Where to Eat on Your Next Hawaiian Adventure
Being a chef on a Hawaiian island surrounded by beaches, bikinis 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 on the mainland. Here, three chefs talk about the mark they’re making on the restaurant scene, proving that Hawaiian food and drink has moved way beyond mahi mahi and mai tais.
The Farmer’s Friend: Jeff Scheer
Executive chef of The Mill House in Waikapu, Maui
Since buying a one-way ticket 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 realize that Maui is seasonal. Right now, the middle of the island can grow kale, romanesco, 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,” Scheer insists. “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, the farming economy. Now we 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 native and CIA graduate who, in 2013, launched modern Vietnamese spot The Pig and the Lady in Honolulu’s gritty-ish Chinatown, miles from the glitzy tourist-laden beachfront hotels. He’s been garnering accolades ever since.
Le says he and his family (his mom, wife and siblings are all involved) simply set out to make Vietnamese food like they grew up eating at home, which happens to be Hawaii. “This is Hawaiian cuisine through our lens. We’re inspired by our environment, our experiences in island life,” he explains 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 recognize 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 first 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, the restaurant’s dedicated staff (he committed to paying above market rates and benefits from the start) and serious work ethic (“We wanted to survive as a restaurant so we pushed really hard and we haven’t slowed down”) hasn’t just equated to success for Le (his second restaurant, smartly named Piggy Smalls, opened in October), but has helped turn Chinatown into a burgeoning foodie destination as more food and drink establishments have taken a chance on the hood that used to shutter by 5 pm. “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.”
When Terorotua moved from South Florida (after spending more than a decade in the local food scene) to Hawaii, he felt burnt out. 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” realized that despite Hawaii’s reputation among tourists for tropical drinks with paper umbrellas, there was actually a real interest in craft beer. The problem was there wasn’t a whole lot of it to be found. “Hawaii is a little behind on its trends so 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 REAL: a gastropub in 2012, making it a “cool, upscale dive bar.” “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. That was the beginning of the craft beer movement here.” 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 one 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 craft beer movement.”