Organic oysters are the latest bounty from Four Seasons Resort.
Late last year, Hawaii island’s internationally acclaimed Four Seasons Resort Hualalai debuted its latest culinary triumph: organically grown oysters cultivated and harvested on-property. This latest nod to sustainability is also a reflection of the resort’s commitment not only to culinary excellence, but to the preservation and enhancement of the natural resources found in this historic region known as Ka`upulehu.
For 12 years, marine biologist David Chai— Hualalai Resort’s director of natural resources—led the charge in making the cultivation of oysters on-site a reality. The journey, he says, began with research, experimentation and the wholehearted support of the resort owners.
“I’ve been associated with this development since 1990, the first six years as a consulting marine biologist and the past 20 as a full-time employee. My initial role consisted of restoration of the natural anchialine ponds found throughout the property and development of a marine management plan, a condition required by the county prior to approval of resort development. From the beginning and through a change in resort ownership in 2006, support for our natural resource projects, and stewardship of the land and ocean here have never waivered,” Chai says.
Several years were spent testing numerous varieties of oysters to determine the species best suited for the pristine, slightly warm waters of Punawai Lake centrally located on Hualalai Resort property. This award-winning, man-made lake also serves as a unique and attractive water feature on the fifth hole of one of the resort’s two championship golf courses, member-only Ke`olu Golf Course. Nicknamed the “Living Machine,” the 3-millon-gallon, 2.3-acre lake earned the name for its use of floating islands of plants to filter the water and remove pollution and excess nutrients.
Chai, who was instrumental in the overall design of the energy-effcient filtering system, says, “We basically built a mini-ecosystem to clean the fully self-contained lake.” In 2005, Hualalai Resort was rewarded for Chai’s efforts when the Environmental Protection Agency named it a recipient of its annual awards for environmental responsibility. Hualalai was honored for its overall conservation efforts and specifically for developing the “Living Machine.” The source water for Punawai Lake comes from a subterranean seawater aquifer, which is tapped and drawn from wells deep within the lava.
For those concerned with contamination of these pristine waters, the lake is completely lined with a food-grade quality liner (a material that prevents contaminants from entering the lake and doesn’t leach any of its own composite materials into the water).
“Initially, inspection and testing of ponds and lakes on Hawai’i Island was extremely expensive, and actually cost prohibitive for our health department,” Chai says. “Finally, just in the past year or so, more effi cient and less costly methods were developed, and now we welcome health inspectors here once a month for rigorous testing that proves our lake water is absolutely clean and pure, and our oysters absolutely healthy and delicious.”
Following years of oyster research and lobbying efforts with local health authorities to push quickly for the less time-consuming, less expensive inspection system, Chai found the perfect marine mollusk for Punawai Lake water conditions—an oyster from the East Coast known as crassostrea virginica from the Chesapeake Bay area.
“This particular species doesn’t mind low salinity and higher water temperatures, and the meat quality is extremely high quality—and delicious,” Chai says.
The lake water is comprised of both brackish water and ocean seawater, he adds, resulting in a lower salinity level.
“The demand for fresh, locally grown organic oysters by our resort restaurants is extremely high as well,” he says. As a result, the Hualalai-grown oysters are raised exclusively for use in Four Seasons Resort Hualalai restaurants.
Since late November 2015, Chai and his team of five marine specialists have provided more than 6,000 oysters to three of six resort restaurants—’ULU Ocean Grill + Sushi, Beach Tree and Hualalai Grille— with production increasing this year.
“We currently have 30,000 juvenile oysters at Punawai Lake, which should be ready for harvesting this summer,” Chai says.
Executive chef Massimo Falsini and his team welcome the increase in oyster availability this year, and anticipate Chai’s latest plans to introduce and harvest white-spotted shrimp from the Central Coast of California in Punawai Lake later this year.
“Shrimp is such a popular menu item, and to have our very own organically grown shrimp cultivated right here on-property will be incredible,” Falsini says.
In the meantime, Falsini has created three different preparations to be featured at the three restaurants. ‘ULU Ocean Grill + Sushi features Hualalai Oysters on the Half Shell with Hot Damskey and Yuzu Ponzu sauce; a fried Hualalai Oyster Po’Boy with Arugula, WOW Tomatoes and Traditional Louisiana Remoulade is served at Beach Tree; while Hualalai Grille offers Hualalai Oysters on the Half Shell with Spicy Maui Onion and Ogo mignonette and cocktail sauce.
“The response to our Hualalai Oysters from Four Seasons hotel guests and Hualalai homeowners has been overwhelming. Demand for these oyster dishes has been so high, we look forward to having more and more product to satisfy diner requests, and to allow our team to create ever more innovative and traditional preparations to add to our menus,” Falsini says.
All photos courtesy Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts