Back in April, as a judge at the Maui County Agricultural Festival (aka Ag Fest), I got to play Top Chef with Sheldon Simeon. He was one of 12 Maui chefs paired with a Maui farmer and tasked to create a dish with that farmer’s produce, as part of the festival’s Grand Taste Education Program. Simeon won. And now he actually is on Top Chef—last week’s season 10 opener saw judge Hugh Acheson (also former Top Chef Masters loser and chef-partner of The National) select him as a contestant on the merit of his brussels sprout salad with orange-Thai vinaigrette. (Disclosure: Simeon did not get my top score at the Ag Fest. That honor went to private chef Riko Bartolome, more on him later.)
Seeing Simeon’s constantly beaming face on Bravo reminded me of the Ag Fest—one of my most enjoyable food experiences of the year. Organized by the nonprofit Maui County Farm Bureau, pr force of nature Charlene Ka‘uhane and Slow Food Maui, the festival is held at the Maui Tropical Plantation at Waikapu (you can see tourists ziplining in the background) and showcases talent from the farm and the kitchen. The produce and products under a big tent, and crazy longhorn cattle a short walk away, were a revelation. Just getting to sample all of Yee’s Orchards mangoes and finding out about Mala ‘Ai poi (the best commercial stuff you’ll ever taste) were worth it alone. Next year I’m planning to take a day off work and have a three-day Maui mini-break that includes the Ag Fest. I recommend it.
It was an honor to serve as a judge along with a distinguished panel of food-oriented folks from Hawai‘i and across the mainland—Canadian globetrotter Ayngelina Brogan (baconismagic.ca), New York blogger Carol Cain (girlgonetravel.com), Maui food guru Bonnie Friedman (tourdafood.com), Portland chronicler Jennifer Heigl (dailyblender.com), James Beard Award-winning Carolyn Jung (foodgal.com), Hawaii Magazine editor Derek Paiva, and chef-consultant Jay Terauchi (kahunaofthekitchen.com).
Grand Taste Education Program
The cooking competition wasn’t just about seeing Maui’s notable chefs battle. It’s an exercise in showing the public the magic of homegrown. The judges took their jobs seriously, and after sampling the 12 dishes on the stage, quickly jotting down notes and calculating points, we found a spot on the lawn and went over our tallies to decide on a winner. It was very close, with just a single point dividing many of the choises. There were some interesting thought patterns. For example, the mainland judges across the board were enraptured by sweet potato ice cream, while island judges were like, yeah it’s good but you can buy it any day at Dave’s Ice Cream. On the flip side, a couple of the local judges (including me), felt that James McDonald’s simple plate of sweet-potato gnocchi, parsley and heirloom tomato chunks shouted “Pure Flavor” and innovation for Maui, but it seemed like old hat to the visiting judges. Here are the top results, and my peanut-gallery comments.
Chef: Sheldon Simeon Farmer: Bobby Pahia, Hoaloha Farms (located right at Maui Tropical Plantation!)
Dish: Taro “dumplings”
Judge’s decision: Winner
My decision: second place
Simeon deconstructed dim sum to present a plate that was striking to look at, with plain old pork hash-and-sinus-thrashing-mustard flavors. Taro taste was undetectable as a binder and the base for vinaigrette. Technique, concept, and presentation wowed, but that other essential factor—did it taste good?—wasn’t all there, which is why this came in second place for me.
Chef: Marc McDowell, executive chef Makena Beach Resort Rancher: David Fitch, Malama Farm
Dish: Porchetta mini slider with frisée, favas and fingerlings
Judges’ decision: Second place
My decision: Didn’t place
Who doesn’t love roasted pork on a bun? It’s true, I could have eaten five of these, and the sliders definitely highlighted the quality of the Malama Farm pigs, but for the competition I felt McDowell played it safe and gave higher scores to risk takers. Notable: McDowell is a certified master gardener and he previously cultivated an organic produce garden in Kapalua.
Chef: Riko Bartolome, private chef Farmer: Ian Cole, The Breadfruit Institute
Dish: Pan-fried smoked salmon-‘ulu cakes with tapioca tartare sauce
Judges’ decision: Third place
My decision: Winner
When I tried this I was like, who is this guy, and why have I never heard of him? (Trolling online I find that Bartolome is from San Diego, is a CIA graduate, and had positions with Hyatt, including at the Grand Wailea. Back in San Diego he had his own restaurant, Asia-Vous, but is now a kept chef in Kapalua. What billionaire has Bartolome all to him/herself?) At first glance, this seems like a play-it-safe dish, and maybe it is, but Bartolome makes it his own. So clean, so beautifully executed, all the elements coming together to do that umami thing. The salmon and dill gave the dish a Scandinavian cast rarely seen in the islands—with a bit of sweet earthiness from the ‘ulu. That ingredient definitely should have gotten more play, but the dish was so balanced as is, I turned a blind eye. (So fickle, yah?)
Chef: James McDonald, executive chef i‘o, pacific‘o restaurants Farmers: Lynn and Russell DeCoite, L&R Farm, Moloka‘i
Dish: Sweet potato gnocchi with heirloom tomato and
Judges’ decision: didn’t place
My decision: Third place
Doesn’t look like much, huh? But wow it packed elemental flavors that all came together in a way that made me wish I had a bowlful of it. Gnocchi was on the gummy side, something that could be worked on. I wish this was on a menu somewhere.
Chef: Chris Schobel, executive chef, Hula Grill Ka‘anapali Farmer: Kekai Keahi and Willy Wood, taro lo‘i Honokohau
Dish: Kalua pork laulau with taro fries and coconut-taro sauce, sous vide taro stems and cilantro oil drizzle
Judges’ decision: Didn’t place
My decision: Honorable mention
Schobel gets an honorable mention from me for showcasing his locally grown ingredient the most, and doing it trying to update a Hawaiian food staple.
Where to stay
Old Wailuku Inn at Ulupono, 2199 Kaho‘okele St, 808-244-5897
Practically just down the road from the fest is this grand converted plantation-style house. Run by kama‘aina Janice and Tom Fairbanks, Janice is like your fun, kooky aunt who can talk to anyone about anything and she’s not shy about asking you personal questions. And this isn’t some amateur I-always-wanted-to-run-a-BandB operation. Tom was a longtime food-and-beverage director for Inter-Continental Hotels. So the place—situated in a residential neighborhood with one-lane streets—is a combination of island-relaxed and hitting all your needs in a stylish way. You get a key and can come and go as you please. Get a room in the main house if you can, instead of the annex on the other side of the parking lot. Rooms are $165-$195, check for seasonal specials.