No offence to your preferred local food movement, but it can’t hold a sugar-cane stalk to what’s going on in Maui right now.
To be fair, Hawaii’s Valley Isle has a bit more reason to have its food – in the parlance of proud born-and-raised locals who apply it to their origins as well – “grown here, not flown here.”
The Hawaiian archipelago is not only the most remote state in the union – 4,000 kilometres from the nearest California fish and chips place – it is also the largest human population living in such isolation on the planet. Given that more than 85 per cent of the state’s food is imported, even the slightest disruption in the supply chain would be catastrophic. It happened in 1985, when airline pilots and barge company employees went on strike and the Hawaiian Islands quickly realized that the local supply chain only had enough food for a week.
But today, Perry Bateman isn’t interested in discussing his island home’s local culinary infatuation as a means of food security. The executive chef of Mama’s Fish House – long included on culinary bucket lists not just in the state, but the entire U.S. – much prefers to point out a more important benefit of eating his home’s bounty. “It just tastes better than anything from anywhere else,” he says, shrugging.
It’s Thursday just before the dinner rush and Chef Perry is giving me a tour of his kitchen as we dodge what seems like a majority of the 325 employees this economic powerhouse, launched exactly 40 years ago, employs.
Chef Perry, a local from Haiku town 15 minutes west of here, worked the Mama’s line for six years before taking over more than 15 years ago. He seamlessly weaves the culinary and the economic – his restaurant’s role in fostering today’s localism-on-the-plate over four decades, to how it’s one of the biggest business players on the island. “If this place closed, you’d see it in the New York Times,” he says. “On the North Shore of Maui, few places give jobs to so many.”
And throughout his sermon, he keeps bringing it back to Mama’s Fish House founders Floyd and Doris Christenson – about how they eschewed “vacations to Vegas” and poured profits back into a menu that not only searched for local ingredients, but celebrated the people who brought them to the kitchen, famously putting the names of the people who pull fish out of the ocean next to the tantalizing seafood plates on the menu, a practice that continues today.
As business grew, so did the restaurant. An inn opened 10 years ago; a bakery two years back. The Inn at Mama’s Fish House is in growth mode again, with a new expanded lobby and luxurious adults-only rooms with private courtyards as more price-conscious options to the larger two-bedroom beachfront, garden cottages.
But fuelling Maui’s food revolution is as important as ever to this original, even as it enters middle age. For its 40th birthday, Chef Perry convinced the Christensons to buy the food suppliers a gift in the form of a $10,000 buoy. In doing so, Mama’s became the first private company in the state to subsidize what’s more technically known as a FAD – a fish-aggregate device – to facilitate deep-sea fishing.
“We needed our guys to catch more fish, so we dropped a line offshore for fish to come and explore,” Chef Perry says as blurs of white plates carrying the local seafood his investment coaxed out of the sea fly by.
“Hawaii has the best fish in the world, okay?” he continues. “We don’t need to be importing fish from the mainland. The way the currents flow and flush our shores, the stuff you often worry about in other parts of the world isn’t that much of an issue here,” he says, referring to paranoia around eating bigger, more mercury-laced species.
His evangelic boosterism has given Maui farmers preferential treatment, so much so that local producers have replaced most of the restaurant’s mainland suppliers in recent years. Increasingly, Mama’s – as well as other Maui eateries – is vigilant about working with producers who are flying under the radar on other islands. “I was watching the news last year and saw a guy in Kauai who has a clam operation,” Chef Perry says. Perhaps noticing my salivating, he delivers the bad news: “But he can only give us 30 pounds a week – we run out in two nights.”
Fortunately, his fat prawns – from a small family operation on neighbouring Molokai – are plentiful tonight and will turn out to be the best I’ve ever had, prepared minimally with local garlic and vanilla bean, a relatively new ingredient that today thrives in the deepest East Maui jungles.
As the stream of plates intensifies – “We do 800 meals most nights,” Chef Perry says – he intercepts, spins and explains each plate like an art gallery tour guide.
The salad: “Beets from Haiku; hydroponic beans from Kula, right by Oprah’s farm; sweet potato chips made here; and that’s 18-year-old balsamic. It’s all we use,” he says proudly.
Another salad: “Beets from Haiku; heart of palm from the Big Island... cherry tomatoes from Haiku. All in a papaya-seed vinaigrette.”
Mama’s unrelenting volume means local farmers can, for the first time ever, have a predictable market for their produce. Couple that with larger hotels and restaurant chains committing to the local ecosystem, and farming is a legit entrepreneurial play. And Chef Perry is only too happy to set up his fellow islanders to succeed while closing the gap for local ingredients. “Our fish guy always wanted to start something,” he says. “So I said: ‘Plant lime trees.’ We don’t have a supplier here.”
Today, the fish guy is also known as the lime guy and has a lucrative boutique farm in addition to his day job.
What was supposed to be a 15-minute drop-in meeting with Chef Perry has turned into an hour-long ballad to his homeland. My reservation for 40 minutes ago has come and gone, but he passes me a plate of taro root paste called poi, then hands me over to a hostess who leads me to my wife and son, already seated under a tangle of ropes and thick bamboo crossbeams. We’re all adorned with leis and prepare to cross Maui’s top dining spot off our bucket lists. The warm ocean breeze blows in off the Pacific, across the volcanic shelf, up the coconut grove of Ku’au Cove through the iconic catamaran resting on the white sand and rustles the palm leaves just a few feet outside the open-air dining room.
I go for the Opakapaka, a deep-sea pink snapper that, according to my menu, “was caught in deep reefs near Kaho’olawe Island by Kalani Hirata.”
My wife goes for the restaurant’s most-popular entree: mahi-mahi caught in Hana, stuffed with lobster and crab, baked in a macadamia-nut crust.
But it’s our six-year-old’s dessert that coaxes the iPhone out for an Instagram. The Black Pearl turns out to be as delicious as it is striking: a lilikoi-chocolate mousse in a seashell-shaped pastry.
I decide to honour one last food producer and order the Pink Floyd, a martini named after Mama’s founder and made with Ocean Vodka from the new sugar-cane distillery about half an hour from here and my destination tomorrow.
The next day I drive to Kula to meet Ocean Vodka’s Shay Smith on his newly opened farm and sugar cane plantation. Smith, the latest in a long line of North Shore lineage, has what could be the most locally ostentatious enterprise on Maui. Which, these days, is quite an achievement.
“We make clean, globally competitive vodka from sugar cane,” he says with an easy drawl as he walks the red path that intersects his farm’s 23 varieties of organic sugar cane. But that’s only half of it.
“We get our water from the deep ocean off of the Big Island, desalinate it while maintaining all its minerals, then use it in our vodka,” he says as I try to imagine the impetus to blaze such unheard-of trails in spirit’s production.
The idea, Smith says (like Chef Perry before him), came to him from the local media. “I was reading the paper and saw a story about a Japanese company on the Big Island that used ancient ocean water from 3,000 feet down, desalinated it, bottled it and shipped it to Japan for its mineral qualities.”
Smith struck a deal for this “ancient water” and the marketing material sort of wrote itself. But he didn’t stop there. The entire farm is organic and solar-powered. “We’re probably the only farm on Maui that’s totally off the grid,” he says. “Well, legally, anyway,” he adds, his hefty surfer’s frame bouncing with a chuckle.
One sip and it’s obvious Smith’s vodka stands apart. Despite taking the spirit to neutral, Smith tapers off at 198 proof, leaving a bit of sugar cane sweetness that, when combined with the deep water, results in a smoothness that lacks any bite or medicinal aftertaste.
And like any modern Maui culinary entrepreneur worth his evaporated, harvested sea salt, Smith’s enterprise is focused on a connection to the land. He points to a botanical garden in the middle of his property whose native herbs will be used in all manner of cocktail infusions once his tasting room and rental space opens later this year. The company will also expand into small-batch rum and gin production next year, tempting even more visitors to the site, some of whom will surely have noticed this exotic local elixir if they flew Hawaiian Airlines, where Ocean Vodka mini-bottles are sold.
I wait for my wife to pull up with the rental car, then, given Smith’s generosity with his product, slur pleas at her to stop by Mana Foods in Pa’ia for some local snacks before we set off along the Road to Hana in the deep, lush forests of East Maui.
Mindful of the disappearing day and the need to drive the Hana Highway’s more than 600 turns and 54 one-way bridges in the daylight, I rush through Mana Foods’ clapboard facade and into what resembles a Whole Foods run by Bilbo Baggins. Bearded, tattooed and barefooted locals greet each other while methodically strolling the century-old building’s interior. The organic, fair-trade selection surpasses anything even the most enlightened mainland supermarket stocks, while the produce department is downright Jurassic, with avocados quadruple the size of what you’d find in Loblaws and exotica like dragon fruit emitting a fragrance so pungent, you’d swear you were wearing a lei.
After picking up a bag of Maui-made spirulina popcorn and a Kalua pulled-pork sandwich, we’re off to Hana.
As we corkscrew along the aptly named Highway 360, I realize my snack run wasn’t at all necessary. “Honor stands” pop out behind every second hairpin turn with a failsafe ratio of $3 to $5 for 10 pieces of gargantuan produce ranging from avocados to mangos.
The deeper we push, the more frequent and rustic the stands. And the bigger the fruit and vegetables.
We arrive at the iconic hotel Travaasa Hana just as a sunset lights up the three churches in town in roses and crimsons reminiscent of Mana Foods’ dragon fruit stacks. We beeline for the Ka’uiki Dining Room, the town’s best – and among its priciest – restaurants. But here, at the end of the road, it’s worth splurging on the Hana-inspired variety of local pork, lamb, fish and daring veggie options, all complemented with ancient staples like breadfruit, pohole (crunchy local fern shoots) and sweet potato. Chef Barry Villiarimo was born and raised on the island, and it shows in every entree.
After a day of choose your own adventure on the hotel property – divided into a general area with pool and free sports gear ranging from boogie boards to bikes and an adults-only retreat that looks ready for an episode of The Bachelorette – we push farther past Hana until we risk voiding our rental car agreement. We stop just short, at the most remote (legal) farm on Maui. ONO Organic Farms, located a couple of miles past the Seven Sacred Pools, Hana’s most popular tourist attraction, flies under the radar despite boasting some serious cultural heft. The market has been featured on numerous cooking shows, and chefs like Puck and Bourdain have had their minds blown by the 70-acre, off-the-grid rainwater-irrigated promised land. The Boerner family has farmed here for more than 35 years. Daughter Lilia and a pal inspired the movie Blue Crush. For our part, we gather the biggest fruit we can find and head back along the Hana Highway toward our last few nights in Ka’anapali, on Maui’s west coast.
For the entire drive back, I’m overwhelmed with the desire to cook for my family with the bounty that’s surrounded us over the past week. Upon arrival at the luxe Honua Kai, one of Ka’anapali’s newest resorts, I can’t believe my luck: the second annual Ka’anapali Fresh, a celebration of local food and culinary innovation, is already rolling. I pick up Maui onions and Maui Gold pineapples at the sprawling Grown on Maui Farmers’ Market, and hunt desperately for a fish market for my own attempt at Mama’s religious opakapaka. With the market wrapping up, I resort to a Safeway. I opt for several fillets of opah instead, but am shocked by the local selection – not exactly Mana Foods, but piles of local produce. I recall Mama’s Chef Perry noting that Safeway on the Big Island recently put a call out for local producers.
As I await the fish grilling on one of the Honua Kai’s communal barbecues, the sweet scent of caramelizing Maui pineapple rising over the hotel’s restored dune system, I’m hit by Maui’s profound sense of stewardship. The love of a place, after all, is the devotion to remain there no matter what. And devotion of any kind usually starts with the ability to break bread. Or breadfruit.
Maui’s Top 2014 Food Fests
Maui Onion Festival | May 3
The Maui Onion Festival has been a signature event at Whalers Village since 1990 and is dedicated to the cultivation and promotion of the world-famous Maui onion. Don’t miss the Maui Onion Pairing Dinner at Hula Grill on May 2.
Kapalua Food & Wine Festival | June 12-15
Kapalua Resort partners create a new spin on the longest-running food and wine event in the U.S. This celebration of epicurean excellence focuses on fine food and wine in a Hawaiian – and Maui – context.
Ka’anapali Fresh | August 29 & 30
The fast-growing two-day late-summer event highlights Ka’anapali as the island’s cuisine heart. Visitors sample chefs’ menus and learn about Grown on Maui products in between dips in their hotel pools and epic snorkel sessions.