What Does It Take to Win a Hale Aina?
There are more than 5,000 eateries in the state. What does it take to stand out from the crowd and win a Hale Aina Award? Here are a few inside stories.
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Back at the 12th Avenue Grill in Kaimuki, the winner of top honors for Gourmet Comfort Food, Kevin Hanney stands in front of the smoker he’s jerry-rigged in the back of his kitchen. He’s smoking wedges of Pecorino over a can of smoldering kiawe chips.
The smoked Pecorino is the secret ingredient in 12th Avenue’s mac-and-cheese, a dish that has been written up in Gourmet, Food & Wine, Travel+Leisure and Bon Appetit. “Mac-and-cheese,” says Hanney. “That’s why people think we do comfort food, like their mother cooked, but we really don’t.”
He points to the night’s specials—pork loin wrapped in pork belly, mahimahi atop lobster risotto. “Did your mother ever make lobster risotto?”
We’re joined by Hanney’s executive chef, Bob McGee, who’s come over to tuck some goat cheese into the smoker, so he can pair it with “some great beets” for an appetizer special.
“Kevin’s right,” he says. “We do food you wish your mother had cooked.”
Comfort food or not, Hanney and McGee don’t let themselves get too comfortable in the kitchen. Every night, they come up with eight to 10 blackboard specials, new dishes, built around available local ingredients from small suppliers.
“We like to be on a first-name basis with people who have 20 great rabbits, 20 great ducks,” says Hanney. “We’re small enough they can supply us, even if we only get enough for a couple of nights’ specials. But we’re large enough to make a difference.” He pauses. “By the way, do you know anyone who has duck eggs?”
“Oh, yeah,” says McGee. “Give us two or three dozen duck eggs. You’d be amazed at what we could do.”
Sacrificing a Suntan
For someone who baked scones and muffins until 11 last night and then came back to work at 5 a.m., Chrissie Kaila Castillo seems impossibly young, attractive and cheerful. Her little Café Kaila in Market City Shopping Center in Kapahulu won Hale Aina honors for Best Breakfast. But to make the place work, she says, “I’ve sacrificed a lot of sleep. I drink more coffee than anyone I know.”
At 9 a.m. on a weekday, Café Kaila is packed: businessmen meeting, surfers fueling up for the waves, older ladies socializing over frittatas and featherlight pancakes with caramelized apples.
It’s busy, but this is nothing. On weekends there are people waiting on the sidewalk. “Saturday and Sunday, I never get a chance to leave the kitchen,” says Castillo.
That’s what it takes to win the Hale Aina. That and enjoying what you’re doing. “I love to cook and I love breakfast,” she says.
For a UH course in entrepreneurship, she created a business plan for a breakfast café. She was taking the course pass/fail, but Castillo passed with flying colors—her plan won her a Small Business Loan, just enough money, with a lot of sweat equity and help from friends, to open Café Kaila at the end of 2007.
“I thought it would be a tranquil spot, classical music, people sipping cappuccinos around a fountain," she says. Surprise, after a few weeks, KHON’s Manolo Morales dropped by with a camera, and the next morning, there was a line. “I was terrified. There were only three of us, my sister, my mom and I. We got on the phone to friends and said, please, we need help.”
Her crew, all smiles and T-shirts, is still mainly friends, she says. “You have to have a happy place to deal with people at breakfast. People can be sleepy, some are cranky, some are rushing, some are just cruising. You have to take care of them all.”
She makes it sound like a pleasure. “It’s worth it, it’s fun,” she says. “Except look at me. No tan. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any waves.”
"Sorry I had to put you on hold," says Mike Pasher. “I just bought 180 pounds of big, beautiful onaga.”
Pasher is the “Fish Guru” for Mama’s Fish House on Maui, and his three-plus decades of experience are one reason the restaurant won a Hale Aina Award for Best Seafood.
Mama’s Fish House is a state-licensed primary seafood dealer, which means Pasher can legally buy the catch directly from fishing boats, instead of through wholesalers. That means that the fish at Mama’s is a little fresher than most.
“The fisherman love us, we pay on the spot,” he says. “We can’t take everything, but we buy 1,400 to 1,600 pounds of fish a month. That means we usually get first right of refusal.”
He puts me on hold again. When he comes back, he says, “With cell phones now, the fishermen call me right from the boat. I just got my ahi for tomorrow. They’re catching them right now.”
Most restaurants buy their fish cut into fillets by a wholesaler. Mama’s preps its own fish; Pasher employs not one, but three fish cutters.
The last time I saw Pasher in person, a few years ago, his fish cutters were working in a hallway. “Oh, no more,” he says. “We built a brand-new, climate-controlled cutting room, so we can keep the fish perfect. We’re always changing here.”
That’s true and that’s why, in addition to Best Seafood, Mama’s has won Hale Ainas as a Best Maui Restaurant and a Restaurant Worth the Trip.
Doris and Floyd Christenson founded the restaurant at remote Kuau Cove in 1973. They didn’t have much money, but they had a lot of energy. In the 37 years since, they never opened a second Mama’s, never opened another kind of restaurant, never franchised the operation. Instead, they kept trying to improve every detail.
Now in his 70s, Floyd is still tinkering with the restaurant, everything from menu descriptions to building a new dining room, one wall of which is recycled from a demolished plantation house. Doris is still greeting guests with “Hi, I’m Mama.”
“Our philosophy at Mama’s is that, if we’re doing things the same way we did yesterday, we’re going backwards,” says Pasher. “We’re always trying to get better. If you haven’t been to the restaurant in a couple of years, get yourself over here.”