because I had some experience.
At this point, I knew what I wanted to do, I knew what I wanted to learn, and I wanted to learn it from people who were masters. The chefs leading the program helped me get a good job with a great chef – Jeff Wood, who had come out of the French Laundry. I started working with him at a small French restaurant not far from my hometown. That experience opened my eyes to the artistic side of things and how you could use food to express yourself. It introduced me to the philosophy of cooking from where you are, to celebrate the ingredients from your region and use them to make your food stand out and be unique.
After this, I wanted to finish my degree so I enrolled at the New England Culinary Institute, which at that time was rated one of the best culinary schools in the country. I chose that school because their focus was hyper-local. There was a big emphasis on local food systems and local products, so I went up there to Vermont and I was able to work with some pretty great chefs and be surrounded by all of this thinking around food systems.
This experience compounded the thinking that I was already doing. I decided that if I’m going to cook for a living, I can also provide experiences to help people better understand food while making delicious things that make people happy. If we go back to those dinners with my dad’s international friend group – at the end of the day, people want to belong, wherever you are. You’re not always thinking about how was this ingredient grown and where does it come from? But I think most operate from “this is from me and from my place and my people and I want to share it with you to become closer to you”.
Can we go back and talk a little more about how you came to Kaua’i and what that journey looked like and how it’s shaped the work you’ve done here?
After culinary school, I left VT and ended up going to work in DC for Fabio Trabocchi at a restaurant called Maestro. He was from Le Marche, Italy. He had this very European sensibility and I was able to learn quite a bit from his approach to flavor and constructing things – how to meld flavors and why things worked well together.
Eventually I went to Portland OR, because I had heard there was this emerging foodie scene there. It was kind of hyper-local, they had a whole slew of really unique, delicious ingredients being celebrated there. So, I packed up my drum kit, my knives, and whatever clothes I could squeeze into my car, drove to Portland and just dove in, trying to figure out what was going on – surveying restaurants, who was doing what. I showed up on the doorstep of a couple of restaurants to work there and eventually ended up working as a sous chef for the Painted Lady in wine country with a great chef there, Allen Routt and his wife.
After Allen, I found the most hyperlocal chef that I could find there and I went to work for him at his restaurant called Fife, “an American Place”. Marco Shaw was the chef and the concept at that restaurant was almost 100% local to Oregon and the menu changed every single day. I was able to take all of these things that I had been learning and apply them there. Around this point, I had been in Portland for a while and was looking for a change so I started looking around. There were some alumni from NECI in Hawaii that I had reached out to and they recommended me to a chef friend who was opening a place. I had never been to Kauai so I said why not? That’s what brought me to Kaua’i.
In our last conversation, we talked about how Common Ground is working to test and support new food systems. Part of this work is educational – how do you think about sharing these values and this work with the next generation?
Well I think first and foremost, if we’re going to instill values in the next generation then we need to have those values ourselves. If we don’t appreciate these things then there’s no way that we’re going to instill that into somebody else. I think we need to take a hard look at our values.
Americans have been conditioned that food really is only sustenance. We don’t spend the time on it that others do and that was out of necessity – you had to spend a lot of time to produce food from scratch and it’s more expensive to produce wholesome food. We’re trying to make things more efficient, which I think is going to be our undoing – not everything should be efficient.
Once you taste real butter vs something that came out of a tub… for me that was an epiphany. I was like okay wow – things can taste like this? That was an experience. To go on a journey, to search these things out is really rewarding and I think if more people did it they would find a lot of joy in it. Personally speaking, being connected to my own food systems intimately, is just so rewarding.
That peace of mind, that connection you have, just knowing where this food came from, and how, and why, and all those things… I think there’s something really rewarding about that. And not only knowing what’s in those things, but what’s not in those things. I think that’s a lot of people’s motivations to get back into the frame of mind of thinking about and doing what they can to connect themselves to their own systems.
There are all sorts of people writing about this but a great gateway book for somebody who doesn’t really have much exposure to this type of thinking is Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he chronicles four different meals sourced in four completely different ways. I think that’s a great entry-level book for people who are interested in this type of thinking.