Passion, virtuosity, verve, and imagination—all are essential ingredients in the making of an epicurean master. The Mill House’s First Annual Maui Chefs Invitational—a three-day celebration of culinary genius and the island’s incredible bounty—will highlight eight eminent chefs who personify these characteristics.
Here are the event’s leading luminaries and the values they embody:
Waikapu, Maui: Advocacy
Best known as the man behind The Mill House, Jeff Scheer is also renowned for the enduring friendships he shares with Hawaii’s farmers and the sustainable approach to eating he advocates. The Maui Culinary Academy alum—and the brains behind the much-loved Maui Chef’s Table—gleans inspiration from the island’s abundance of offerings and works to reinforce the original intent of the farm-to-fork concept. “Our menus aren’t created and then we look for those items,” the Ohio native and former farm volunteer says of his philosophy at The Mill House. “Our menus are created off the items and the produce and meals that we get locally. The menus are constantly changing.” Scheer’s inventive, plantation-informed dishes underscore the power and importance of freshness and texture, from tender cuts of Kula beef tenderloin with tomato-coconut jus to Amuse Bouche with kitchen-cultivated microgreens. The result is a combination of nuance and brilliance, explaining why the founder of Maui Executive Catering took home the ‘Aipono Chef of the Year Award in 2015.
Portland, Oregon: Reinvention
Queens native Gregory Gourdet is no stranger to reinvention. Biology, wildlife, and French dominated his mental bandwidth as a pre-med student in Montana before cooking became his foremost passion. Revamp his future Gourdet did—first as a dishwasher at “the best restaurant in town” and then as an extern with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a degree from the Culinary Institute of America under his belt. What followed was a burgeoning chef’s ultimate dream: He rose from a saucier to Chef de Cuisine at the ultra-prestigious 66 before being named the Culinary Director of Portland’s Departure. Along the way, he received one confirmation of his talent after another, from being named a James Beard Award semifinalist to scoring a nomination for Food & Wine’s Best New Chef Northwest. At Departure, Chef Gregory takes innovation to a whole new level by constantly reinventing pan-Asian gastronomy—pairing rhubarb with roasted carrot, dill, cashews, and creamy nouc cham, say, or tossing prawns with chili, hearts of palm, and candied walnuts. Outside of the kitchen, he revives with Bikram yoga and triathlons. No surprise there, since each leg of the race offers a different experience—much like the dishes he serves to his avid Oregon fans.
New York City, New York: Fusion
Frequent your grandfather’s duck farm and work at your uncle’s seafood shack and chances are you’ll have more than a hint of carnivore in your blood. Such is the case with Long Island native Francis Derby, whose “meat-forward” menus at the aptly named The Cannibal have secured him quite a following—not to mention two Michelin stars at Gilt, the New York City restaurant he opened with chef extraordinaire Paul Liebrandt. With three restaurants and counting—including The Cannibal Beer & Butcher in California’s Culver City—Derby is a master at fusing fundamental concepts with contemporary flavors. His food is masculine and playful, from bone-marrow brûlée to pork rillettes pate with cinnamon toast, sage, smoked maple syrup, and quail egg. That daft and delightful fusion extends to Derby’s venues, which couples a neighborhood butcher’s sensibility with a brewery’s camaraderie. Bon appemeat, anyone?
Chicago, Illinois: Simplicity
Counting his grandmother as one of his primary influences, Lee Wolen grew up helping her make casseroles in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. And despite gigs at The Peninsula and the highly acclaimed Eleven Madison Park (which was ranked the fourth best restaurant in the world by San Pelligrino), Wolen has maintained his adoration of clean, simple dishes made with humble ingredients. At Chicago’s Boka, the shoe-connoisseur plates meals like marinated yellowtail with plum and pistachio, and grilled Spanish octopus with cucumber and cauliflower. Wolen, who took home Chicago Tribune’s 2014 Chef of the Year Award, remarks, “I think my food is very approachable; it’s all common flavors that everybody seems to like…It’s complex, but it’s simple.” Spoken with the modesty of a true Midwesterner, wouldn’t you say?
San Francisco, California: Nostalgia
When a pastry chef claims nostalgia as a favorite ingredient, you know you’re in for a special, even visceral treat. San Francisco native and Orson alumnae Maya Erickson looks to the past to fashion the present, whipping together quirky sweets that range from frozen s’mores to PB&J meringues. And she’s just getting started—Erickson, who Zagat named one of their “30 Under 30” Best Young Innovative Chefs, may be only in her mid-twenties but she has already staged with Elizabeth Faulkner of Citizen Cake fame, swept up accolades at San Francisco’s AQ, and helped the highly-coveted Lazy Bear earn a Michelin star. Thank Erickson’s mother for pushing her in the right direction: Maya was thirteen when a school-sponsored apprenticeship led her into San Francisco’s most venerable kitchens even though she had wanted to apprentice as a hair stylist (to which her mother said a resolute no). It’s hardly shocking: Her mother crafted supremely creative birthday desserts for Maya as a child, including volcano cakes that streamed smoke and a fairy treasure cake that she buried in their backyard. The result? Maya’s own confections are whim and wistfulness at their finest.
Miami, Florida: Freedom
Bradley Kilgore, who claims Velveeta cheese as his guilty pleasure, mentors for a food truck staffed by underprivileged youngsters, and can recite the alphabet backwards, could probably fry an egg in his sleep—after all, he was just ten years old when he started performing line cook duties in his hometown of Kansas City. After an education in Denver and a four-month stint in Italy, Kilgore took the US by storm, following in the footsteps of other star chefs at Azul and running Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s J&G Grill at the St. Regis Bal Harbour. From there, he took the helm at Alter, a Miami hotspot commended for being both casual and progressive. At Alter, Kilgore—a 2016 Food & Wine Best New Chef—exercises his penchant for “food with no boundaries” in a kitchen where he has the freedom to create clever concoctions. Octopus with Peruvian aji panca, green mango vinegar, and ink crisps, glazed short ribs with malted yogurt grits, and chevre panna cotta are just thee tastings from his wonderfully unusual menu. “Why can’t you have a technique from Japan with a flavor from Thailand and a chili from Peru all on the same plate?” he asks. And indeed—why not, when said plate is being prepared by such a maestro?
Kahului, Maui: Exuberance
Sheldon Simeon captured hearts across the nation as the Hawaiian-born sensation on Bravo’s Top Chef, in large part because of the exuberance he demonstrated towards his inventions in the kitchen. Having learned how to cook in a tight-knit planation town on the Big Island, his dishes are a winsome, spirited mix of down-home Filipino and refined, multiethnic flavors. The former Executive Chef at Mala’s motto is “Come my house. Eat,” and this was felt in the vibrant spins he took on local standards at the now-closed MIGRANT (think: a pupu called Bottom of the Plate Lunch that featured short rib “chew” and warm kalbi dressing) and at Lahaina’s iconic Star Noodle, which won ‘Aipono’s Restaurant of the Year Award in 2012. In his newest role as the founder and owner of Tin Roof—a “new age” mom and pop lunch spot in Kahului—Simeon and his wife Janice serve up local faves like shoyu hot dogs, poke bowls, and saimin. The island responded in kind: Over 200 diners flocked to Tin Roof on their opening day.
Lee Anne Wong
Honolulu, Oahu: Inclusion
New York native Lee Anne Wong knows there’s no wong way to embrace your passions. The former fashion design student and second-generation Chinese-American tended towards country classics like hamburgers and pizza before discovering another type of appetite—that for cooking. She didn’t just dabble in her newfound hobby; she went after it with zeal and aplomb, ultimately graduating from the famed French Culinary Institute (to which she returned years later as the Executive Chef of Event Operations) before cooking and staging for venues as esteemed as The French Laundry, Nobu, and Chicago’s Charlie Trotter’s. Her global-fusion aesthetic earned her not only praise but also spots on America’s celebrity chef TV circuit, including Top Chef, Iron Chef, and the Cooking Channel’s Unique Eats. Upon relocating from New York to Oahu, she opened island-style brunch house Koko Head Café to great acclaim. (As Honolulu Magazine raved, Wong “takes everything comfortable and makes it new again.”) There, her love of cross-cultural cuisine—and crazy-fun palate—manifests in a menu that brims with ingenuity and showcases her eye for inclusion. Brunch bites span from kimchi bacon cheddar scones to jidori chicken with French-inspired scrambled eggs, house-made pickles, and maple tabasco—all of which suggests that this media maven is as gregarious on the plate as she is in person.
Ready to experience these chefs’ skills and panache? The Maui Chefs Invitational will be held at The Mill House/Maui Tropical Plantation from November 11th to November 13th.
Many of the photos above by both Megan Schlow and Natalie Brown.