Hawaii Regional Cuisine celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. There was a time that tomatoes served in hotel restaurants were pink, everything was flown or shipped in until twelve chefs created a culinary revolution by organising and working with local farmers to grow what they’d guarantee to buy and cook. The group formed, the plan worked and Hawaii Regional Cuisine was born. Tonight I’m putting on my lipstick and heading out to celebrate by dining at one of the 12 original HRC chefs stellar restaurants Chef Mavro — won’t you come too?
10 minutes from the Waikiki Hilton Hawaiian Village Resort and we are sailing through the door of Chef Mavro into an oasis of soft colour and divine aromas. Chef George Mavrothalassitis’ restaurant, Chef Mavro, evokes a sense of Hawaii without resorting to overt florals or kitschy colours. Working with famed Hawaii designer Mary Philpotts McGrath, Mavro has selected tasteful artwork, sedate lighting and a complementary colour- way that serves as a serene stage for his food.
On his first day in Honolulu 23 years ago he was already in love with Hawaii. He says, ” I awoke at sunrise, looked out over Waikiki Beach to Diamond Head and said to myself — ‘that’s it, I’m home!'”
Indeed he was. Born on the port in Marseilles, in the sunny south of France, George grew up with just-picked produce on nearby farms and the freshest fish from Mediterranean waters. His culinary passion moved him through numerous kitchens training with masters of French cuisine. The award-winning contemporary Hawaii regional cuisine at Chef Mavro is the culmination of his experience as owner of gourmet restaurants in Marseilles and Restaurant La Presqu’ile in Cassis, France and running Hawaii’s top kitchens at Halekulani and Four Seasons Maui as ” a working executive chef,” as he is fond of saying.
During an interview I ask him about Mavro’s and he lets me in on a bit of local lore, “On my way to work at the Halekulani many years ago, I would pass this restaurant as it was being constructed. I always knew that it was the perfect spot for my restaurant.” After that concern went up for sale over twelve years ago, Chef Mavro jumped in. “I took over the restaurant all by myself, no investors. My wife Donna and I own it.” His publicist wife Donna shares with me, “Chef Mavro is the only independently owned Hawaii restaurant to earn the American Automobile Association AAA – Five Diamond Status (2009, 2010 and 2011,) as well as the only Hawaii Restaurant with Gayot Three Toques 18/20 rating and is on Gayot’s Top 40 Restaurants in the U.S., and numerous other top 10 awards including ‘Top 10 Restaurants in the World’ voted by food editors of Fodors Guidebooks. Chef Mavros is the only fine dining establishment in America to be honored by United Fresh the fresh produce trade organisation for innovative and influential use of fresh produce.”
She also shares, “Even though chef has garnered a room full of awards, he says that he starts with nothing each morning and gives 100% to the challenges of the day.”
As we sit back and enjoy our first course of Marinated Bigeye Ahi with picholine olive tapenade, quail egg-sauce verte, espelette paired with a superb 2009 Rosé Tavel Chateau de Segries, our waiter offers Chef Mavro’s best regards from New York City where he and his staff are preparing his 12th James Beard Dinner. We assure him that everything is perfect and are excited to taste the next course a Day Boat Catch Bourride “Moderne” Medallion poached in bourride, leek and onion étuvée, aioli sabayon served with sea asparagus tempura.
Our waiter tells us about our lively well-balanced rosé and points out with a twinkle in his eye that its deep rose- red colour is the same as the cut flowers, tropical red ginger in a vase just behind us. With so much thought put into food and pairings here at Chef Mavro, can this be a coincidence?
We breeze through the rest of the courses savouring each morsel and sip. When the last bite of Mocha Truffle mignardise has disappeared, we depart deeply satiated and knowing we have just experienced something magical. And we know we must return. We just have to. Bravo Chef Mavro!
What follows is an interview in part with Chef Mavro – his passion and love for what he does is best told in his own words.
CityRoom: What is your culinary ideology?
Chef Marvo: Cook fresh from the local market. We do not have a freezer!
CR: Is organic as important to you as local? Or for your requirements are they one and the same?
CM: No, the organic umbrella covers a lot more that I am interested in; such as hydroponic, green house. I’m most interested by produce from the soil and the sun. There is no miracle in Hawaii which is a paradise for humans but also for bugs. Anyway I do not tolerate pesticides, but I’m not specially looking for 100% organic.
CR: “Flying-in” and “shipping- in”; these words began a quiet revolution in Hawaii called Hawaii Regional Cuisine, as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of HRC can you describe how you crystallized this common idea between the 12 original HRC chefs?.
CM: 22 years ago, when I first came to Hawaii I had to import 80% of the products from the mainland. Today I am using more than 80% local. Buy local, cook with an Island flair.
CR: Perhaps you would mention something about the other 11 chefs that began the HRC movement throughout Hawaii?
CM: Of course I am happy to mention them. Even we are very different in style and ethnicity; we all cook with the same philosophy. San Choy has very Hawaiian style. Roy, Pacific fusion with a strong Japanese influence, Alan Wong, sophisticated local flair, myself a Provence/French background?
CR: You are a supporter of new talent coming up through the culinary programs as teacher and mentor. What value do you place on educating young chefs?
CM: as my team in the kitchen is good. We change the menu every season, new ingredients, new techniques, new trends. My young team keeps me on my toes!
CR: Other than simply tasting your creations, what value do you place on educating your customers?
CM: None, I run a restaurant, not a school. I have zero tolerance for front of the house attitude. If a guest decides that his wine is corky we replace the wine and apologise even if the wine is not corky! Same for the food, if a guest doesn’t like a dish we replace it; we don’t say to the guest: “this is the way chef wants it!”
CR: You have long-term relationships with your farmers; what is the range of food being produced for Chef Mavro locally?
CM: I consider my farmers as partners. We are as good as our farmers are good.
I have been working with Sumida watercress farm since the first day I visited the farm 22 years ago and I make sure to include their watercress in some way on every new seasonal menu. We use 85% of local ingredients!
CR: Staff said everyone gets to help suggest, taste and ultimately have a vote in the selection of wines. How do you do it?
CM: With the staff we have created a wine pairing committee. It is a very democratic process; no bias, no friends, no favourite countries. It’s a blind tasting and the best pairing wins based on which wine pairing gets the most votes-no discussion!
CR: Why are your Lilikoi Malasadas still so popular?
CM: This is in one dish the flavours of Hawaii: lilikoi, guava, coconut, pineapple, vanilla!
It’s the only recipe we still have in the menu since the opening, (even though I cannot stand this dish anymore.) I am happy that our guests still love it. Also if I remove the malasadas from the menu; my wife will divorce me!
CR: Your wife Donna is your biggest fan and delights in sharing your story and passion for food. Can you give me a comment?
CM: I love her too!
CR: What is your favourite meal?
CM: Octopus salad (this must be from my Greek ancestors)
CR: What about a professional tip for the home cook?
CM: When you cook fish, make sure it’s very fresh. Fresh fish doesn’t smell fishy. And don’t overcook it. I always say if you like your fish well done, eat something else please!</p>
CR: What was(is) the highlight of your career?
CM: James Beard Chef Award in 2003… and the Gayot Guide designation of 18/20 for several years in a row now.
CR: If you were going to give one tip for aspiring chefs, what would it be?
CM: This profession takes much more that you think.
Click here for a recipe for Chef Mavro’s recipe for Cumin Seared Ahi with Waimea Vegetable Seviche with Anchovy Puree.
<strong><strong>By <a href="http://www.cityroom.com/stories/travel/contributing-writers-editors-photographers/#9">Michelle Morañha Winner</a>, for CityRoom.com. <br /><br /></strong></strong>
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