Where to Eat on Your Next Hawaiian Adventure
Being a chef on a Hawaiian island surrounded by beaches and bodysurfing already sounds like a great gig, but right now is just about the best time to be cooking in the Aloha State. The culinary landscape is expanding faster than you can down a bowl of poke, and a new crop of chefs has been changing the game in recent years, opening innovative restaurants on par with hot, big-city eateries. Get the inside line from three chefs as they talk about the mark they’re making on the restaurant scene in Hawaii.
The farmer’s friend: Jeff Scheer
Executive chef of The Mill House in Waikapu, Maui
Since moving from Ohio to Maui in 2004, Jeff Scheer has completed culinary school, worked in kitchens around the island, started his own catering company and launched a weekly and frequently sold-out dinner series. But his greatest feat might be making sure that nearly every piece of produce in his kitchen is sourced from Hawaii. “People don’t realise that Maui is seasonal. Right now, the middle of the island can grow kale, romanesco and cauliflower,” he says. “Hawaii is just the coolest place because there’s such diverse ecosystems 20 or 30 minutes from each other.”
Scheer spent a couple of years working for free on a farm one day a week and soon had farmers growing everything for his catering outfit. Now, as executive chef at The Mill House, an open-air eatery set on a lush plantation, he’s taking cues from the farmers he knows. “They’ll say, ‘Let’s try this’ and we come up with some really creative dishes with ingredients no one else is growing in Hawaii. I just had a farmer bring me Brussels sprouts. That’s the first time I’ve seen them grown here.”
His weekly dinners, called Maui Chef’s Table, have recently picked up a lot of hot buzz. The experimental meal is a farm-to-table parade of food porn, where Scheer and his team churn out everything from heirloom tomatoes topped with dragonfruit vinaigrette to local venison alongside Japanese turnips to popcorn popsicles for dessert – usually for around 50 diners who pay $150 a pop to be there. It’s not something he could have pulled off a decade ago. “It’s the best time to be a chef here,” says Scheer. “The chefs on this island are really close. We were all line cooks 10 years ago and now we have our own things going on and that’s helped promote different ideas and the farming economy. Now we can figure out how to get even more creative.”
If you’re a chef looking for advice on how to get on countless best-of lists and nab a James Beard award nomination, don’t ask Andrew Le.
“All of that just happened. We didn’t have a mission to accomplish that,” says Le, an Oahu local who, in 2013, launched modern Vietnamese spot The Pig and the Lady in Honolulu’s Chinatown. He’s been winning accolades ever since.
Le says he and his family – his mother, wife and siblings are all involved – simply set out to make Vietnamese food like they grew up eating at home in Hawaii. “This is Hawaiian cuisine through our lens. We’re inspired by our environment, our experiences in island life,” he says of the menu, which ranges from ahi tataki on a fried baguette to a praised Pho French dip. “If you’re genuine about the food, customers recognise that.”
After gaining a loyal following through pop-ups and farmers’ markets – where you can still find P&L’s bánh mì and bún thịt nướng bowls – Le decided to expand with a brick-and-mortar outpost, but spent six months at San Francisco’s upscale Rich Table to learn what goes into a restaurant opening and make sure he was ready. He was.
Le’s take on Vietnamese cuisine has helped turn the out-of-the-way Chinatown into a burgeoning foodie destination as more food and drink establishments have taken a chance to open away from the beaches. “It means you have to work harder, but it’s all great for Hawaii and the diner and chefs,” he says. “A little competition makes you focus more and find that next golden recipe. We wanted to survive so we pushed really hard and we haven’t slowed down.” Le’s work ethic paid off and he opened his second restaurant, smartly named Piggy Smalls, in October of last year.
When Terorotua moved to Hawaii, he felt burnt out after a decade spent working in various food industry jobs in South Florida. In 2009, he took a job as the beer buyer at Oahu’s first-ever Whole Foods. It was here that the self-proclaimed beer geek saw a gap in the local restaurant scene for a craft beer gastropub. “A gastropub seemed like something that would make sense,” he says. “Put good food and beer together and see what happens.”
He rolled the dice and created the REAL gastropub in 2012. “If I was going to spend 15 to 18 hours a day there, I wanted it to be a place I want to go,” he says. “We thought, if it doesn’t work, we can change the concept. But we opened the doors, and lo and behold, people were lining up.” The place has been such a hit – thanks in part to its more than 280 beer offerings – that he and wife Lisa Kim have since opened two more beer-centric establishments, Brew’d Craftpub in 2013 and, last summer, the trendier Palate, which also has a solid mixology program.
Inevitably, Terorotua’s spots are far from the only places where you can find craft beer on the island anymore. But that’s a good thing. “I don’t look at any of these other people doing this as competitors,” he says. “I look at them as colleagues. All we’re doing is trying to quickly build a movement.”