I expected to be modestly entertained when I went to a screening of the pilot episode of “Family Ingredients,” which airs Thursday, May 23, at 9 p.m. on PBS Hawaii. I assumed it would be yet another food-focused travel show, a genre I appreciate, but have grown weary of after so many renditions. But as the hour-long episode unfolded, a thrill came over me, the feeling you get when you realize you’re experiencing something truly worthy.
“Family Ingredients,” produced by Juniroa Productions and hosted by TOWN owner/chef Ed Kenney, surprised me with its depth. It’s an ode, in a way, to farmers and food producers, relaying the importance of knowing where food comes from. But its strength lies in its heart.
Kenney establishes the premise early — to look at who we are and where we came from by tracing origins of family recipes. As the show’s first subject, Alan Wong is certainly a credible choice. Not only does Wong, owner of Alan Wong’s Restaurant, The Pineapple Room and Amasia, have the gravitas to make a worthy subject, but he has a compelling family story.
Wong came to Hawaii at age 5 from Tokyo, where his mother is from. Without hesitation, he describes her as his primary inspiration as a chef. She’s a “really good cook,” he says, then singles out two seemingly simple dishes she prepared for him as a child that continue to resonate with him — tamago kake gohan (fresh egg over steamed rice) and miso soup.
At first, his selections hardly seem complex enough to carry a 60-minute program. But then the journey begins, and Kenney and Wong whisk us to Wahiawa, where Wong grew up, to visit the 96-year-old Honda Tofu Factory and the century-old Petersons’ Upland Farm. We’re hooked as soon as we see the Honda family carefully slicing soft pillows of tofu by hand, then watch as fresh Petersons’ eggs are also sorted by hand and weighed on an antiquated scale.
It’s fitting the show flows from scene to scene, almost like courses of an elaborate meal. The Wahiawa stops serve as starters, then we’re transported to Tokyo and outlining regions, and that’s where the muscle of the show is flexed.
There, we visit rooster and organic farms, a tofu factory and even see Wong and Kenney cook sakura trout and octopus together at the home of their host. There are lots of good interviews and stunning visuals from these visits. All the scenes are carefully woven together, and overall, the editing and production quality are excellent. But actually what I enjoyed most about “Family Ingredients” is just tagging along and seeing Kenney and Wong — two of Hawaii’s most celebrated chefs — joyfully and spontaneously react to their adventures. One of director Ty Sanga’s best decisions is to let them experience the trip without a rigid script.
In one scene, the pair are almost giddy as they purchase fresh eggs from Japan’s Asano Poultry via a vending machine. Then at the Frostpia Farm, an organic farm in Saitama Prefecture, they’re blown away after a farmer shows them shiitake mushrooms blooming in abundance off tree stumps. And while eating a 21-course omakase at the famed Sukiyabashi Jiro, featured in the documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” Kenney’s face is flushed and he almost looks bewildered as he quietly tastes revered sushi chef Jiro Ono’s fresh saba.
As a host, Kenney is charismatic and engaging. Although there are a few awkward moments, like when he suddenly shouts “Cockadoodledoo” to a chuckling Japanese rooster farmer, his quirks make him more endearing. Overall, it’s comfortable and exciting to travel with this duo. Kenney said at Saturday’s screening that prior to shooting, he was scared of Wong, whom he described as the “godfather” of Hawaii chefs. But the two clearly connected during their two weeks in Japan, and their interactions and banter are funny, easygoing and respectful.
What also resonates is the credibility Kenney and Wong bring in terms of the show’s farm-to-table advocacy. Here in Hawaii, the two are among the most committed and vocal proponents of eating fresh, locally produced foods to support sustainability. Thus, they were perfect ambassadors to send to Japan to interview farmers about the roots of their ingredients. I’m not sure the show would’ve worked as well if its host and guest weren’t similarly invested.
After seeing the pilot, I definitely would watch more episodes, but I can’t help but think it might be difficult to maintain the quality. I’m not sure how many locations were shot for this first episode, but the production undoubtedly was a big undertaking that might be difficult to replicate. Nevertheless, it would be a shame if “Family Ingredients” ended here. It’ll be aired nationwide on PBS stations this summer, and I’m rooting for executive producer Heather Haunani Giugni to find distribution so we can enjoy more worthy family food stories.
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Alan Wong and Ed Kenney at the screening for "Family Ingredients." Says Kenney: "I am so grateful for the chance that Heather and her team took on me. The time spent with the crew, getting to know Alan Wong, listening to stories, meeting new friends, meandering through Wahiawa, Tokyo, and the Japan countryside, cooking, eating, and laughing all add up to an experience I will never forget. The story of Hawaii as seen through food is one worth telling, beyond our shores. I can't help but wonder who's Family Ingredients we will taste next."