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Cultivate

Celebrating Chef Gida Snyder & National Cooking Day

Jonnah Perkins
Published Sep 25, 2021. Read time: 14 mins

From New Mexico to New York

We all interact with food, it’s part of being human. But for someone who is as integrated with her food ecosystem as Chef Gida Snyder of Kauai-based Slow Island Food and Beverage Co, the focus on food came by way of creating enjoyment. “Food? Well, let's see here. It wasn't always at the center as far as a career path. I left New Mexico, which is where I'm from originally, to move to a larger environment and a bigger city. I ended up in New York. I was in the music industry, so not at all in the food business. The periphery was food and entertainment.”

Gida followed her curiosity for food through one of the most gastronomically diverse cities in the world, taking in the experience through the lens of pleasure, “New York has such an incredible food scene, and you get exposed to so many different new flavors and ingredients and cultures through food. So exploring food was definitely something I did for enjoyment.”

Toward the end of her time in New York, Gida began cooking for others in social settings. Easing her way into food through the communal act of cooking and eating with friends was where the proverbial fire was lit, “I was doing dinner parties with friends and loved it but didn't really have any basis for wanting to make it a career. I almost felt like it would actually ruin the fun of it to start cooking professionally. But nevertheless, I was like, I could just try.

A New Landscape on the Garden Island

“After about 10 years in New York, I decided that I was ready for a new location and I also wanted to be closer to my grandmother, who lived here on Kauai. She passed away a year and a half ago. She was already getting up there in age, and I wanted to have an opportunity to spend time with her. I've been very close to her all my life. She invited me out to Kauai to give me space to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.”

Gida began working in a kitchen in Kauai to explore the restaurant world from the inside. “I realized that it actually suits my personality well. It's a little bit intense and fast paced, but the ultimate result is that you're doing something that is to create pleasure for others. Cooking is as much a connection as it is about the enjoyment of the food at the end of it. That resonated with me.”

Deeping Her Connection to Food

After cooking in kitchens in Kauai, Gida enrolled in the Culinary Institute of the Pacific on Oahu, where she gained access to talented chefs, farmers, and innovative leaders in food. She was introduced to Slow Food, an international organization that promotes traditional foodways and local food sourcing. “I ended up becoming the president of the Slow Food chapter of my school and that opened a lot of opportunities for travel and also connecting with farms locally on Oahu.” The Slow Food movement and this food ideology anchored in Gida the approach she wanted to take with her own food journey. “On the other islands I was able to get the Slow Food view of where the food is coming from and understand those connections. That was when I said, Oh, okay. This is the direction I want to go with food."

The Art of Suspending Time

After a trip to the Slow Food convention in Italy during her culinary program, her entire perspective on the power of preservation shifted, “It was just life changing. With Italian culinary traditions, there's this pride in ownership for the regional flavor of food and then how those raw ingredients are preserved and how they translate the freshness into something that comes out of a can at the end of it.” This exposure to the ethos of making fresh foods even better through preservation is what Slow Island is built upon. “It's technique and it's the quality of what goes into it in the first place. So coming back to the US and back to school and becoming friends with farmers, I started experimenting with preservation.”

Gida sees the concept of preservation as a brilliant way to add value to fresh produce that a farmer can’t move quickly enough or is imperfect, as an opportunity to be an artist. “Circular food preservation is really appealing to me. To participate in helping to alleviate food waste and create something that is, in its own right, as delicious as the fresh product, for somebody to enjoy later, I find that very, very sexy, honestly.”

 

Photo of Chef Gida

Remembering her Mother’s Food Traditions

For many years Gida’s path into being an active part of the food world felt like it began in New York, but the more layers she peels back in her own story, the more she realizes that she has come full circle. “I actually grew up vegetarian eating food grown by my mother from her garden and bread that she baked, everything slow food. Basically, my mom is like the OG slow food practitioner but I bucked all of that when I left home. When I became old enough to have pocket money, it was all processed whatever-I-could-get-my-hands-on. As a teenager I was not interested in eating whole foods because I immediately associated it with healthy food rather than just clean and fresh and delicious food.”

Now after years to reflect on the origins of her food story, Gida has the hindsight to see that her mother planted holistic food roots in her early childhood. “The adult me, it turns out, is completely into it and just needed to take the long route back around,” says Gida about her journey of self-discovery with food. “The way we ate all of my childhood is now what I'm super into as a chef. I think my mother finds this slightly amusing.”

A Burgundy Odyssey: Cooking for the Burgundy Grape Harvest

“It was once in a lifetime, three times, and it was amazing,” Gida says of her experiences in Burgundy. On a chance conversation with an old friend, Gida found herself invited to cook for 40 grape harvesters during Burgundy’s grape harvest, an opportunity that a recent culinary school graduate cannot refuse. “So I ended up in Burgundy three consecutive years in a row cooking for the harvest, which is a relatively short period of time in Burgundy - about a solid week of harvesting and then it's done. But what was cool about cooking for the harvest is that I would go a couple weeks prior and get ready for the harvest time. It was a pretty intense schedule of cooking several meals throughout the day: snacks, a huge lunch and then sometimes an evening meal, as well, for winemakers.”

“It was eye opening how people really put emphasis into the care of the individual ingredient." Being part of the bucolic French pace of food was very influential on the way the Gida approaches her craft now. Taking no shortcuts in finding the best regional ingredients is at the core of her work. “One of the coolest parts was having to go and source your ingredients. Because there are lots of grocery stores, but that's not entirely how it's done there. There were certain farmers' markets that I would make sure to visit because they had the particular cheese vendor who would come from his little village to this particular farmers' market. And I would actually go and pick my own berries for the meals I created.” 

The Shave Ice Origin of Slow Island 

Like so many artisans, Gida’s path to where her company is today, started with a love for her craft, and a few serendipitous opportunities along the way. “Slow Island, the name of the business as it is, actually started in 2019, but the concept and the preserved foods, syrups, all those things, I actually started making them in 2018. That was in a similar vein to what had happened in culinary school. I started to get access to a whole lot of fruit that was otherwise not going to be utilized. For my first batch of syrups, I was talking to a friend who had just started managing a mini golf course, and he had a shave ice program.” Shave Ice is a Hawaiian dessert that is ice shavings with sweet fruity juice toppings. Gida and her friend decided to try offering local fruit syrups to see what the response would be. “So I made this line of syrups. I just found some fruit that was seasonal that month and made some syrups, put them in bottles, and brought them up there.”

Gida supplied a seasonal rotation of fruit syrups for about a year, sourcing fruit from the Hawaiian Islands, “In my sourcing my furthest radius is other islands during certain seasons because, believe it or not, Hawaii has seasons. And each island actually has really specific growing regions that can support various things at various times of year. So if I have trouble finding a particular kind of mango here during one part of the year, there's a possibility of another island that has it ripe and ready. It's really nice because we do have such diversity here. And if you just go a little bit further afield, you can find almost anything that you need.”

Slow Island Fruit Banana

 

Good Food Awards

In 2019, Gida entered her Passion fruit Orange Guava syrup into the Good Food Awards, an artisanally-based value-added product food showcase that is held in San Francisco annually. The Good Food Foundation creates a platform for craft producers to feature their products and celebrates innovation and integrity in the value-added food space. Gida explains her favorite part about how the products are judged, “There is a blind tasting by experts in the field from each category, and there are a number of categories, everything from cheese and charcuterie to coffee, elixirs and syrups. I had gotten some really great feedback on this particular syrup and decided to bottle it and send it in for the Good Food Awards to see how it would do. Wouldn't you know, I ended up winning a Good Food Award.” This was a powerful affirmation for Gida in taking her small company to another level. Having the national recognition for her syrup was a pivotal moment in the trajectory of Slow Island.

Gida explains how being part of the Good Food Awards opened her up to a whole world of producers who value sourcing on the same level that she does, “So I scrambled and got myself together to attend that awards ceremony and the subsequent market that they host for the winners. I was blown away by the idea that there's a whole lot of producers out there who have the same set of values that I do and they're all doing really awesome things in their own right. It was really inspiring to meet them, to taste their stuff, to see what else was out there, to participate with this like-minded group of food producers. It feels great to realize that you're not on a raft by yourself.”

 

Slow Island Chef Gida

 

Seasonality and Sourcing as her Guides

With the individual ingredients as the starting point for all of her creations, sourcing and seasonality are the linchpins. “The quality of the ingredient is what drives the food. I don’t get excited about trends. That’s just marketing. We end up with these keywords all over packaging that make a person feel like they've made a better choice, but in reality if you start looking at the base ingredients and you can't pronounce half of them because it's literally chemical synthesis to create textures and flavors that your body would otherwise get from a fresh food.”

Gida operates outside of the consolidated packaged food ecosystem to stay honest to her own values and raw ingredients that are available to her. “If you had taken the time to make the quality ingredient in the first place, then you wouldn't have to create the chemical version of that ingredient or flavor profile. And it's frightening because instead of getting closer to clean ingredients and quality cooking techniques, we've just tried to figure out ways to circumvent quality sourcing and we've created a new set of problems.”

Why the Name Slow Island?

“It's kind of tongue in cheek. People always say that things move so slow over here. But that's not really it. It also moves slowly by design. It's languid. It's taking time with something. Of course, for me anyway, it's drawing back to the Slow Food movement concept instinct.”

Chef Gida In Kitchen

 

Gida on Sweet Versus Savory

Oddly, I actually am not a sweets person and my first line of things are all sweet-based. But I am a savory person. Give me any day and I'll take savory over sweet. I think it was because the access that I was getting in the beginning was primarily for fruit. That was B-market fruit that needed using so it was like well, I'm going to do that. But I've started to dabble into more savory, hot items and spicy things.”

The Creation Process of Gida’s Famous Turmeric Elixir

"Hey, Gida. I have 400 pounds of turmeric that I just harvested. Can you do something with it? Initially, my mind went, What am I supposed to do with that?” Being part of the network of farmers and producers in her community, it’s not unusual for Gida to get fun food challenges on short notice, but turmeric was particularly unique. “My association with turmeric in juices is always relatively distasteful, to be perfectly honest. When I think about a turmeric shot, I think about the thing that has the apple cider vinegar and the cayenne and it's like you make a face when you slug it down. You feel better and that's great.”

Gida drew on her memories of her mother and grandmother using turmeric medicinally, but wanted to pull in the pleasure factor that is so important in her craft. “I stopped and pondered for a while, and I said, I know turmeric's awesome. My grandmother ate it every morning, she chomped on it raw. My mom had been using it for years in cooking. Then I thought of the lilikoi we have here, which is called passion fruit anywhere else. That's a flavor that goes a long way too. It becomes a dominant flavor in a really pleasant way. It's tart and sweet.”

“I get fresh on-the-vine green peppercorns from Oahu and dehydrate them to black pepper and then grind them up. That's part one of the ingredients in the elixir. I decided to combine passion fruit with the turmeric and fresh orange juice plus ginger and the black pepper to create something that was semi-medicinal but also I wanted it to be joyful. Like when you were a kid and used to get a gummy vitamin and you're like, This is delicious! ? - like that,” says Gida of the response she wanted to create with her turmeric elixir. And it worked. “The elixir is now one of our bestselling products.”

Gida on Where She Fits into Food

“I need to have as much connection as I possibly can to the food, short of growing it, because I'm a terrible gardener and a terrible farmer. I have realized that I can cook dead things but I can't grow live things. Even though I can't keep them alive I can certainly do a lot with them after they've been harvested.”

“Meeting the people who are behind growing food, getting your hands in the dirt physically, and having a part in that system is important. And then tasting things in the sun, seconds after they've been picked, is a kind of visceral pleasure that comes from eating fresh food.”

Changing the Way We Treat our Food

“Traveling opened my mind in a completely different way to the concept of food preservation, for pleasure, but most importantly, to make sure that you don't waste all of the work that went into growing food,” says Gida on the journey she has taken around the globe in learning about food.

“If you're from a farming environment, you probably have an idea of how hard farmers work, but not everyone appreciates the people, the land, the animals, the system that works so hard to grow this food. The idea that we could flippantly discard something that maybe has a blemish on it because it doesn't suit the manufacturer's sensibility of what perfect looks like is egregious. It has to stop.” Gida puts her powerful words into practice through her preservation craft. Artisans like Gida who treat farmers and their work with dignity and reverence are what can create seismic shifts in our food system as a whole.

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