Hunter, Farmer, Chef

Chef Jay Sklar in The Garden’s garden collecting heirloom eggplant, purple and green basil, Padron peppers, carrots, beets and green beans

At The Garden in Kilauea, Chef Jay Sklar plans his ‘tropical Mediterranean’ dishes according what he’s earlier planted in his garden. Now that’s fresh

He’s built his life around the idea of being healthy and living well, whether paddling the Molokai Hoe, racing the XTERRA triathlon or cooking and eating in a sustainable way.

But for Chef Jay Sklar, life begins at the source: food.

Long before Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, was published, Sklar was a young locovore without realizing there was a formal ideology he was putting into practice.

“As a child I was spearfishing and foraging,” says Sklar, now food services development director and executive chef at The Garden, a restaurant at Common Ground, an educational center focusing on sustainable nutrition in Kilauea.

Founded in 2008 by Chris Jaeb, the former Guava Kai Plantation is the perfect place for Sklar, who works to ensure that most of what is plated is food gathered from onsite gardens, often paired with fish caught on-island or grass-fed Kaua’i beef.

“We always have a seasonal crop,” he says. “I help set the rotation to make my menu.”

Though sometimes accompanied by other Hawaiian Islands produce (macadamia nuts and coffee come from the Big Island), only some oils, grains and beans come from organic Mainland producers.

Clad in a one-of-a-kind, hemp-and-bamboo chef coat cut from vintage Fijian cloth, the down-to-earth chef says that as a boy he would often spend the day looking to find fruit that was in season and pair it with whatever he had just caught.

At The Garden, the kitchen is as colorful as, well, the garden

Though he’s had no formal culinary training, it’s with that basic experience and passion that the creative chef has built an ad-libbed, broad and captivating menu.

Demonstrating the farm-to-plate method, Sklar grabs a pair of garden shears and heads out to the fields to forage a simple but scrumptious “special” du jour: Fresh carrots, bok choy, ginger (which he calls a “true superfood”), cayenne (to boost the metabolism) – all sautéed with mahimahi in local coconut oil and prepared in a nontoxic, carbon-steel pan.

“I’m all about whole foods with simple, urban spices, prepared with a little finesse,” says this single father of two daughters, Brigette, 12, and Julia, 14.

For Sklar, the idea of putting foods together has been a hobby he’s enjoyed since childhood in Encinitas, Calif. “I’ve always had a connection with nature,” he says. “The rhythms of nature drive me.”

The young chef, who was already learning about food alchemy around the age of 12, says he always tried to figure out how to pair things.

“I’d create different preparations,” he says. “I would find abalone and would pound and tenderize them, or I’d figure out a way to mix in flavors. I remember my father and I went hunting for ducks, and I decided to stuff them with apples.”

While spearfishing in California with his father, who was in the printing business, Sklar learned how to be up-close and personal with food rather than being removed from the experience of capturing it. It was there he learned to spear halibut, sea bass and rainbow runner.

And while those experiences inspired him to be more in touch with what he created, travel was another form of inspiration.

“I call my cooking ‘tropical Mediterranean,'” he says, recalling that some of his most noteworthy travels went beyond the Mediterranean.

“I lived five years in Karmiel, Israel, in the mountains and along the coast in Caesarea (Israel),” he says. “The culture has a lot of different types of foods and spices: sumac, harissa (a Moroccan red chili paste), fresh cumin, garlic, onions, chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste). And it features a lot of lamb dishes. They’d combine some of those flavors and grill them with olive oil and other fresh ingredients that thrive in that hot climate.”

While in Europe, Sklar traveled to Greece, Portugal, France, Spain and Italy. Though he said he wasn’t “super inspired in Greece,” in Rome and the Basque region of Spain (San Sebastian) he found an abundant array of flavors he has since added to his repertoire.

While in San Sebastian, Sklar said the Iberian culinary mainstay, paella, was an ubiquitous dish of which he couldn’t get enough.

“(San Sebastian) is this small, coastal town with a lot of surfing connecting it with local fishermen,” he says. Because of that, the paella represented the area, boasting a lot of fresh seafood.

“You first braise the sausage and chicken with white wine and saffron, so out comes this beautiful, orange-colored, aromatic rice,” he says. “You steam in the shellfish right at the end: shrimp, clams, mussels and squid. You don’t want to overcook it.”

The distinctive entrance to The Garden’s garden

The athlete-chef surfed his way through much of his travels on the African continent, from Mozambique to Namibia. Hardly a “trust-funder,” Sklar worked in food, and fished and landscaped to get by.

“I’m a farmer by trade,” he says, noting that the travels not only helped him gain recipe knowledge, but savvy about permaculture, which he has kept in mind while planning the produce for The Garden.

“It’s a companion culture,” he says of his gardening. “The roots of one plant will send the nitrogen into the other.”

Even the decorative landscape at The Garden is edible, bursting with garlic chive, Mexican oregano, thyme and basil. A Far East-like threshold (that seems to channel Stonehenge) stands as the entrance to “energetically welcome you into the space,” Sklar says.

Bees buzz around the buckwheat ground cover, and there are several beehives on site. Though they don’t produce enough honey for all The Garden’s dishes, the honey served at the restaurant is Kaua’i made.

“If you eat local honey, it keeps your allergies down because of the pollen,” Sklar says. “So we serve only organic, wild, raw honey from our region. It’s a preventative medicine full of nourishment.”

He also hopes Common Ground will serve as a place for educational sustenance for years to come.

“This is a place where we can have educational talks and speakers on sustainable living and agriculture,” he says, noting that plans should be firmer come spring.

To learn more, go to http://commongroundkauai.net.

Try the creations of Chef Jay Sklar daily between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. at The Garden, 4900 Kuawa Road, Kilauea, 828-1041.

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