Visit www.tasteofthehawaiianrange.com. Tickets are $60 at the door
It’s within a couple of hours of the 18th Annual Mealani’s Taste of The Hawaiian Range, and Milton Yamasaki is walking between the Hilton Waikoloa Village Grand Ballroom and the Lagoon Lanai, wearing a tee from the first event in 1996. He points out the shirt to those he greets. Yamasaki is considered the founder of the event. The tee is simple, indicating the event’s roots, bearing a red Hawaiian quilt patch print and the saying, “celebrating a taste of the Hawaiian Range.”
Yamasaki conceived of the event, having spent 40 years as the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources technician in charge of research stations in West Hawaii. He retired a few years ago from his university job, but remains very active in the planning of the Taste of the Hawaiian Range event.
“I always looked at the industry, how we shipped animals to the mainland for slaughter, and then shipped the meat back,” Yamasaki said. “If we do it right,we could develop a really high-quality, special, healthy product.
Yamasaki, with one of the university extension agents, Glen Fukumoto,” developed the Taste of the Hawaiian Range as what Yamasaki described as “a side project” that they “cooked up over the office table.”
They thought, by having a food show, they could help to educate food handlers and consumers alike. They stared with a “Forage Field Day” at Kahilu Town Hall in Waimea.
“What we wanted to accomplish was promote and develop a unique product for Hawaii producers that offers alternatives,” Yamasaki said, noting they weren’t trying to take away from or compete with grass-fed products. “This is about high-quality, high-value. The whole thing has been about education and promotion,” and to create and promote a product that would gain chef’s support.
Yamasaki noted that when organizers first put the event together, chefs were skeptical, because they knew the product mack then. They might go to a meat market one day and get a cut from a 30-month-old steer that was “really great,” and then the next day come back for the same cut, but from a 15-year-old animal, and the meat would have to be boiled to be palatable.
“It was so inconsistent,” he said, offering that chefs need to have that consistency and confidence in the product.
The organizers of the Taste of Hawaiian Range sought to organize the producers on the need for high-quality meat at the same time that they worked on boosting the confidence in the product amongst chefs and other consumers.
The event has graduated from a function with about 15 or so participants, maybe a few vendors, at the Kahilu Town Hall, then the Hawaiian Homes Building, then Hawaii Preparatory Academy, then Hapuna Prince Beach Hotel, and in recent years at the Hilton Waikoloa Village.
“Every venue we outgrew,” Yamasaki said. “It was always popular, from the beginning.” He noted that the ranchers and the community have always been supportive. “Even the vegetable and fruit producers saw the advantage from the beginning.” For the marketing aspect alone, vegetable and fruit producers have donated “all kinds of things,” Yamasaki said.
Asked if Yamasaki feels proud of what the event has become 18 years later, “in a sense, yes, there’s pride. There is still a lot more to be done. I’m really happy about the progress. I still feel we need to do more in production side. To me, we’re just tapping into the tip of the iceberg here. The possibilities are huge for a specialty product.”
“Yeah, I have a sense of pride, because, really, what we did was start by a very, very modest means,” Yamasaki said. He noted that the community members that were with him and Fukumoto from the beginning volunteered their time. Locally, people wait until the last minute to buy tickets. Two weeks before the first event in 1996, not very many tickets had sold. The volunteers vowed that if the ticket sales didn’t pay for the event they would dig into their pockets — that’s how committed they were to the concept.
“It’s still going strong, but we still have a lot more to do.”
Yamasaki noted the need for the event to be adaptable and change with the times. A couple years ago he and other organizers decided to “go green.” They brought in some students, many of them high school aged children, to man the trash stations and encourage recycling and composting. Now the students are not only manning the trash, but analyzing how much of it is being collected at the event.
“We can put some numbers behind the whole thing. As we we move forward, there will be more of a need for that,” he said.
With the event set to get started this evening, Friday, Oct. 4, we await those numbers, including the attendance. Last year’s event had 1,700 attendees (1,100 paid), with the 600 remaining people those who manned the booths and stations, plus the farmers and ranchers who donate food and attended as VIPs.