KA’ANAPALI, MAUI – Celebrity chef Art Smith is holding court on the patio at the popular Hula Grill, just steps from the sparkling blue waters of Kaanapali Beach. He’s sporting a black Hawaiian shirt and a gorgeous lei made of intertwined green leaves and spiky orange flowers and talking about the local food scene on day one of the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival on Maui.
“They’ve always grown amazing things here” said Smith, a Florida-born, Chicago-based restaurateur and chef who works closely with Chicagoan and part-time Maui resident Oprah Winfrey. “But now there’s a pride in what’s grown and raised in Hawaii.”
“For a period it was hard to find great food here but that’s changed,” says another top chef who’s here for the festival, Nancy Oakes of the famed Boulevard restaurant in San Francisco. “It used to be Spam and those plate lunches or a hamburger patty at breakfast. But you now you have young chefs working on the mainland and bringing ideas home and marrying those with local ingredients.”
Oakes pauses and looks around, taking in the white sand beach at Kaanapali and the views of the sparkling green islands of Lanai and Molokai across the water.
“And, on top of the great food, when you come here your shoulders drop two inches.”
You can still find casual, neighborhood joints in the Hawaiian islands; places that serve saimin noodles, Portuguese sausage and carb-heavy mixed plate lunches, with their famous two scoops of rice plus macaroni, potato salad, poi and shredded Hawaiian pork. But you’ll also find remarkable, romantic spots such as Merriman’s in Kapalua and Ka’ana Kitchen at the Andaz Maui hotel in Wailea, where chef Isaac Bancaco pairs deeply flavoured, deep red Maui strawberries with perfectly salty prosciutto and local ricotta cheese.Folks talk a lot about Hawaii’s fusion cuisine. In fact, the entire culture here, from music to language to food, is a Polynesian/Asian/American/European polyglot, a place where you can find Japanese noodles on the menu at a McDonald’s, hamburger chains named after a Jimmy Buffett song and a gazillion tiny musical instruments brought from Europe and given the name “ukulele.”
Folks attending the Maui portion of this year’s Food and Wine Festival (it’s held on three of the Hawaiian Islands) were able to partake in Art Smith’s pulled, local pork with hearts of palm and pineapple barbeque sauce, served on a purple bun made from Hawaiian taro root, as well as slivers of fresh Ahi tuna, Niihau island lamb, Big Island abalone served up by Nancy Oakes and much more.
“They have incredible product, and that’s where incredible cuisine comes from,” Los Angeles chef David LeFevre told me as he whipped up some “Big Eye Tuna” sashimi with an avocado-ginger pulp and apple ponzu. “They have great seafood, great fruits and great vegetables, so there’s really incredible product in Hawaii.”
Smith said he loves the Hawaii festival as there’s a strong emphasis on helping students and up-and-coming chefs learn great techniques.
“It’s not too big, which makes it more personal, too.”
In addition to food, festival goers were able to taste excellent California wine and try their hand at making their own version of a Moscow Mule with Ocean Organic Vodka, made on Maui from locally grown sugarcane strains that came over the Pacific Ocean with the voyaging Tahitians generations ago. Those who took part in a special afternoon session were able to concoct their own drinks from amongst a huge variety of ingredients, including pineapple, passion fruit (here called lilikoi), Thai basil and tiny citrus fruits called calamansi that pack a nice, tart punch.
There also was a display from the folks at Pau Vodka, a Maui company that makes vodka from locally sourced Maui Gold pineapple, as well as an oak-aged vodka and one infused with cognac.
The Hawaii Food and Wine Festival was co-founded five years ago by local celebrity chefs Roy Yamaguchi, famous for his Roy’s restaurants in Hawaii and other parts of the world, and fellow Hawaiian Alan Wong. It’s now a three-day affair that stretches over two weeks, encompassing Maui, Oahu and the Big Island of Hawaii. There were more than 100 chefs (22 of them James Beard award winners) and 10,000 visitors at the fourth annual event.
“I feel very, very fortunate,” said Yamaguchi, who helped found the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement almost 30 years ago, stressing local products whenever possible. “When we started our movement we had the chefs get together with the farmers and we said, ‘Whatever you grow we’ll buy.’ Now we work with farmers as well as ranchers, fishermen and folks in the hospitality industry.”
In addition to using the freshest local seafood and produce, Yamaguchi likes to experiment with new dishes.
“I love things like Buddha’s hand. It’s so very unique. You can serve it raw or boiled to make a tea, and it’s good for your health, for your blood circulation.”
He also shows off some locally grown ferns, which a look a lot like Canadian fiddleheads. Yamaguchi said he steams or sautees them as well as using them in salads or as garnishes.
Hawaii cuisine has changed a great deal over the years. Lucky for travellers, the islands and the beaches and the green, mist-shrouded mountains and the blue Pacific water remain pretty much the same.
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JUST THE FACTS
The 2016 Hawaii Food and Wine Festival takes place in October. For more information visit www.hawaiifoodandwinefestival.com
Can’t make it to Maui for the Food and Wine Festival? Here are some great restaurants worth checking out:SEA HOUSE: This great spot is at the wonderful Napili Kai Beach Resort. There are table just a meter or two away from Napili Beach, which might have the best stretch of sand on the planet. Great sunsets and views of the torch-lighting ceremony at night. Try the crater pancake at breakfast, with a custard-y pancake filled with lemon zest and topped with powdered surgar.
KO: Located at the lovely Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea, it’s a gorgeous setting with classic Mai Tai’s (not at all sweet) and some of the best sushi you’ll ever taste. Ko means sugar cane, and the menu is based on cuisine favoured by workers who came from around the world to work Maui’s sugar cane fields.
LEODA’S KITCHEN AND PIE SHOP: A casual spot in Olawalu, just south of Lahaina, with wonderful meat pies and New York delicatessen-style sandwiches. Not expensive, and most definitely something different.
MERRIMAN’S: Situated on a peninsula jutting out into the Pacific in the Kapalua/Napili area, you’ll find fantastic local seafood and a wonderful chocolate dessert with rich, dark chocolate that oozes out of a phyllo pastry “purse.”
SAM SATO’S: Local flock to the Maui county capital of Wailuku for legendary noodle dishes, including the popular “dry” chow mein. Another spot where you can stretch that struggling Canadian dollar.
MAMA’S FISH HOUSE: This is a legendary spot near the funky town of Paia, where the fish is so fresh they tell you the name of the fisherman and where he got caught your dinner. Steps from a pretty beach and super romantic.
FLEETWOOD’S ON FRONT: A fun spot owned by Fleetwood Mac drummer and Maui resident Mick Fleetwood, with tons of photos and Mac memorabilia. Try the salad with arugula, beets and goat cheese or the fish and chips (potato chips not fries).