AU ABROAD

Ka’anapali Fresh: A Culinary Experience Under a Maui Moon

Maui is the island I was married at 22 years ago on a private beach in front of Mama’s Fish House and I don’t need an excuse to go back, having been there 40 times over the years. It’s a lush isle with the dormant 3000 metre Haleakala Volcano that you can ride 35 kilometres to the ocean through seven of the world’s nine climatic zones to splash down on sandy beaches on your way to perfect snorkelling and diving.

It’s also a foodie paradise with world-class restaurants not only at the resorts and hotels. Aside from Mama’s, there’s the Hali’imaile General Store of Bev Gannon upcountry, Mala by Mark Elliman in Lahaina, Monkeypod by Peter Merriman in Kihei and his other eponymous fine dine in Kapalua, Alan Wong’s Amasia in Wailea and Sansei for sushi in a couple of locales.

With such a wealth of great chefs it was a natural setting for a stellar food festival on a sandy beach and the perfect locale is the Northwest strip of luxe properties that make up Ka’anapali Beach. There’s a Westin, Hyatt, Sheraton, Aston and Marriott as well as the Ka’anapali Beach Resort from the olden days and other condotels. So it was a natural move for the promotional organisation for the properties to create Ka’anapali Fresh—A Culinary Experience to lure an upmarket crowd from the competing resort areas of Wailea to the South and Kapalua to the North. And it’s also attracted mainlanders as well as international grazers.

It’s succeeded beyond their wildest dreams and in the three years of its existence, it’s the island’s signature event. Ka’anapali chefs and restaurants collaborate in their showcase of culinary arts and use the island’s harvest from the range, underground, above ground and from the sea. Maui’s food producers bring grass-fed beef, heritage pork and lamb, island fish, and farm produce to create an unforgettable culinary experience. Paired with boutique wines from the world’s leading vintners and great concert talent, it’s a compelling event that starts out with an array of tropical drinks.

There are also day trips to farms and local food providores as well as seminars on mixing Tiki cocktails, explorations of the local Farmers Market and even a tour of the sugarcane based organic vodka maker that uses distilled water pumped from the offshore depths.

What makes this event unique is that it kicks off a three day run over the Labor Day weekend end of summer on Friday with a Progressive Dinner split between three resorts—one for an array of appetizers and cocktails with a walk to the next for mainstream plates of mains and another stroll to the dessert hosting hotel with after dinner drinks, ports, sherries and spirits. Not only does this help pace the input but also allows grazers to wander up the beach at their own pace at sunset and into the starry night.

My first year, the iconic Hyatt Regency started with Sushi, Sake, Seafood and Champagne in the gorgeous Napili Gardens and alluring shoreline. A wide range of sushi, hand-rolls, sashimi and other morsels were palate tempters but my favourite was the Shrimp and Sake Cocktail Sauce Shooter followed by shellfish concoctions that took advantage of the rich pickings from local shores and reefs to aqua farms of lobster, kingfish and abalone.

Last year the dinner was the Double Culinary Grande at the Westin Maui with an array of chefs feeding the crowds to have the event topped off by a raging outdoor performance by ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro at the Sheraton. I didn’t know what was better, the food or the music but the organisers have made terrific local talent a vital part of the equation.

Saturday starts with an early morning tour of the Farmers Market held at the Whaler’s Village where an incredible array of fresh fruits, exotic vegetables, craft food items, specialty meats and treats and a broad range of snacks set the day off. What makes this special is that it’s held overlooking the beach and gardens for a true Hawaiian foodie scene. And there’s time for a swim, snorkel or sail before the afternoon activities start.

Segue from there to a mixology class on Mai Tais, Mojitos and Margaritas using the freshest produce and unusual ingredients from rosemary swizzle sticks to orgiat syrup featuring locally produced spirits. Thankfully lunch is included but the early drinking, sun and food makes for a compelling return to the rooms for a nap.

I opted to tour four farms or produce operations in what is known as AgTourism. Knowing the provenance of your food, where and how it’s grown, processed, handled, packaged, transported and of course consumed is an eye opener. You taste fresh off the vine, learn about the plant and the food as well as picking up historic tales.

A great start was the Maui Tropical Plantation (http://www.mauitropicalplantation.com) that features a tropical tram tour through crop areas and a farmers market full of local and interisland wares. On this little trip, I learned how to easily husk a coconut, how to best check pineapples for ripeness, secrets of growing dragonfruit and passionfruit as well as how best to get my papayas fruiting. And I’m no farmer.

They’ve added a major outdoor Pu’ukani stage for concerts as well as having the smaller Mill House venue for more intimate shows. There are stores, a coffee house, neat little eateries and tropical tours to take around the wide-ranging property. A wonderful way to kick off an island tour before heading up the volcano to the lush fields of Kula and upcountry.

Surfing Goat Dairy is upslope on Haleakala where three bucks and 100 does on 42 acres comprise one of only three goat farms in Hawaii. It not only provides farm cheeses and soft cheese to Maui chefs and residents and visitors, it’s a fascinating tour, especially when you end up at the chocolate truffle case that is another specialty of Surfing Goat.

Not as edible but a wondrous spot just down the road is Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm where fields of 45 varieties and 55,000 plants of lavender sprout up and are harvested for fresh use and for compounding into a variety of products. The best part of touring here is that I got an incredible amount of knowledge and tips that have resulted in my own lavender crops blooming outstandingly.

A surprising tour was Ocean Vodka (http://oceanvodka.com) where three generations of family have grown up and realised their dream of converting the land to organic culture, producing a non-perishable agriculturally–based product. Why vodka? Why not… It took nine years but they nailed it.

They had the fields of sugar cane to use as the base. They mix a variety of cane stock for their distilling and this makes it a pure, clean product as my sampling that day confirmed.

The second element to its purity is the water used to balance the spirit. Rather than use land based stream or spring water, they procure theirs from the deep ocean cold purity offshore and distill it to add. It’s an incredible product that is sold across the US and Canada and is expanding into Asia. . I took home a couple of bottles to test back in Oz and can’t wait to return and refill.

All this tasting and a few shots of vodka (but still under the driving limit) lured me back to my room at the Royal Lahaina Resort, an old style, gracious and welcoming property that reeks Aloha at every turn. Tucked away in its own niche away from the large corporate towers, it’s a magic place to stay.

After awakening from an afternoon nap, it’s a breezy walk between roaring surf and putting turf to the third hole of the Ka’anapali Beach Resort’s Golf Course where an outdoor feast is staged. Entertainment is the incredible slack key artist and electrifying performer Makana as well as Hawaiian music goddess Amy Hanaiali’i who belts out in native tongue as well as doing standards. She’s a powerhouse starter act who curls the lime strips right back in the cocktail glass while Makana stuns with his guitar mastery of the traditional style as well as his more contemporary songs.

Coming this year, the entertainment is my favourite Hawaiian duo, HAPA, who I’ve seen a few dozen times and always sit mesmerised by their playing and the hula dancer they have as part of their act. They will be joined by Kamakakehau Fernandez as the local chefs team with the local growers for spectacular dining outdoors under the stars.

Last year, the favourite part of my experience was a simple affair—a lunch held on the estate of Maui Grown Coffee, the leading coffee plantation almost in the clouds overlooking most of the entire northwest side of Maui. Aside from the spectacular views over the islands of Lanai and Molokai, the trellised coffee trees stretched down in lush rows of green with red cherries ready to be picked for the most magnificent coffee this side of Kona.

Kimo Faulkiner is the coffee grower who treats his rows of trees like a vintner coddles his vines. While we dined on a custom cooked meal for the 30 people on our tour, he went through the history of coffee in Hawaii and then Maui, how they operate, the grades of coffee and types of beans right down to tips and techniques to extract the most flavour from the bean.

Being a coffeeholic and having toured several Kona and Kau plantations on the neighbouring Big Island’s volcanic slopes for another article, I couldn’t help myself after trying several different strains, ending up with five kilos of Maui Beans to add to the eight kilos of Kona and Kau blends that I was hauling back.

And now, 11 months after buying these, I’m just finishing the last bag which has been nestled in my wine cellar in the perfect storage environment for making ‘vintage’ cups of espresso all year. I’m rapt that I’m returning in a couple of weeks to gather up more for the coming year.

Which is why when I’m paying for the flight to Hawaii, I choose Hawaiian Airlines that allows each passenger two suitcases of 32 kilos each as well as a generous cabin allowance. This makes a huge difference for shopaholics as well as those who collect Hawaiian shirts like me or have spices and BBQ sauces shipped to them at their last hotel in Honolulu before heading back home. On that note…

The Sunday event may conclude Ka’anapali Fresh but it is actually the inaugural night of the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival that has most of its program held on Oahu but also now incorporates the Big Island. The brainchild of the state’s top chefs Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi, the HFWF as we shorthand it, has taken over the foodie calendar with several great evening events in Oahu hotels as well as an imaginative series of day events like wine tastings, culinary tourism of holes-in-the-walls and other programs.

Called the Ka’anapali Kitchen Stadium under a Maui Moon, it’s used the natural setting of the Hyatt Napili Gardens and beachfront round tables for ten with a central cooking area where the chefs almost seem to do battle in preparing the delicacies for the hordes of diners. The sun is still high when the cocktails are served and the excited chatter almost drowns out the waves, but as the sun settled to the horizon, things quiet down as guests find their seats.

With the clattering of pans and knives oceanfront and a stage of hula dancers and local musicians on the grass, the festivities start with a set menu of over the top dishes that are the pride of the Ka’anapali hotel chefs and the international guest chefs who vie for the tastebuds of the hungry masses. I kind of remember leaving for my room before the last dessert but not much after that. I was sated and sleepy but soon was snoring peacefully with the crashing waves in the background and sweet dreams of Hawaii floating in my head.

This year will be my third and I look forward to sharing it with you AU Abroad readers. Maybe you’ll join me this year or next. The website is http://kaanapalifresh.com and the 2014 dates are August 29-31. I’ll be blogging here from the event with plenty of pics. Stay tuned!