This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend a new Maui food festival, Fire It Up! This beachside barbecue bonanza showcased some of the premier pitmasters from around the country. Hailing from locales where cooking over wood and charcoal is just as big a way of life as here in the islands—like North Carolina, Denver and Dallas—these chefs were masters of the open flame. Mix in tremendous cocktails, wine, bourbon and beer; a local celebrity traditionally preparing food fit for ali’i; a dash of Hawaiian chants, live music and special DJ set; tied together with a gorgeous South Maui sunset/full moon rise—and you had the recipe for a perfect evening!
Ho’olei and Grand Wailea, Best of Neighbors!
After a full day of work at Ho’olei, the newest member of our team and long time friend, Carl Middleman, and I made the quick trip across the street to the Grand Wailea, and down to the ever-inviting Spa Grande. With its myriad salt baths, marvelous massaging waterfalls, cold plunges, bubbling hot baths, steams, Jacuzzi, detox teas and more, the facility is world-class. I am too lucky to have such a relaxing place nearby after a hard day’s work, and everytime I go, can’t help but feel the strong bond between the 2 communities.
After the spa, we cruised down to the lawn towards the luau grounds where the festivities were taking place. This walk was a treat in itself, highlights being the backlit water feature and dolphin sculptures, always picturesque stained glass chapple, and adult pool with gorgeous orchid mosaic tiling. Grand Wailea truly is one of the most luxurious resorts on island, and I feel grateful to spend any amount of time there. Simply walking the grounds, admiring the artwork, architecture, and beautiful surroundings, solidify it as five stars in my mind. If you’re interested in staying here, be sure to check out this list of the 10 things you need to know before visiting the Grand Wailea.
Chef Hubert Keller and his famous Burger
Arriving at the luau lawn, the first station we visited starred Chef Hubert Keller, founder of Burger Bar and executive chef at Fleur, Las Vegas. I dined at Fleur last year before the Michael Jackson show at the Mandalay Bay and was blown away by the flavors. With high expectations, I bit into what was not quite a slider, not a full sized burger, but nevertheless, all perfection. The patty was super tasty, the truffle aioli hit all those right notes, and his whole team exuded positivity and love of barbecue. Furthermore, with the Maui Brewing Company van right behind him, it a made great starting combo. I mean who doesn’t love a burger and beer, quite the first impression to this already awesome fest!
Local Refreshments and Longtime Friends
The center of the festival grounds featured a square bar, showcasing seasoned local bartenders, many of whom I’m lucky enough to call friends, like Laurie Beitler. She was mixing tropical cocktails with local spirits, pouring high-end bourbons to pair with the meats, as well as cracking open cans of Maui Brewing’s limited release, the ultra tasty Mango Hefeweizen, and exclusive-to-the-resort, Grand Wailea Gose. As is usually the case, this bar was the center of socializing, and I was happy to run into Fred, a long time friend, and client. We talked story, caught up with each other’s lives, and finished with some hearty belly laughs, as we both noticed our goatees were a little grayer than the last time we met.
Hosting Chef Ryan Urig and his Talented Team
Grand Wailea chef’s served as the host team. Lead by Executive Chef Ryan Urig and flanked by: Executive Sous Chef Jorge Gonzalez, Executive Pastry Chef Christian Brassfield, Chef de Cuisine at Humuhumunukunukuapua’a Mike Lofaro, and Chef de Cuisine of Bistro Molokini, Adam Rzeczkowski. No doubt, these were the cream of the crop from the resort’s kitchens.
Chef Ryan clearly enjoyed hosting this assortment of talented chefs and pitmasters and came up with some fabulous dishes in his own right. The showstopper at his station was the huge drum that he roasted a whole boar over, then turned to chili! His beer can chicken was also supremely juicy. He was in a festive mood playing host, but his food was by no means an afterthought. Both dishes tantalized the taste buds, highlighted by that chili, which had the perfect amount of spice.
The rest of the Grand Wailea team certainly impressed too! Gonzales, whose love of Mexican street food shined, wowed with carnitas tacos, roasted corn, and fresh Maui fruit. Brassfield stuck to his sweet spot with adult s’mores, cobbler and cornbread. Rzeckowski showed South American flare with Argentinian Asada style rotisserie goat and fire-roasted Molokai sweet potatoes. And Lofaro took care of the many enjoyable pupu.
Chef Justin Brunson Grilled Masterful Lamb Chops
Hailing from a family farm in Iowa, Justin Brunson has always had a connection with hunting, fishing, gardening, and agriculture. Now he’s Executive Chef/Owner of Brunson & Co, a family of restaurants around Denver, headlined by the critically acclaimed Old Major and Masterpiece Kitchen. The night of the festival happened to fall on his 38th birthday. He was so full of good vibes, enjoying his trip.
His dishes were a particular highlight for me. The humanely sourced Colorado lamb, with Harissa and Cucumber Tzatziki, was the star of the entire festival. Quite possibly the best I’ve ever had! Word spread quickly just how awesome this place was, and his food was going fast. This meant he was one of the first to “sell out”, so he enjoyed the festivities a little earlier, and sampled all the other chef’s creations with his favorite libation, a glass of bourbon. Can’t say enough about the flavors of his lamb, the overall presentation, and above all else, his jolliness and exuberance for life—Happy Birthday Chef!
Seafood & Maui Celebrity Chef Sheldon Simeon
As we had been exclusively indulging in heartier dishes up to that point, a change of pace to seafood offered great balance. First up was the booth of Chef John Tesar, Executive Chef at Knife in Dallas, Texas. It was right next to Chef Justin’s table and the two seemed like old friends laughing and taking the time to enjoy the event.
While Chef John was also whipping up some mean looking beef ribs, I opted for one of my favorite foods at the moment, grilled he’e. He hung his Hawaiian octopus about a foot over the grilling area, to cook slowly, then finished in the pan with pork belly. Man oh man, was this the goods! The he’e was supremely tender, had great char, and rested atop a tasty green herb dressing. I could’ve indulged in this for the rest of the night!
I was getting pretty full at this point but knew there was one last booth I had to try, Maui’s own celebrity Chef, Sheldon Simeon. The Top Chef alumni and finalist is undoubtedly a leading face in Hawaii Regional Cuisine, and for good reason. The force behind the wildly successful Star Noodle in Lahaina, and Migrant in Wailuku, now runs Tin Roof in Kahului, off Dairy Rd. If you haven’t been, I’d suggest going immediately! But a review of Tin Roof, this article is not (although be sure to be looking out for a Best Restaurants in Kahului list, in the similar vein of our Best Restaurants in Paia, soon!)
This was all about his traditionally prepared moi. Once reserved strictly for ali’i kane (men of royalty), this fish is enjoyed by kama’aina and visitor alike. Here, Chef Sheldon grilled the fish wrapped in ti leaf, before finishing on hot lava rocks. Melting in your mouth upon contact, and accompanied by some delicious poi, this was the quintessential Hawaiian dish of the evening. His celebrity status was never in doubt—his cuisine, infectious laugh and smile drew quite the crowd!
Makana, Sunset and Surprise DJ Under the Full Moon
I wholeheartedly subscribe to the belief that music makes any event that much better, and this was no exception! Makana is a guitar virtuoso, matched by beautiful lyrics, catchy melodies, and lovely voice. He was backed by a bevy of talented friends whose combined power and passion were perfect preludes to another picturesque Wailea sunset.
It’s no secret why people from all over the world want to buy real estate in Wailea, or purchase a condo in Kihei for that matter. The sunsets, and surrounding “golden hour”, rival anywhere in the world. And this night, we weren’t only blessed with a magnificent array of sherberts and pastels, but also a spectacular full moon rise.
As the sun dipped into the depths of the Pacific for her nightly sleep, a glorious moon rose from the horizon. At this time, a traditional Hawaiian chant was performed, blessing all involved and welcoming the participating chefs back to the stage. We cheered and celebrated their commitment to this new Maui food festival. Finally, it was announced that none other than Chef Hubert Keller was our special guest DJ, how cool! With full bellies and wide grins, we grooved and danced all night under the Maui moonlight.