Exquisite local ingredients, stellar drinks, an exceptional setting, and eight eminent chefs from around the U.S.—such was the first ever Maui Chefs Invitational, an extraordinary, three-day event that exceeded expectations and left guests eager for this years upcoming affair.
We thought we’d share our experience from last year because the 2nd annual event is coming up!
Hosted by The Mill House and held at the restaurant’s “Maui Chef’s Table” on the Maui Tropical Plantation, Maui Chefs Invitational kicked off on November 11th, 2016 with interactive dinners on Friday and Saturday night and concluded with a laidback, keiki-friendly barbeque on Sunday.
Guests were treated to an array of sensory pleasures from the moment they stepped foot on the plantation’s iconic grounds. Mynah birds offered a cheerful greeting as the sun set beyond the West Maui Mountains during each evening’s cocktail hour, where mixologists fused Maui-grown ingredients with premium spirits and wine was generously poured.
While the setting itself stirred astonishment—think: a lush landscape teeming with tropical plants and a nearly full moon rising over the crest of Haleakala—it was the chefs themselves that stole the show.
And rightfully so. Maui Chefs Invitational—conceived of and produced by The Mill House’s award-winning Executive Chef Jeff Scheer—was created to revel in Maui’s natural bounty and to honor some of the biggest and brightest culinary talents around the country. Each chef was handpicked by Scheer and brought to the island for a week to tour local farms and to collaborate on what turned out to be a truly remarkable menu.
On Friday and Saturday night, guests were seated at long, charmingly-rugged communal tables, while the eight chefs (and their team of assistants) took the helm at the front of the venue. There, they encouraged guests to ask questions and talk story as they assembled an eight-course extravaganza worthy of every accolade available.
Menus were kept a surprise to accommodate what the chefs sourced on the island the week prior. And surprised the guests were—to say nothing of being wholly delighted. Friday night’s feast featured smoked pork belly, cured ono, veal sweetbread, foie gras, look-fun noodles, poached kampachi, and suckling pig porchetta, as well as coconut bay leaf for dessert.
Saturday night’s spread was equally impressive—a veritable study in textures and an exuberant celebration of the chefs’ virtuoso. Each drew inspiration from Maui’s offerings and brought entirely unexpected spins to local flavors.
The first course was presented by Sheldon Simeon—a warm, familiar face around the island who may be best known for his role on Bravo’s Top Chef. Formerly of Mala and Migrant in Wailea, Simeon—a Big Island native who now owns and runs Kahului’s Tin Roof—served ulu onigiri with uni butter, yuzu, and dried aku. Translation? Local breadfruit that was wrapped in seaweed, which patrons were urged to slide through sea urchin butter with citrus and dried, skipjack tuna. The nuanced dish—stirred by Simeon’s many years throughout the islands—set the stage for the kind of meal one has perhaps only a few times in a lifetime.
Next up? Vegetable poke, a superb, plant-based dish produced by New York original, media maven, and founder of Oahu’s Koko Head Café, Lee Anne Wong. Comprised of twenty-six ingredients, the bed of crisp vegetables—radishes, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers, to name just a few—was situated on top of a coconut cream so rich and delicious some guests were—literally—moved to lick their bowls. “I’ve been living in Hawaii for three years now,” Wong explained, going on to say that she’s 100% committed to using fresh, local ingredients. “…so every time, whether I’m on Oahu or Kauai or the Big Island, usually we try to go to farms and source as much as possible from the actual island.” And what our island supplied was absolutely divine: This easily went down as one of the most memorable dishes of the night.
Gregory Gourdet, a Culinary Institute of America alum, James Beard Award semifinalist, and the current Culinary Director of Portland’s Departure. astounded the crowd with a sumptuous combination of melt-in-your-mouth fresh ahi, black truffles, papaya, nori, and fermented hearts of palm. The textures within this artful, almost too- beautiful-to-eat dish exhibited hints of Gourdet’s adoration for blending traditional Asian food with cutting-edge sensibilities.
The second serving of protein came from the inimitable Francis Derby, a Long Island original who is well-known throughout the country for his cleaving skills. The playful chef—whose “meat-forward” menus entice enormous crowds at The Cannibal locations in California and New York—assembled a rich and savory pate chaud (with spicy, Malama Farm pork) with grainy mustard and radishes.
Scheer—who understandably believes that Maui is taking the lead on Hawaii’s culinary scene—dazzled diners with one of the most visually intriguing dishes of the evening: Pork tortellini with upcountry burdock, chili oil, and a dark squid ink that enhanced the plate’s taste (and undeniable glamour).
Lee Wolen, meanwhile—who was named Chicago Tribune’s Chef of the Year in 2014, and who serves as the Executive Chef at Chicago’s highly lauded Boka—poached fresh onaga and served it with smoked island beets and a creamy yogurt dressing infused with mostarda and licorice, ultimately demonstrating that unusual combinations often engender magical outcomes.
The penultimate course was conceived of and prepared by Bradley Kilgore—a Kansas City native and Food & Wine’s Best New Chef of 2016. Kilgore took locally sourced axis venison, massaged it with coconut milk, and served it with rambutan jus, burnt eggplant, and picked, plantation-fresh fennel seed. The result? Meat as tender as a filet mignon and a sauce that was almost indescribable.
And the much anticipated final course—dessert—arrived from the mind and hands of Maya Erickson, a prodigious young baker from San Francisco who was named one of Zagat’s “30 Under 30” Best Chefs. Her reputation as one of the most imaginative pastry chefs working today proved true in both the bright energy she brought to the coterie of culinary stars and in the meal’s grand finale: Green coffee ice cream (which tasted as exotic as sounds) enhanced with coco nib, lilikoi, and violette. Together, each chef presented a brief overview of the ingredients they utilized and the inspiration behind their concoctions, while the guests remained awed from start to finish.
Sunday’s barbecue celebration underscored the fun and ease these eight chefs clearly had with each other. Held on the lawn in front of The Mill House, each chef manned a station that highlighted their specialties and talents, while Marty Dread serenaded the crowd with reggae-toned beats and guests mingled over cocktails and cold beer poured by Maui Brewing Company. “It’s always inspiring to work with those from different backgrounds and different expertise,” Scheer says. “I always learn something. Each time I am around other chefs it turns up the volume on all the ideas I have been thinking about.” And turn up the volume it did: Plans for 2017’s event are already underway.
Sunday Barbecue Dishes
- Smoked, black pepper-lemongrass cornish hen, green papaya by Gregory Gourdet and Sheldon Simeon
- Charred octopus, radish chimichurri, flatbread by Lee wolen and Bradley Kilgore
- Hawaiian chili spiced bratwurst, mustard, pickles, parker roll by Jeff Scheer and The Mill House Team
- Provençal fire pit lamb, honey roasted vegetables, pink peppercorn, goat milk yogurt by Francis Derby and Lee Anne Wong
- Roasted pinepple, five spice, fermented coconut milk by Maya Erickson and Eddie Lopez
Photography by Megan Schlow.