Travel

On Maui, fresh, simple food takes center stage

The ahi Benedict at Cane & Canoe on Maui is a great way to kick-start your day on the island.
Pamela Wright for The Boston Globe
The ahi Benedict at Cane & Canoe on Maui is a great way to kick-start your day on the island.

T

he setting for the Grand Tasting at the 37th annual Kapalua Wine and Food Festival on Maui, the longest running food and wine event in the country, was hard to beat. White tents were spread across the expansive, sloping front lawn at the Montage Kapalua Bay Resort, overlooking pristine, aquamarine waters. We took the path out to the Cliff House, a simple 1940s wooden structure perched on a promontory with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and the neighboring islands of Molokai and Lanai. There we sipped a glass of Veuve Clicquot Rich Rose as we waited for the grand tasting to begin.

Our curiosities were piqued. What were Maui’s top chefs cooking these days? What is the next Hawaiian culinary craze? (Have we moved beyond poke?) What we discovered was an almost fever pitch advocacy for all things local, a burgeoning movement to support and form alliances with small, artisan farmers, and a nod to ethnicity and home-style cooking. The setting was elegant, but island chefs were eschewing the fussy for straightforward, locally-based dishes, that not only showcased their heritage but provided a deep sense of place.

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The island’s locavore ethos is not all that different than what’s happening in pockets across the country. But for Hawaii, it’s a big deal. While things are changing, Hawaii still imports about 85 to 90 percent of its food, which is shipped or flown in daily. Chefs, agricultural activists, farmers, and private and nonprofit organizations are working to change that. Even the state government has set a goal of doubling local food production by 2020 with a host of programs and initiatives. And small farms are booming, bringing a slew of new products to the table.

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“There is a growing movement of farmers committed to sustainability and to bringing new — sometimes exotic — ingredients to light,” says Chris Damskey, executive chef at the award-winning Cane & Canoe restaurant on Maui. “Maui has various micro climates that allow farmers to grow a wide range of plants, fruits, and vegetables in different altitudes and environments.

“We have locally-made cheeses and distilled ocean vodka, sustainably-grown kampachi and abalone, locally-grown Berkshire heritage pork and some of, if not the best, grass-fed beef in the country,” Damskey says. “We like to showcase these items at Cane & Canoe with as little fuss as possible, letting the food shine and speak to the sense of place.”

During our visit, we sampled an array of dishes, highlighting Hawaii’s vast bounty. Some of our favorites included Big Island abalone with green papaya; warm duck confit salad with local greens and Kula strawberries; line-caught onaga snapper ceviche with a coconut mango broth; Big Island goat cheese panna cotta with a local fig jam and baby watercress greens, ahi-avocado-shoyu poke with ogo (seaweed), chilled cauliflower gazpacho, shrimp and grits, and a spicy seared ono with foraged mushrooms and chili braised local greens.

“When I started, no one was even thinking of using vine-ripened tomatoes on their menus. Growing them back then was unimaginable,” says Peter Merriman, chef-owner of Merriman’s Restaurants. “Today, you can find a growing variety of locally-grown, sustainably-caught items on menus across Hawaii.” A standout for us was Merriman’s signature Kahua Ranch lamb served with hamakua mushrooms and Maui onions.

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Merriman, who was one of the founders of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, a pioneering movement that partners with local farmers to bring fresh, sustainable ingredients to the kitchen, says that chefs are also incorporating more ethnic flavors, fusing their heritage and backgrounds with locally-grown island food.

Damskey agrees. “Hawaii is my definition of a true melting pot of the US in the Pacific,” he says. “The food is influenced by the different cultures in Polynesian, but also the wave of immigrant workers who came to work in the pineapple and sugar cane fields. Cultural influences include Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Okinawan, Spanish, Puerto Rican, and Portuguese.”

At the festival, we tried a Sicilian-style lobster arancini, a kimchi scallop poke, papusas with a Maui onion crutido, and Kona lobster spring rolls with a lychee sweet and sour sauce. We also traveled to fan favorite “Top Chef” contestant Shelden Simeon’s Tin Roof for lunch one day, enjoying locally-made, wok-fried saimin noodles and locally-raised fried chicken marinated in ginger sake shoyu, with su-miso sauce and gochujang aioli.

Our final night, we were back at Cane & Canoe at the Montage Kapalua Bay resort, dining al fresco, within sight, sound, and smell of the ocean. We tried “Oysters Rockefeller” made with local abalone and “Beef Wellington,” made with ahi tuna. And, of course, poke, made with ahi, inamona, ogo, and locally-grown avocado and hearts of palm.

Because we’re definitely not done with poke.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.