Culture / Travel

What It’s Really Like to Attend the Legendary Hawaii Food & Wine Festival — When Relaxed Big Name Chefs Share All

The Island Setting and Vibe Make This Anything But Just Another Food Festival

BY // 10.30.22

The 12th Annual Hawaii Food & Wine Festival kicked off with two events on the island of Maui, but that’s just the beginning. Known for spotlighting Hawaiian chefs and ingredients, the chefs-by-invite-only extravaganza attracts some of the biggest names in the American restaurant world.

With the unsurpassed beauty of the Hawaiian islands as a backdrop, it’s easy to see why the food stars come out in force.

The Hawaii Food & Wine Festival is ongoing ― running through November 6, and there are still a limited number of tickets available for select events. If you are headed to Hawaii, you may want to consider it, or make plans to attend next year.

For Hawaii, this foodie bonanza marks a welcome return to normalcy.

Chef Isaac Bancaco of Lahaina’s Pacific’o on the Beach tells PaperCity that COVID changed a lot on the island. The service industry lost some 20,000 workers who left Maui when the hospitality industry shuttered with Hawaii adopting some of the strictest travel restrictions in the United States. That decimated the workforce on an island with a resident population that now hovers around 155,000.

Bancaco pivoted to commercial fishing during his restaurant’s long closure, feeding his neighbors at a time when shipping issues brought scarcity to Hawaii. After all, this is a land which imports everything it doesn’t grow.

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Like so many friendly Maui natives, Bancaco is happy to see life returning to normal and excited to be one of the native chefs featured at this year’s Hawaii Food & Wine Festival. He served buttermilk Kona lobster rolls to a hungry crowd during the festivities.

Denise Yamaguchi, the festival’s founder and coordinator, is a sought-after business development consultant in her own right. She is also the wife of Hawaii’s most famous chef Roy Yamaguchi, who introduced the idea of Hawaiian fusion cuisine to the larger restaurant world. Yamaguchi is the first chef from Hawaii to receive the James Beard Best Pacific Northwest Chef Award. He now has 10 restaurants dotting four islands, including five outposts of his namesake Roy’s restaurant.

Hawaii Food & Wine Festival founder Denise Yamaguchi with husband — the famed chef Roy Yamaguchi. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)
Hawaii Food & Wine Festival founder Denise Yamaguchi with husband — the famed chef Roy Yamaguchi. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)

Together the couple champions the makers and growers of the Hawaiian islands with tireless stamina. Denise Yamaguchi is also the executive director of the Hawaii Agricultural Foundation. The festival gives back to local culinary colleges and charities.

Hawaii Food & Wine Festival’s Big, Bold and Beautiful

An event called Big, Bold, and Beautiful kicked off this year’s Hawaii Food & Wine Festival. Held at the Sheraton Maui, it brought colorfully lit palm trees, swaying string lights and an unexpected fireworks finale over the ocean. It was a wine tasting event, with the drinks paired with lavish creations from some big name chefs.

For instance, participating Chef Shota Nakajima of Seattle’s Taku finished second in 2021 during Season 18 of Bravo’s Top Chef. He tells PaperCity that he is heading to Austin Food and Wine Festival next, which takes place on November 5th and 6th. Nakajima says prolific Fort Worth chef and Top Chef Masters alum Tim Love invited him to join the Texas fun.

“It’s an entire experience from the moment you walk in the door,” Nakajima says of his fine dining background in Japan. “Timing plates like a conductor during a 15 course high Japanese cuisine experience.”

Chef Shoto Nakajima's beef short rib topped with crispy wild black rice. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)
Chef Shoto Nakajima’s beef short rib topped with crispy wild black rice. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)

Nakajima currently has two restaurants in the same building in Seattle. One is an izakaya that speaks with an Osaka-ben (Kansai dialect) and the other serves Detroit-style pizza with a touch of mochi (sweet rice flour) in the dough. Nakajima thinks this unique pizza will be the next big trend. In Maui, he served a braised beef short rib with ginger kabocha squash puree, topped with crispy wild black rice for an unexpected crunch.

Chef Kevin Meehan hails from Los Angeles and describes his 7-year-old, Michelin-starred restaurant named Kali as a “high-end small spot with hyper-local ingredients.”

Meehan is proud to be on a first-name basis with his suppliers. He knows when each of his growers’ products peak. The menu at Meehan’s 60 seat LA restaurant is all about the sourcing.

“I shop at the farmers market twice a week, and I pay in cash,” Meehan says. “It’s relationship driven. The nouns (proteins) stay the same on my menu, but the adjectives change often, depending on what’s in season.”

Meehan’s brilliant dish at the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival’s opening event was grilled big island abalone, which he paired with Hamakua mushrooms, which boast a similar toothsome texture.

Chef Kevin Meehan's grilled big island abalone, which he paired with Hamakua mushrooms. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)
Chef Kevin Meehan’s grilled big island abalone, which he paired with Hamakua mushrooms. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)

Returning to the festival for her eighth year (eighth on Oahu, this is only her second time to be featured in Maui) is Chef Michelle Bernstein of Miami’s La Trova. The Miami restaurant is named after a similar spot Bernstein and her team found in Cuba.

“It is located in Miami’s Little Havana with a trumpet player, classy cocktails and Cuban favorites done my way,” Bernstein says. “We have a Conga line every night. It’s quintessential and retro. People come in crying because they can’t get over the nostalgia.”

Of her cuisine, Bernstein tells PaperCity she’s both Jewish and Argentinian ― not Cuban as many assume. Her father’s family were Russian Jews who immigrated first to Argentina, becoming some of that country’s original gauchos. Then, they went on to Miami.

“I always say you can understand my cuisine after tasting a bowl of my chicken soup,” Bernstein says. “Due to my Jewish side, it will have a lot of dill and be more gelatinous, but my Argentine roots mean I make it with chayote, lime and cilantro.”

Bernstein served a Peruvian-style Hawaii seafood ceviche in a lime, habanero, ginger and cilantro broth, with a full range of toppings to personalize each dish, including Miami popcorn, at the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival.

Stars, Beards and Diamonds

During Hawaii Food & Wine Festival’s opening weekend, diners were also treated to a five course meal along with wine pairings from Southern Glazer’s newest master sommelier Chris Ramelb. That was accompanied by a rare misting shower, which might have spotted the glasses and silverware, but it did nothing to dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm. It’s not every night you eat a meal of this caliber.

The chefs putting together the elaborate meal included Jayson Asuncion of the Royal Lahaina Resort & Bungalows, Roy Yamaguchi of Roy’s, Jonathan Waxman of Barbuto in New York City, Peter Armellino of Saratoga, California’s Plumed Horse and pastry chef Caroline Schiff of Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn. These chefs boast a combined total of 18 James Beard Award wins, 12 Michelin Stars and both AAA Four Diamond and a Five Diamond recognition.

All the chefs had to utilize local ingredients in their dishes, showcasing Hawaiian agriculture at every turn.

The first course consisted of Asuncion’s Hawaiian grass-fed beef tartare, plated with a garlic emulsion, parmesan tuile and a red wine gastrique. It was followed by the first fish course from Yamaguchi. The stars of his creation were the pan-seared U-10 Hokkaido scallops, whose rich sweetness became enhanced by a charred garlic verjus chimichurri, dressed with caviar and Hawaiian pohole ferns.

Chef Jonathan Waxman's grilled opah dish, a plate filled with Hawaii ingredients. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)
Chef Jonathan Waxman’s grilled opah dish, a plate filled with Hawaii ingredients. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)

Mains began with Jonathan Waxman’s colorful grilled opah dish, flanked by hearts of palm and Dole pineapple-ginger salsa.

Waxman says that he actually began his career “working in Kā’anapali’s Whaler’s Village back in 1972.” This is his 11th year taking part in the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival. His old friend Roy Yamaguchi was actually a line cook under Waxman at Michael’s Restaurant in Los Angeles. That is how long the two chefs have been friends.

The beef course consisted of Peter Armellino’s perfectly rare roast strip loin. The black pepper-rubbed beef was plated with charred local scallion, Kula sweet onion and a wave of demi-glace.

To cap the momentous Hawaii food feast, Caroline Schiff pulled out all the stops with her Maui chevre cheesecake in a Mauna Loa macadamia nut crust. The too-pretty-to-eat slice came decorated with edible flowers ― the tangy goat cheese balanced by caramelized pineapple, Hawaiian vanilla bean, sea salt and fresh basil. It hit every note perfectly.

Texas Chefs Hang Loose At Hawaii Food and Wine Festival

The Hawaii Food & Wine Festival brought plenty of Texas talent to the islands this year.

We met Chef Troy Guard on the first night of the festival. He has spent a lot of his life on Maui. His father is a native of Maui. Although Guard’s Guard & Grace restaurant is located in Denver (where the chef now lives), there is also a Guard & Grace in Houston already. Troy Guard tells PaperCity that he plans to open a new Guard & Grace restaurant in North Texas soon too.

Troy Guard takes a time out with his wife at Hawaii Food & Wine Festival. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)
Troy Guard takes a time out with his wife at Hawaii Food & Wine Festival. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)

Other major Texas chef talent at this year’s festival include Robert Del Grande of Houston’s The Annie Cafe and Bar, Dallas’ Dean Fearing of Fearing’s Restaurant, Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor and Pitmaster Matt Pittman of Meat Church in Waxahachie.

“It takes a lot to host 15 events, on three different islands, over the course of three weekends,” Hawaii Food & Wine Festival founder Denise Yamaguchi notes.

But there’s no doubting this festival’s powerful draw. Chefs return year after year to get a taste of the Hawaiian islands, enjoy the company of their fellow chefs and to explore new ingredients. Michelle Bernstein may speaks for all of the invited chefs when she explains what keeps her coming back to the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival year after year.

“At some other festivals, you have to get to work right after you land,” she says. “But here in Hawaii they make sure you take time to chill and relax.”

That’s the Hawaiian way. It might even make the food taste even better.

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