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Maui: How food lovers can enjoy its tropical fare and island flair

At times, patrons of the Clay Over Pizza stand, near Hana on the island of Maui, wait two hours for their pies. It’s worth it.

Robert Lemermeyer

I didn't even know Maui had industrial parks, let alone restaurants located in industrial parks, but here I am pointing my car away from the Lahaina oceanfront to visit a place I'm told is going to change the way I think about Maui dining.

In this case, change is good. It used to be that eating out here was an exercise in two solitudes: pricey resorts rocking surf 'n' turf menus (the surf flown in from Alaska, the turf from Nebraska) or dives serving a plate lunch heavy on the Spam. Even when either was done well, praise was always hedged with, "It was good … for Maui."

That was then. Now is typified by a new ethos that starts with the premise that this is a chain of islands an impractical 4,000 kilometres west of the produce markets of the mainland with a climate so perfect for growing it's like a giant outdoor greenhouse. Locavorism – so easily a throwaway catchphrase elsewhere – is quickly becoming a necessary way of life to many chefs intent on creating authentic island cuisine.

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Food grown just 40 kilometres away is the governing mantra at my destination, Star Noodle. Its chef, Sheldon Simeon, is atypical for Hawaii. First, he's actually from here (many island chefs are imports from big hotel chains). Second, he's garnered accolades (one of Food & Wine's best new chefs last year, finalist in the most recent season of Top Chef and a James Beard award nominee) that don't normally leave the mainland. He's the kind of chef who opens a tiny room in seriously weird territory so he can put the money usually reserved for beachfront rent toward fostering the area's agriculture.

Simeon is helping popularize such indigenous fare as hana pohole (a wild fern that thrives in east Maui), kombu (local seaweed) and greens from nearby Waipouli farms. All of which would be just a sustainable footnote were Simeon's food not so transformative. After one bite of steamed pork buns, I vow to camp out overnight for tomorrow's concert of local pressed pork, hoisin, shiitake and cucumber.

Farmer Gerry Ross of Kupa'a Farms knows the importance of chefs such as Simeon. Ross was a surveyor in Calgary before getting back to the land. But farming in paradise is not a cakewalk: "Maui farmers who compete with mainland produce will always have trouble because the mainland prices will always be lower," Ross says. Even competing with Oahu farmers, where water cost is half that of Maui, can be tricky. "Connecting with a chef is essential for survival," he explains. That's why the participation of luxe resorts – which boast enormous buying power – is also key.

The Fairmont Kea Lani is the very definition of swank: a sprawling beachfront location in tony Wailea, populated with well-heeled guests who arrive with high expectations when it comes to dining. So it's not surprising to see a plate placed in front of me that looks like a mural of produce from the island's Bryan Otani Farm (where fourth- generation farmer Bryan Otani specializes in green beans, red cabbage, and the famed Maui Kula onion). Even more invigorating is the resort's commitment to building on the historical importance of Maui cuisine, the result of executive chef Tylun Pang's kitchen epiphany: "Why are we cooking Italian food when there's not one Italian in the kitchen?"

The hotel answered his call to arms by creating Ko (meaning sugar cane in Hawaiian), a restaurant where Pang could riff on Maui's melting pot of Hawaiian, Chinese, Philippine, Portuguese, Korean and Japanese roots while using ingredients such as Maui Cattle Company beef or Kula Country Farms strawberries. While sharing a pupu (appetizer) platter of local prawns with Kula greens by the fire pit, we follow the island tradition of gathering with ohana (family) and community to eat. The recipe for the ginger-steamed catch of the day with Chinese sausage is straight from Pang's father's kitchen, while the Philippine-street-food-inspired banana ketchup barbeque pork skewers come from head cook Aris Aurelio. "People cook differently when they're serving something from the heart," Pang says.

All of this progress must be sweet satisfaction to Peter Merriman. The chef/restaurateur/local legend is a founding member of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, a watershed culinary movement that started in 1991 and got the ball rolling for recognition and celebration of island cuisine. Two years ago, Merriman opened Monkeypod Kitchen in Wailea, with the goal of applying his well-honed, local-oriented practices to a larger canvas.

At first blush, the room looks like a Hawaiian version of an upscale chain restaurant. A closer look at the menu shows something else is afoot: nine Hawaiian microbrews are on tap, the beef for the $12.95 (U.S.) cheeseburger is sourced from the Maui Cattle Company and the romaine in the Caesar salad is also local (which seems small until you realize 85 per cent of the romaine served on the island comes from the mainland). Merriman notes that when he opened his first spot in 1988, "our menu was 25-per-cent locally sourced – now it fluctuates between 75 and 90 per cent. Maui's bounty keeps getting bigger and better." It's the first true genesis between local and affordable and already the relaxed, easy-on-the-wallet concept has been replicated in Oahu.

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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.


Where to eat

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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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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