Today, Brandon Baptiste is back home in Kapaa, Kauai. He opens up the Winnebago window of Wailua Shave Ice to start the business day. This spot, under the warm sun and bright blue skies of eastern Kauai, is about as far away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan as it gets. But Baptiste moved home for a reason. He ended his pursuit of super-chef stardom to take care of his family in Kauai – and he hasn’t looked back since.
Now Baptiste applies the skills and attention to detail he learned as a chef to shave ice – the local version of a snow cone. With fresh, natural flavors and innovative, elevated recipes, he’s reinvented what shave ice can be – and the world has taken notice. Lines form early here in Kapaa because people are passionate about his shave ice. Baptiste has even expanded, opening successful Wailua Shave Ice shops in San Diego and Portland. Not bad for a local boy whose path to success was both unexpected and inevitable.
“Just being home, it reminds you of the important things in life.”
I grew up in Kapaa, where our shave ice stand is. Our logo is the “Sleeping Giant,” the mountain range right behind our house. It's a very small town, low key, very connected, very loving, a very nurturing place, where people take care of each other. And everybody's just down to help each other.
What was it like growing up on Kauai?
One of my first memories is of Hawaiian Blizzard, Uncle Aaron’s shop. Uncle Aaron was the shave ice guy growing up and he was just always this super nice guy that you always went to. He’d tell you to pick some colors. I was pretty boring – blue and yellow. You’d get your shave ice, you'd sit with your family and your friends, and just have a good time. Food memory is probably one of the strongest memories in the brain and we just want to be a part of people's lives that way, something that will last with them for the rest their lives.
What were some of your early memories of eating shave ice?
“Hawaii is an amazing place. And all it is, is this combination of all these different cultures that came together and out of necessity, had to assimilate.”
Shave ice comes from the plantations. All Hawaii food is like a melding of cultures. On the weekends, on Sunday, on their church day, they would get together and shave a big block of ice and pour fruit juice over it, taking ideas from the countries they came from, and just use whatever they had. They had fruit juice. They had sweetened condensed milk. They had mochi. So, all these things that we see as Hawaii shave ice is just a reiteration of what they were doing back then. And we're trying to, in some ways, bring it back to that.
Where did shave ice originate from?
Well, when they first started making shave ice, everything was fresh fruits. Everything was made that way, because it's what they had. And now, we try to do that. Get away from the syrups. Get away from the high fructose, the food colorings. On Kauai, we have some of the best produce, some of the best ingredients that I've seen. We wouldn't get the same pineapples even in Per Se in New York. Our mangoes are still better, our guava is still better, our quality is still better. So we take that and celebrate those things. Take the heart of what it was and bring it forward again.
What makes your shave ice different?
Hawaii is an amazing place. And all it is, is this combination of all these different cultures that came together and out of necessity, had to assimilate. All the amazing things they had in their culture, they brought it together and mashed it together with these other cultures… Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese... and we come up with things that are only unique to Hawaii. Things that you don't find in even their original countries because they've had to meld together. And that's quintessentially, what Hawaii is. I mean, America is the melting pot, but I definitely think Hawaii is even more so that personification of diversity.
What makes shave ice unique to Hawai‘i or uniquely local?
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