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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)
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)

the escape

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

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.

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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