ʻUlu Ambassador: Chef Casey Halpern

Casey Halpern - Executive Chef, Cafe Pesto

When Dana Shapiro showed up to Cafe Pesto with an armful of ‘ulu samples, chef Casey Halpern was already primed for the challenge. 

ʻUlu admittedly had not been on his radar, until kumu Mariposa Blanco from Kua O Ka La PCS invited him to participate in their 2012 ‘Ulu Festival and create an ʻulu dish for 1,000 people. Blanco sweetened the invite with a big, hearty bowl of ‘ulu stew. It only took one bite for him to reconsider his preconceptions of the starchy fruit and he returned the following year to cook at the festival again. 

Halpern, a fourth generation Oʻahu local, moved to Hawaiʻi Island as a kid. His grandfather and great grandparents arrived to Oʻahu by boat in 1912, by way of New York and South Africa. His father was born and raised on Oʻahu and Halpern grew up on the east side until he was 11-years-old. Heʻs lived in Hilo ever since. 

Originally interested in fine arts, Halpern never planned to become a chef.

“I was pretty good at soccer,” he said. “I was supposed to go to college and play, but then I ended up washing dishes at Cafe Pesto, and that was the beginning of my culinary career.”

At the same time, Halpern was starting a family. He met his wife a year later and had four kids.

“Once I started working [at Cafe Pesto], I couldn't stop because I kept having children,” he laughed.

Over the years he worked his way up to executive chef. In 2012, his work became internationally recognized when he was invited by Slow Food USA to attend the renowned Terra Madre festival in Turin, Italy as a Hawai‘i delegate. 

Three years ago Halpern’s wife’s uncle asked him if he would take over his 32-acre coffee farm on the Hāmākua coast. At 77 his health was rapidly declining and managing a farm was suddenly no longer possible.

“That's been … , like, a big eye opener for me, how hard the work is,” Halpern said. “And then beyond the work you do on the farm, then you have to figure out how to sell stuff, where to sell stuff, how much you can sell it for ... it's been quite an experience.”

As if being an executive chef of arguably the busiest restaurant in Hilo isn’t enough, Halpern now spends days off during harvest season picking and processing beans from 900 coffee trees.

Casey's Recipe: Simple Creamy Pumpkin Bisque

See Featured Recipe

Halpern sees the farmers markets dwindling and worries about the next generation of farmers. He says the same situation his wife’s uncle is in, is happening to many other local farmers. 

“There are all these farmers that are aging, right? And they don't have anyone to take over,” he said. “I'm really trying to get myself into a position where I can hopefully facilitate stuff like that, you know? How do we make farming cool again?”

Halpern is fortunate to be in a position where he has time to serve the community. After working at Cafe Pesto for almost 30 years he has built a strong management team underneath him who holds it down when he is not there. He sees himself as a go-to guy having cultivated many strong relationships with purveyors, farmers and chefs over the years. If there is an ingredient someone is looking for, or a chef is trying to find staff, he can help. 

His goal is to support the local food chain from all angles. As a farmer he understands the food security challenges in Hawaiʻi and his responsibility to them. He is now focused on educating kids and hopes that by sharing his knowledge with them it will inspire a new generation of farmers.

Shapiro remembers Halpern supporting HUC farmers since 2015, when some of its founding members supplied the restaurant with ‘ulu before the co-op incorporated

“Casey was a customer before the co-op was even formed,” Shapiro said, emphasizing his loyalty. Halpern recalls creating a vegan ‘ulu risotto with the samples she brought him, painstakingly dicing the ʻulu into tiny cubes, cooking them slowly and stirring constantly to encourage the starch to develop into a creamy porridge. Meanwhile, ʻulu-ʻuala hash became a staple on his breakfast menu.

As a chef, Halpern’s kuleana is to support local agriculture by creating dishes highlighting local ingredients that his customers will order again and again.

“We as chefs need to give farmers a reason to grow and harvest,” he said.

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