By Ashley Easley
The idea of a multi course dinner with no substitutions or allergy exceptions seems a bit daunting. I always say that I am “allergic” to cilantro but really I just don’t like the taste so what if one of the courses is covered in those soapy green awful leaves? Is it going to be worth it? Am I going to really like what is served?
My husband and I joined three other couples at our table on a rainy February night in Maui. Although the Maui Chef’s Table is open air and outdoors it is carefully covered for these often rainy central Maui nights. We sat among a few friends as well as a young couple that had just flown in that day from St. Louis. The fact that they came fresh off the very long airplane flight on a rainy Maui evening and chose to come to this event as their first meal was a very good sign. The place was packed (it always sells out early) with each table mingling and getting to know each other before dinner began.
Once everyone was seated, the sommelier for the restaurant came up to the front introducing himself, and the handful of young and clearly very talented chefs behind him were already starting to plate the first course. Each chef was introduced, glanced up from doing their first course plating to throw a brief shaka in the air; a very local ‘howz it’ and went back to work. Executive Chef Taylor Ponte, who is a born and raised on Maui, spoke very coy but clearly about inviting us each to come up to them during the night, ask questions, look at the dishes being prepared and learn about the local ingredients. In fact he ‘double dog dared’ us to come up and say hello to them at some point during the night. It seems that this once a week dining event is their spotlight to come out from behind the kitchen doors, encouraging all to come up and drool (not literally) over the plates they are preparing. It’s refreshing having an opportunity to ask questions about each dish as they prepare them.
Located on a working farm, where the produce is beyond-fresh (it grows just a few minutes walk from the kitchen), the constant change of ingredients requires their menu to shift on the regular. Our menu held seven courses including dessert. Thankfully, being on Maui, winter produce consists of a variety of things other than potatoes and root vegetables. There were mushrooms, kimchee, tomato, fennel, carrots, kumquat, arugula and ulu. Maui grown beef, mahi, house made tortelloni pasta and tako (octopus). Each plate was served with a thorough explanation by one of the chefs (who patiently waited for our very chatty table to stop talking for a moment). We noticed and really enjoyed some amazing citrus notes that tied each course together. I learned about calamansi, kumquat and blood oranges. A table favorite was the fresh Mahi in a delicious calamansi chive beurre blanc. This was accompanied by pureed ulu which is a bread fruit we learned thrives here here on the islands as a very sustainable and easy to grow food (over 200 varieties!) Not only were the courses delicious, but the chefs always used fresh ingredients sourced mainly from Maui. There was a theme of sustainability throughout the meal, brought to light by the chefs and drove much of the talk at our table. Maybe because of the false missile threat over a year ago or the many hurricane threats, Maui is starting to think more about how to survive off the land and not rely so much on shipped goods. Governor Ige has lofted a goal of doubling Hawaii’s food production by 2020, something that might not be lofty enough. Either way if this is what winter sustainable food on Maui entails, then the ships can stop and leave me here to survive. We will be just fine.
When our meal came to a close, our table was one of the last to leave. Talking and laughing with new friends with rain falling around us made for a very inviting and comfortable experience. These tasting menus are truly made for those that are either indecisive about what they want to order off a traditional menu or those that are up for challenging their often boring taste buds. You can always move the cilantro aside, or maybe you’ll find that you’ve just never had it paired with other ingredients correctly. Thankfully, cilantro wasn’t present, must not be in season. So, I won’t really know until my next chef’s table?