Brandon Lee could be called Hawaii’s number one fan. A passionate advocate of Hawaiian sustainability, Lee grew up in the small town of Honokaa on the island of Hawaii and spent a brief period on the mainland before moving to the town of Hilo on the same island. The father of four now owns his own restaurant, Napua, where everything – from the food to the plates themselves – comes from the region; he also runs Kaunamano Farm, a 150 pig farm that Napua supplies with sustainably reared pork. With COVID-19 sparking new talks about tourism in the Hawaiian Islands, as well as Hawaii’s reliance on imports, Lee is firmly committed to the idea that the islands are self-sustaining. His passion for the place – and his conviction that it is nowhere else in the world – has also remained unchanged.
This interview is part of The World Made Local, a global collaboration between the seven international editions of Condé Nast Traveler, in which 100 people in 100 countries tell us why their home should be their next destination.
Describe Hawaii to us.
Hawaiians are loyal to their country. I know everyone thinks this about their hometown, but not like the Hawaiians. I remember moving to Colorado for two years at a young age and coming back. The air smells of flowers, of pikaks, a flower you have at weddings – it just does. Every time you smell this smell, think of your wedding day, one of the happiest days of your life. When I’m on the mainland, as soon as I get off the plane it smells different. It doesn’t smell like home – I can tell. Some people can’t even taste the taste of chicken pork, but I can tell when I’m not home.
It looks like … the best place to live! The most beautiful islands, a perfect ecosystem, a perfect balance – everything is perfect. We have fresh water in the midst of salt water; Even the koa tree has a special leaf that can absorb moisture from the air, causing condensation to form on the leaf like a cold can of soda and the water to drip down to its roots. And then this tree is the host tree for many other trees. Then, as it circulates, it goes out; then it hits the dirt. And then you have all the different birds. Hawaii, I’m telling you, it’s not just the most beautiful – it’s the most extraordinary.
The story goes on
If a friend is visiting Hawaii and only has 24 hours there, what would you advise them to do?
Hawaiians all have this story that we all know. I would take you to one of our valleys and you would help out in a taro patch, this is that big huge mud pit, and you would help plant that and then have lunch with them and then swim in the ocean in the ocean Afternoon and then a couple of drinks with them. And then maybe go into town and then have a great dinner at a restaurant that you know grows Hawaiian food – that would be the mega-experience.
Where shall we eat?
The Big Island has Cafe Pesto in Hilo; You do a wonderful job of supporting the local farmers. There is also Miwa, a small Japanese restaurant in the back corner of the Hilo Shopping Center. And they do sushi and Japanese food, but it’s like that local Japanese Hilo style. The guy who opened this restaurant is older now, but he was the sushi master who started many of the great sushi people on the island. He brought things from Japan that he let you try, little squids and such; it would just depend on what he brought with him. They make a great unagi too, which I love, but it’s really Hilo style.
One thing that Hawaii is not given enough attention is the type of local handicrafts that are made in Hawaii that are native to Hawaii. Remember, we were stuck on an island for 1,000 years. We learned to weave things and make leis – so the lei culture is huge. There are lauhala hats that are pulled together from this type of sheet, which is very strong – they are sun hats, beach hats. And there is a lot of preparation. It’s really hard. They are expensive but beautiful. You can find them at Hana Hou in Hilo.
If you had to choose your favorite thing grown in Hawaii, which one would it be?
That’s a really tough question because we grow so many things in Hawaii. Lychee, mango, papaya – everything is good. But you have to go with the revered taro plant.
Originally published on Condé Nast Traveler