Meanwhile, if anyone can balance a chef’s dilemma of price and quality, it’s Isaac Bancaco, one of Hawaii’s rising culinary stars. Born on Maui and trained on the mainland, Bancaco returned home to work his magic at the Grand Wailea Resort (where he moved its restaurant, Humu, from 25-per-cent locally sourced ingredients to 65 per cent) and then Pineapple Grill. He’s since been lured to Andaz Maui at Wailea (a Hyatt property) as sous-chef for its soon-to-be opened signature restaurant.
On my final day, I see perhaps the most basic form of locavorism. Heading back from remote Hana, I pull up beside a bustling roadside attraction. In a jungle clearing, a collective of young, passionate cooks have hand built a clay oven for their organic, thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas. While you wait for your pie (sometimes up to two hours), you’re offered a simple salad of local greens.
Just when you’re about to give up hope, your name is called and someone hands you a pizza wrapped in a banana leaf plucked from a nearby tree. With a lopsided grin, another person bids you farewell with a “Safe drive, bra,” and you’re on your way with the most revelatory pie you’ll ever eat. You couldn’t get further from the manicured perfection of the Kea Lani if you tried, but at the heart of it, they’re the same: food lovers, honouring their past and their island.
The writer’s flight, accommodation and some meals were paid for by Fairmont and Maui Tourism. The organizations did not review or approve this article.
IF YOU GO
Where to eat
The design concept at KO, the $5-million restaurant at the Fairmont Kea Lani resort, seeks to evoke the island’s roots at every turn – from glass panels that mimic sugar cane to kinetic architecture elements such as strands of metal beads that hang from the ceiling to mirror falling rain. Food follows form. Executive chef Tylun Pang goes past the standard serving of ahi tuna poke (and calling it Hawaiian) and gets down to the true mélange of cultures that is Maui. Riffing on the sugarcane plantation era, he uses staff family recipes that span the island’s Hawaiian, Chinese, Philippine, Portuguese, Korean and Japanese roots. Wailea, korestaurant.com
Dubbed the “pied piper of Hawaii regional cuisine” by the Los Angeles Times, chef Peter Merriman serves up his newest concept, Monkeypod Kitchen. It feels somewhat chain-like with its slick, efficient vibe, but the menu is anything but: homemade ketchup, pies from scratch and local fish figure prominently. Merriman is one of the granddaddies on the local food scene (with his other eponymous restaurant chain). Somehow, he manages to keep this resto refreshingly well priced, despite its tony Wailea digs. Wailea, monkeypodkitchen.com
On your way to Hana, stop at the Hali’imaile General Store, ground zero of chef Beverly Gannon’s empire (another pioneer of the local food movement). Expect Hawaiian regional cuisine such as crab pizza. Makawao, bevgannonrestaurants.com/haliimaile
Take the back road to Hana (not the windy tourist road on the other side) to Travaasa Hana for what locally born and raised chef Barry Villiarimo coined “Hana fusion.” Expect to find local ingredients such as taro, breadfruit, sweet potato, coconut milk and fern shoots. His Polynesian flair includes pohole fern shoot salad, fish wrapped in ti leaves, seaweed salad, fish smoked with guava and mango wood, lilikoi mahi with Hawaiian sweet potato and ginger lime coconut sauce. Hana, travaasa.com/hana
Chill out (there’s no other option) for an inordinate amount of time at the Clay Oven: it doesn’t get closer to the land than this. Sit at a picnic table (or fetch a smoothie from the girls in the adjacent tent) and watch serious hippies turn wood-fired pizza into the closest thing to manna this side of heaven. Pizzas to go are wrapped in banana leaves, not boxes. Mile Marker 31, Hana
For a quick bite, stop at Mana Foods, where you’ll find more than 400 local products on the shelves. Get takeout at the deli and eat at Paia Bay beach. Paia, manafoodsmaui.com
Star Noodle, opened by Sheldon Simeon in industrial-park territory, shows you that if you build it, foodie pilgrims will come. Simeon earned his chops at Aloha Mixed Plate, the lowbrow gem hidden far from the tourist crowds at the surrounding hotels. (Imagine if Daniel Boulud got his start slinging In-N-Out burgers and you get the idea.) Simeon is the island’s current darling (he also owns Leoda’s Kitchen & Pie shop). Lahaina, starnoodle.com