Hale Aina Chefs: Master Class

We talked with 10 chefs and had them answer a few of life's little cooking questions.

Hawaii has an unusual density of amazing chefs and world-class restaurants. Ever fantasized about asking some of these chefs for a little help in your own kitchen? We have, so we talked story with 10 of our Hale Aina Award-winning chefs and had them answer a few of life’s little cooking questions.

Photo: Olivier Koning


With everyone focusing now on fresh, simple, local and unfussy, plating a beautiful meal has gotten easier. Here’s how to make a meal on a plate look as good as it tastes.

Garnish with edibles that will taste good with the meal. Kevin Chong, chef de cuisine at Chef Mavro, says, "Don’t put anything on the plate that you can’t eat." He likes to garnish Asian or Spanish-influenced dishes with cilantro.

Ed Kenney, who owns the Hale Aina Award-winning restaurants Town and Downtown @ the HISAM, suggests the rule of thirds ("12 o’clock/4 o’clock/8 o’clock") to make a meal look satisfying to the eye.

Go for "color contrast," says Russell Siu, co-owner and executive chef at 3660 On The Rise, which prepared this dish for us. The restaurant has won numerous Hale Aina awards. If the dish itself isn’t colorful, reach for a colorful garnish.


Familiar herbs and spices with surprising applications.

Usual habitat: rye bread.
Expanding its range: radish and caraway soup.

Caraway’s slight licorice-flavor bite pairs surprisingly well with the clean pepperiness of a radish, says Kenney. He teams radish and caraway, adding onions, cream, stock and a toasted rye-bread crumb garnish for a warming soup. A squeeze of lemon, added last, brightens the flavor and turns the soup a pastel pink.

Usual habitat: ume plums.
Expanding its range: pan-fried with fish.

We know shiso as the tart, distinctive flavoring of ‘ume, the Japanese pickled plum found in the middle of musubi. Ronald Nasuti, executive chef of Roy’s Hawai‘i Kai (Hale ‘Aina 2010 Restaurant of the Year), suggests pressing shiso leaves into a piece of firm, raw fish before seasoning and pan-frying. “When you cook it, it binds the shiso” to the fish, says Nasuti, and the result is a revelation. It looks beautiful, says Nasuti: “You know pressed flowers in a book? That’s the effect.”

Usual habitat: Stuffing.
Expanding its range: Zucchini con salvia

Maybe it takes an Italian to know that the dusky scent of sage can do more than accompany the Thanksgiving turkey.  Sergio Mitrotti, executive chef at perennial Hale ‘Aina Italian favorite Café Sistina, says that sage and zucchini bring out the best in each other: “Sage and zucchini, they live together.”  Mitrotti sautés medallions of zucchini with salt and pepper, and then adds a sprinkling of fresh chopped sage toward the end of cooking.


Chef Dave Caldiero seasons his locally grown broccoli.

Photo: Olivier Koning


Three experts transform the wallflowers of the produce world.

Broccoli   Dave Caldiero, of Town, says his Italian mom slow-cooks broccoli in olive oil. Here’s how: Completely cover the florets with a good depth of extra-virgin olive oil. Throw in a couple of whole, peeled garlic cloves. Heat the pan until it reaches about 150 degrees, and then turn it way down for a couple of hours. Don’t agitate it. When the broccoli emerges, says Ed Kenney, “the texture is like that stuff you used to get in the cafeteria, but the flavor is so beyond.” Eat straight, or serve on bread or crostini with shredded Parmesan.

Cauliflower  Kevin Chong of Chef Mavro says, “If you roast a cauliflower with butter, it’s fantastic.” Slice the cauliflower ¼ inch thick, butter it up and roast it in a 375 to 400 degree oven until it’s tender, slightly browned and glistening. Season with sea salt.

Carrots   Chef Roy Yamaguchi, owner of Roy’s, says carrots have an innate sweetness that this preparation brings out. Slice or julienne carrots and sauté them with butter. Once they’re soft, add some honey and a couple of slices of fresh ginger until you’ve got a sweet-spicy glaze. Remove the ginger pieces and serve with fish, pork, or poultry.



This Cucumber-Fennel martini from Mariposa was invented just for HONOLULU Magazine. The recipe serves four people.

Photo: Olivier Koning

4 oz. Belvedere vodka
4 oz. Daiginjo sake
1 cucumber
1 piece fresh fennel
1 tsp. sugar
Pickled ginger for garnish
1 cup ice
Juice from 1 fresh yuzu lime from the Big Island (bottled is okay if fresh is not available; you can find this at Don Quijote)

Shave a few paper-thin slices from the cucumber and set aside; put the rest of it through a juicer, and save 2 ounces of the juice for the drink. Juice the fresh fennel, and save 1 ounce of the juice for the drink. Shake together the vodka, sake, fennel juice, cucumber juice, yuzu juice, sugar and ice. Divide among four large martini glasses; garnish with pickled pink ginger and cucumber slices.

Photo: istock



When buying cheese, look for an assortment of textures, says Kevin Chong, chef de cuisine at Chef Mavro. Try one soft, one semisoft and one medium. You can also do a theme, says Ed Kenney, chef/owner of Town. “Try a single country, or three blues, or three from one product, like sheep’s milk.”

Ronald Nasuti, executive chef at Roy’s Hawai, roy’s hawaii kaii Kai, suggests “a variety of cool breads, or lavosh,” rounded out with fresh fruit or chutney. Kenney likes to pair cheese with nuts, while Chong reaches for dried fruits, jams or preserves.

The platter is an integral part of the presentation. At Café Sistina, they serve cheese on a rustic—and functional—wooden cutting board.


Chef Ryan Luckey isn’t fazed by a last-minute appetizer request.

Photo: Ryan Siphers




10 Minutes to: A Big Impression

“Everyone loves brie, and a lot of people keep a little hunk of it in the fridge for when they have a glass of wine,” says Ryan Luckey,  executive chef of the Pineapple Grill at Kapalua Resort, this year’s silver recipient of Hale Aina’s Best Maui Restaurant. Paint some white-bread shapes with a little olive oil and pop them in a hot oven. While they’re toasting, caramelize some canned pineapple with Maui sugar. Stack the toast with a slice of brie, top it with the pineapple, and perch a walnut, pecan or macadamia nut on top of it.




10 Minutes to: Kicking Back

Quesadillas don’t have to be boring, says Casey Halpern (executive chef of Café Pesto, a Hale Aina Award-winner with two Big Island locations)—and one thing the Halpern household always has on hand is tortillas. Halpern details some creative combinations: Defrost some shrimp and veggies, or serve a ham quesadilla with a green apple salsa. Tortillas and cheese are a blank canvas; “the key is for people to know combinations of foods that go well together, like apple and pork,” says Halpern.

10 Minutes to: A Long Winter’s Night

When friends show up at Dave Caldiero’s doorstep, the chef de cuisine of Town says, “My go-to is always beans.” A can of white beans, a can of tomatoes, some leftover bacon, sausage or chicken, bay leaves and thyme, and you’ve got the makings of a quick and delicious variation on cassoulet, the classic French winter dish.



It’s January; time to get to the bottom of your bottled one-hit wonders.


TAHINI  After the hummus … the ginger-tahini vinaigrette. Mariposa’s Marc Anthony Freiberg suggests mixing a quarter-cup each of tahini and water, with a tablespoon each of Coleman’s mustard and grated ginger. Throw in two tablespoons each of soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, a splash of sesame oil and the juice of a fresh lime.




RED CURRY PASTE  After the Thai curry … the juicy steak with a kick. Luckey, of the Pineapple Grill at Kapalua Resort suggests giving your rib-eye steak a Thai-style curry rubdown and watch the flavors jump off the grill.



MUSTARDS  After the upscale hot dog … the roast chicken and the pâté plate. If an assortment of mild mustards is hogging the shelf real estate, try what Chef Mavro’s Kevin Chong did when clearing out his pantry at home: “One day I roasted a chicken—I covered the chicken with mustard and put some breadcrumbs with olive oil and garlic.” Ronald Nasuti, of Roy’s, suggests assembling a plate: Bring out your mustards with a pungent slab of pâté, some cheese, breads and pickles, along with a palate-cleanser like fresh fruit. Serve with wine, and have a great evening with zero kitchen sweat.



MISO After the soup … the oatmeal? Alan Wong, of Alan Wong’s Restaurant, eats miso with oatmeal for breakfast: “I love it with a sunny-side-up egg on the top of it.” This combination is not as off-the-wall as you might think; savory (rather than sweet) oatmeal is the traditional preparation in Scotland, where the warming breakfast dish originated.


HOISIN  After the Peking duck … the balsamic reduction. Two parts balsamic vinegar and orange juice, simmered with one part sugar and a big dollop of hoisin, and reduced by half—it goes on vegetables and poultry alike.  Adding a glug of port wine during the simmer makes it a port-wine reduction: a lot of fancy for not much effort, says Halpern. “You have the citrus and the vinegar, which are tart; sugar is sweet; and the hoisin just ties it all together.”