For Best Chefs America
David Abrahams calls the crew at his restaurant, Red Water Café, the black sheep of the restaurant business in Waimea, Hawaii. Abrahams' restaurant is a hub where local misfits and high-end travelers alike can gather for conviviality and fine cuisine. Red Water Café is also one of the only exclusively chef-owned restaurant concepts on the northern coast of the Big Island, which makes it unique.
“We’re the counterculture restaurant in town,” he says.
Abrahams' style of food is undefined. He has an ability to jump around genres. He’s not working for anyone else anymore, like he did for decades as he climbed his way up from being a dishwasher to chef de cuisine at a AAA Four Diamond resort. He can put classic French food, curry, sushi, burgers, and more on one menu. He can do whatever he wants, and the public agrees that it's good. With its mix of Polynesian, Japanese, Micronesian, and ‘mainland’ culinary influences, Hawaii is a great place to showcase fusion food.
What Abrahams remains steadfast in is his commitment to farm to fork sourcing. The list of farms Abrahams works with is long. Everything from butternut squash to fern shoots to taro leaf to lilikoi are grown on the island and used in his menu. If it weren’t for Red Water Café, the only other place to get true farm to table food in Waimea would be Merriman’s, where it’s hard to walk out without spending a few hundred dollars. Abrahams specifically made Red Water Café accessible to many budgets. Prices range from 10 to 40 dollars a plate.
During lunch, Red Water Café is a greasy spoon restaurant. Abrahams and his team dish out giant bowls of saimin (Hawaiian style ramen), sandwiches, huge salads, the fuji sushi roll, and a plate of fresh sashimi. During dinner, you won’t see any burgers. There are Asian-inspired appetizers, rib eye steaks, shrimp fried rice, macadamia nut creme brulée, and more. A full sushi menu is also available, and Red Water Café makes rolls large enough for an entire meal. Sake, wine, and cocktails with handmade syrups and blended fruit are served alongside food.
Most people might associate Hawaiian agriculture with the images of lush abundance that an exotic environment evoke. The land here in Hawaii is very green. You're in the jungle. Anything that can, will grow. There’s food everywhere. Papayas, mangos, coconut, and jackfruit fall off the trees, but the European produce most people regularly eat has a hard time producing. The soil is full of cinder. Blight is everywhere. It rains constantly. People on the Big Island live on an active volcano. Conditions are extreme.
For Abrahams to source local, he has to take advantage of available ingredients anywhere he can find them. He and his staff forage for citrus. He buys local beef and lamb.
“We’re here to showcase what’s around,” Abrahams says.
He’s also here to cook food that helps Waimea flourish. Abrahams took a failing restaurant space and turned it into a business that helps farmers generate income without a middleman. Red Water Café also provides solid jobs for its servers, who make an average of 50,000 to 70,000 dollars a year waiting on the many tourists who visit Hawaii. Red Water Café has stayed so consistently packed since its opening that Abrahams paid off all his debts in two years.
Red Water Café is also a social center. There’s music here most nights of the week. Then there’s “Bring It” — an open forum every second Saturday of each month, where people can air grievances and argue about anything political happening in town that they want. It gets rowdy.
The kick off of the Big Island Jazz Festival took place at Red Water Café on the night we visited. Top musicians from New Orleans and around the world were playing together for the first time ever, improvising on the washboard, guitar, trumpet, and more. Abrahams was also awarded the Kilohana Award for the Best Chef in Hawaii by HawaiionTV.com on this night.
Abrahams prides himself on running the kind of restaurant where people can order anything they want off the menu, because his cooks are skilled enough to make it. Abrahams does, however, state that he’s anti-starch. That's why edamame, rather than bread, is served as a starter before dinner.
His kitchen has four stations. There's a person who works both sauté and garde manger, a sushi chef, a grill master, and someone on the wok. There are always four to six specials offered each week. These dishes are planned in advance by Abrahams and his team. They’re not made from leftovers.
Red Water Café is also known for its sushi. If you order sashimi, you’ll be able to taste traditionally cut melt-in-your mouth ahi, sea bass, and house cured salmon — all caught from the Hawaiian coast, sometimes that very day. Specialty rolls incorporate creative combinations of many types of protein: fried soft shells, tuna, shrimp, seared strip steak, even nigiri topped with local pork tataki.
pork tataki nigiri
For appetizers, locals recommend the sautéed mushrooms with a red wine demi sauce, a pesto poached organic egg, and grilled sourdough toast. As your fork cracks open the seal of the egg, the yolk runs out and on top of the mushrooms resting hot in a soufflé dish.
One of the day’s specials is what Abrahams deems “the next generation of salad.” It includes a blue bell heirloom tomato marinated in red wine, paired with local goat cheese, daikon, and fried onions.
"the next generation of salad"
Another special of the day is apple cider braised Berkshire pork shank, paired with chard, cremini mushrooms, and pickled onions. The flesh flakes off bone after being smoked for five hours and braised for eight.
apple cider braised pork shank
Portions at Red Water are hefty, but don’t let the homestyle plating fool you. The flavor pairings are delibrate, creative and nuanced. The ingredients taste vibrant and healthy. The sheer variety of food available makes any meal at Red Water Café an exploration into just how many dishes from different cultures one neighborhood restaurant in the Pacific Ocean can pull off.
There’s a reason why Abrahams has now been named “Best Chef” by more than one media outlet. In a paradise paved with chain restaurants, Red Water Café is the breath of fresh air that foodies come back again and again to enjoy. Abrahams is proof in the power of tapping into what’s missing in any given location. His success shows that artfully bending the rules in the realm of food can not only earn you business, it can bring people together and push a town forward.