Taking A Stand Against GMO Foods

Genetically modified food is something of a cult topic, but I get the feeling that it won't be for long. GMOs — genetically modified organisms, or GMs for short — certainly can provoke outrage for people who care about the way they eat. Given all the crop modification that goes on in industrial farming, finding foods that aren't genetically modified is more difficult by the day. Soy beans, corn, tomatoes — if you're eating them, chances are good that you're eating food that's been modified. So where can you find foods that aren't genetically modified?

If Executive Chef Vikram Garg has his way, restaurants will be a good place to start. At Halekulani, the luxury resort in Honolulu, Hawaii where he oversees dining operations, Garg started a GMO-free portion of the menu in March at the resort's open-air restaurant Orchids and for in-room dining. He says that he currently has about 40 percent of the menu free of genetically modified foods, and that he hopes to continue expanding the offerings for guests requesting GMO-free and organic dishes. (And in a promising sign, his guests are actually requesting these options.)

On a recent swing through New York City to serve his signature tuna sashimi dish at an event — with 100 lbs. of tuna that the big man imported himself in a suitcase — Food Republic lunched with the India-born Chef Garg at ABC Kitchen and talked GMO, sustainability, Hawaiian barbecue and more.

So why the commitment to offering GMO-free items on the menu?

One of the reasons we did that is because of guests asking, "Do you have a GMO-free menu or an organic menu?" We definitely want to be sustainable and we want to be local and also offer more options to our guests. It is quite challenging because the menus have to be changed and everything has to be researched. Especially, in today's world as you can see, over 99% of all food is GMO. It's already modified.

So what was the process of changing over into GMO-free?

We looked at ways we could make the food very simple and take out all the ingredients that we cook with that are modified. The full menu is not GMO-free, only about 40% of the menu is GMO-free. With canola oil, we're not sure if it's genetically modified or not, so we use olive oil, which is GMO-free. In butter, milk or dairy we make sure it's USDA organic, which is my main policy about food.

For the person that doesn't understand it, what's wrong with genetically modified foods?

There are two ways of looking at it. It could be good or it could be bad. A lot of people think that when it's genetically modified, the genes have changed so it's not grown naturally. It's like taking the best of the two or three crops going in. But in the GMO crop, the pesticides they use are controlled. So the food is grown in a very controlled environment which people think is not natural, so keeping that in mind when you talk about organic and natural and sustainable, that's totally out of question when you say GMO.

What about sustainability in Hawaii? How difficult is it to make sure your seafood is sustainable?

We buy our all our seafood through the Hawaii Fisheries Council, and they are really big into sustainability. Everything that they catch that is sustainable can be certified. You can call them up and look it up on their website and see, so all our seafood that we get is from there and absolutely sustainable.

Since you have such a big operation, it must be hard to keep tabs on all of this. Do you have people on staff to make sure you're getting produce, meat and fish that are meeting your standards?

We have seven people in the purchasing department so they check it, it comes to us and we have special suppliers, and I do a random check on my team and everything is checked, labeled, dated. Whatever is organic and sustainable is what's kept in mind. Of course, we are not 100% sustainable because of the volume of what we go through and what's available on the island is very limited. We go through 100 lbs. of tomatoes a day, and everyone has to share the market.

Let's talk barbecue. What's special about the BBQ in Hawaii?

We use the Kiawe wood, there's no charcoal; charcoal is just used as a starter. We get the local seafood, meat, vegetables, grill it and serve it and that's the menu for the casual dining. And plus we throw in some of the Hawaiian influence, like the huli-huli chicken, which is traditional Hawaiian BBQ— chicken marinated and placed between these two things and basically keep flipping it. Huli Huli means "flip flip chicken," so it's just flipping of the chicken.

BBQ is big in Hawaii, people love barbecuing. People go on weekends and camp out on the beach and do BBQ's with their families.

What are the most popular things to cook and bbq there?

Most of the time we do not take anything with us, just go out on the beach and take the grill and whatever fish we catch just throw it on there. So pretty much you have to catch fish to eat, otherwise there's some beers and charcoal. Ha ha.

What are some of the best fish for grilling out there?

The tuna is great out there; the yellow fin and the big eye tuna. Right now we're getting some great big eyes, also bonito. That's pretty much throughout the year with an exception of a couple of weeks in a year that we don't get much of it. Unaga, which is a long tail snapper. This is the season for the Monchong or Mungfish, Opa, these are a few. Right now we have fantastic mahi-mahi.

What about preparation, are you just grilling these fish with some salt, pepper, and lemon?

Hawaii is close to Japan so there's always soy sauce, which they call Soyu. They have a little soyu and wasabi with everything. Pretty much everything you're eating is going to be dipped into soy sauce and sugar, it's the salt of Hawaii I would say. And raw; when we go down the beach we take out of the sea the sea snails and just throw them on the BBQ and suck them out of that. So it's pretty wild. The moment you reach the beach, you go as a group, there's a couple of guys setting up the BBQ, a couple of guys setting up the cooler for beverages, and a couple of guys putting the lines in the ocean to catch fish and you stay there all day. The second big thing is pork on the BBQ. Pork is huge. Some Hawaiian local pork which is huge.

So are there all types of preparations for pork?

For pork, yes, pork is huge in Hawaii, we smoke a lot and use mesquite. What Hawaiian culture is like is that you start eating in the morning and you continue eating until sunset. So it's all day. Have a little wine; raw fish is a big thing. You nibble all day, you don't eat a big meal when they do a BBQ. It's not with everybody sitting down and eating a meal. It's progressive eating.

And by smoking you mean they do it on the BBQ?

They do it right on the BBQ or most of them have smokers at their house. It's a big thing for the men out there to smoke their pork since they pride themselves in their smoked pork. So everyone has their own signature smoked pork.

What about vegetables? Do Hawaiians put vegetables on the grill as well?

Very rare. They're not big on vegetables. They are more into pork and fish.