When a top local chef is coming to your Maui condo to cook dinner and you’re the designated sous chef, the pressure is on.
Armed with a grocery list from chef James McDonald, my gal pal and I wound our way up the scenic Kula Highway to O’o culinary farm (Hawaiian for “to ripen”). Luckily for us, a farm tour was in progress and we joined it just in time for an al fresco lunch of hebi (a cross between marlin and swordfish) atop a bed of “Melody” spinach, with rainbow-coloured beets and carrots on the side.
After finishing our meal with coffee grown and roasted on the farm, I checked my list and took home some fancy lettuces, arugula, daikon, kohlrabi and watermelon radishes, all plucked from the ground moments before. A roadside farm nearby supplied strawberries, rounds of goat cheese and Maui onion marmalade.
It’s easy to eat like a local in Maui without breaking the bank. Many vacation rentals come with well-equipped kitchens and outdoor grills, ideal for foodies.
Our Wailea Beach Villas condo was no exception. It had a kitchen any avid cook would drool over, complete with an upscale gas stove, Japanese knives, granite countertops and a Viking gas barbecue on the spacious balcony.
But there was no time to admire our surroundings — I had to get to work sorting, rinsing and chopping. By the time McDonald showed up with a whole pink snapper for the entree, I was ready to watch and learn.
It turns out that McDonald, who has won accolades for using local fare at his I’o restaurant in Lahaina, is part owner of O’o farm. And he is one of many private chefs you can hire who can also provide a personal cooking class.
“We are cooking this snapper Hawaiian style, wrapped in ti-leaf and sprinkled with salt, as the locals tend to be purists,” McDonald explains as he places the lemongrass, ginger and garlic-studded fish on the barbecue over low heat.
“Thick fish has to cook gently, and Hawaiian chefs make good lovers because they don’t rush their cooking,” he said with a grin.
Well, he’s right about the fish. It’s evenly cooked to the bone and the salad is bursting with vibrant green-ness.
We learned from McDonald and every other chef we encountered during our 10-day vacation that spam sushi (tried it, once was enough), pork luaus and anything with pineapple and macadamia nuts are no longer mainstream Maui cuisine. Increasingly, restaurant and hotel chefs are connecting with farmers and fishers and serving up farm-to-table cuisine.
Yes, even hotels. For some of us, hotel dining conjures up memories of troughs of chafing dishes at all-you-can-eat buffets in warehouse-sized rooms. Not so the swanky resorts at Wailea, nestled on the leeward side of south Maui, 30 minutes from the Kahului airport. If you can’t fork over big bucks for a sleepover, at least stroll the 1.5 mile coastal walk and treat yourself to lunch.
Most every menu features poke, a Hawaiian ceviche that’s eaten as a snack or appetizer at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Sheraton Maui serves the silkiest ahi poke nestled in an igloo the size of my head. The idea is to eat the poke before the ice melts — no sweat! Or choose an ice bowl of ahi “rose” with pickled chayote squash and pickled eggplant. Chef Bryan Ashlock said the hotel gets almost all its produce from Kula, with its rich, volcanic soil.
Poke isn’t just fish. Not to be missed is the melt-in-your-mouth Kobe beef poke at the Fairmont Kea Lani’s newly renovated Kō restaurant, which is all about plantation-inspired cuisine. Executive Chef Tylun Pang rubs Hawaiian salt and turbinado sugar on the meat, then quickly sears it and serves with crunchy cucumber.
Pang, Hawaii born and raised, says there is lots of cultural pride in Maui and his Filipino, Japanese, Chinese and Korean team are true to their roots. “You won’t find Italian food here because our local chefs, whose grandparents worked the sugarcane plantations, are now using their grandma’s recipes,” he says.
Chef Isaac Bancaco, a Maui native, also takes the locavore approach at the Grand Walilea Resort’s oceanside restaurant, Humuhumu. He says that because the trend is focusing on the 100-mile rule, “farmers are getting smart and they are growing different crops at different elevations and we love it.”
Bancaco’s eclectic menu says it all: Kula Brussels sprouts, Maui onions, sashimi-grade island fish and lomi lomi salmon. Lomi, the Hawaiian word for “massage”, is the classic side dish of diced salmon, tomatoes, and onions.
I can never get enough ahi poke, a.k.a. fish candy. The flavour combo of shoyu, raw onion, ginger, local salt and a little seaweed is simply sustainable love. Fortunately, most grocery stores sell poke, which saves prep time for dinner — and that means there’s time for a spa treatment.
Salt is also a staple on spa menus. We soaked in five different Molokai salt baths at the Grand Wailea’s Spa Grande, from black to emerald green to deep blue, followed by an invigorating salt body scrub. Over at the Fairmont spa, my masseuse told me she was trained by a Kumu, a master of lomi lomi massage (stress buster) and she is true to the tradition.
If Maui isn’t tranquil enough, take a one-hour ferry ride from Lahaina in West Maui to Lana’i and spend a few nights of pampering at the spectacular Four Seasons Resort at ManeleBay. I’m told that Lanai city (population 3,000) is like 1950’s Waikiki. There’s not one fast food outlet or Starbucks on the entire island.
Walk the “Dole Stroll” — two streets of shops facing a park, named after the pineapple giant that once owned most of the island — and visit the fascinating Cultural and Heritage Center. Get the lay of the land and take a private guided tour by Rabaca’s limo service, then stop by Ohana Poke Market for a poke bowl.
Chef and owner Ciso recommended either the ahi poke with limukohu (a local seaweed and Hawaii’s coleslaw) or the furikake masago, with sweet Maui onion and masago (crunchy capelin roe) marinated in soy. I tucked into both and daydreamed of moving here.
Where to Eat and Stay
The Fairmont Kea Lani: www.fairmont.com/KeaLani
Check out Executive chef Tylun Pang on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5ggTY-celw
Grand Wailea Resort: www.grandwailea.com
WaileaBeach Villas: www.waileabeachvillas.com
Sheraton Maui: www.sheraton-maui.com
Four Seasons Resorts Lana’i: www.fourseasons.com/manelebay
O’o Farm: www.oofarm.com
I’o Restaurant: www.iomaui.com