Know Your Chef: Josh Feathers of Blackberry Farm
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One of the many perks of writing this blog has been that over the past few weeks, I've had the opportunity to talk with chefs who will be participating in this year's Hawai'i Food & Wine festival.
Just like last year, the 2012 chefs are diverse and talented. Leading up to the September event, I'll be introducing you to the chefs and giving you a peek at the dishes they'll be preparing and some insight on the ingredients they'll be using.
Kicking off my "Know Your Chef" series of blog posts, here is Chef Josh Feathers of Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee.
Feathers will be a part of the From Farm to Table: A Makahiki Festival, held on September 8 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. He's planning on serving a bacon and pineapple pickled pork belly with taro puree, preserved taro tops, crispy taro and smoked macadamia nuts.
His intention is to always cook with as many locally produced ingredients as possible. The biggest challenge he had while planning his dish was to settle on just a few ingredients with all of the great options that the islands provide. He eventually settled on taro, which he's looking forward to using. They make use of sweet potatoes and its greens at Blackberry Farm, so taro seemed a natural choice.
The bacon pickle, he says, is inspired by the pickled pigs feet that you often see at local barbecue joints and gas station delis.
Feathers is looking forward to meeting the great lineup of American and international chefs and being inspired by how they utilize all the great island products. He's also interested in visiting local food shops and fish markets in Hawaii, and of course, the beaches.
Here's the transcript from my conversation with Chef Josh Feathers:
Morita - According to your bio, you received your culinary training in the Navy, which is unique among the chefs coming to the Hawai'i Food & Wine Festival.
Feathers - I was really fortunate for the training that I received in the Navy. Of course, I'm a little biased. The Navy has the best cooks in the world as far as I'm concerned. There is a certain tradition that goes along with that. The only military cooks that staff the White House are Navy cooks. The only military cooks that staff the Vice President's residence are Navy cooks. We have a very long heritage there, and what that creates is a depth of knowledge that goes beyond cooking.
There are a lot of exceptional individuals that you can receive training from, and it's on the job training. You're getting into the kitchen with them and working. Aside from that, for my self it was a lot of self education. I did a lot of reading. There were a lot of things that I didn't get to apply on the job all the time in the Navy, but there were a lot of things that weren't in the books that I did learn on the job. I was then blessed when I departed from the Navy to end up here at Blackberry Farm.
Morita - How did you end up in Naples? Did you enlist with the intention of becoming a cook or were you assigned to that post?
Feathers - It's funny, God really directed my path as far as that goes. I joined the Navy to be a rescue swimmer. I was supposed to be gun-ho and be jumping out of helicopters. Doing all kinds of fun stuff that I wanted to do at that point, but there was one medical screening in basic training that I had to pass in order to go on to the next phase which is what they call in the Navy, their "A-School."
I couldn't pass the medical screen because I was anemic, and that was a disqualifying factor. After multiple tests, and Ed, I was eating anything green. If there was a green piece of paper, I was trying to eat it so that I could get enough iron in my blood to pass the test. According to the enlistment contract, the Navy had to provide me with a school even if it wasn't to become a search and rescue swimmer or aircraft hydraulics school. The other side of that is that you are at the mercy of the Navy at that point and they are going to put you in a roll that suits them. At that time, they needed cooks. That was where they needed to bulk up enlistment so they told me, "congratulations Mr. Feathers, you're now a Navy cook."
Morita - Have you had a chance to cook on a battleship?
Feathers - I was actually spoiled. I was in the Navy for a little over seven years, but I served on board ship for only three days. My first duty station was in Naple's Italy, and at that point, it was considered a "hardship tour" for the Navy. You're stationed on land and they let your time there count as sea time. I was able to serve that way and it was a great experience living overseas for four-years.
Morita - It sounds like fun. Italy is a great place to live, especially if you are into food.
Feathers - Yes, absolutely.
Morita - Looking at the questionnaire that I sent you, it's amazing that you gravitated towards taro, and how you're relating it to sweet potato. Have you had a chance to play around with your dish with taro or the ingredient in general yet?
Feathers - We've starting to get into that recently. I've found out the hard way that you don't eat taro leaves raw. I had itchy mouth for most of yesterday morning. So we're still playing around with the greens. The taro root itself I think is going to lend itself very well to the dish.
Morita - Yes, it's a very versatile ingredient.
Feathers - The connection between us and sweet potatoes is to take a step into our garden. We use as much of our by product from our garden as we do the actual product. So, for sweet potatoes, we'll use the sweet potato leaves just as you would spinach. That is where the thought process is for our use of taro. Let's try to highlight as much of the taro as we can. Hopefully, we're able to work something out to use the greens. He have a couple ideas to use the root as well as everything else.
Morita - It's interesting that you are trying to use the entire plant. The native Hawaiians were very sustainable about using the entire taro plant. They would cook the root, they would cook with the leaves, and the stalk would be used to plant the next crop, so nothing was wasted.
Another thing I found really interesting from your bio is that Blackberry Farm has a preservation room. Do you do a lot of fruit and vegetable preserves or even the curing of meat?
Feathers - Absolutely. that's what "The Larder" stands for. We call the production facility "The Larder" because in old world Appalachia, larder means pantry. In Appalachia, the pantry is what you lived on when it wasn't growing season. So, you would put things up for the winter. That is really what that has come to stand for. Our preservation kitchen makes jams, pickles and dry mixes.
Our cheese room makes sheep's milk cheese through the milking season. We dabble a little with cow's milk during the off season. The cheese maker has to have something to do when there are no sheep to milk.
Our butcher shop takes care of the raw meat production for our restaurants. We have a curing room where we do dry cured salami that we are able to retail. Michael, our butcher makes all kinds of stuff for the restaurants, so there is always panchetta or country ham that we can also use for any specialty type events.
Morita - The Larder sounds like a chef's playground. When I lived in Michigan, I used to have a lot of fun making preserves. We could go to the farmer's markets and find phenomenal produce. We would buy bushels of cherries, blueberries and wild strawberries, using what we needed, and then putting up the rest of it as some sort of preserve or jam. It was really fun in the middle of the winter to be able to pull out a great strawberry jam that you made during the summer.
Feathers - Oh yeah, and it tastes like summer in a jar.
Morita - That's one of the things that we don't see a lot of here in Hawaii because the weather doesn't change much. We don't see seasonal changes like an autumn or winter.
Feathers - You all are able to grow stuff year round.
Morita - Yeah, and if we can't grow it, because we are so centrally located in the Pacific, when stuff is out of season in California, we can bring it in from Australia, New Zealand or Asia. Recently, Hawaii has started to really embrace sustainable agriculture. However, we are still quite limited on what we grow here in Hawaii. Hopefully, we'll soon start growing more berries or stone fruits and what not in Hawaii, but we should have a lot of locally grown produce for you and the other chefs to play around with in September.
Feathers - It sounds great, I'm really looking forward to it.
Morita - I'd like to thank you for your time, and I'm looking forward to tasting your dish at the Hawai'i Food & Wine Festival in September.
Feathers - Thank you.