Interactive Dining at Maui Chef’s Table

Upon arrival to the Waikapu Valley in central Maui, we passed charming modest plantation style bungalows while the majestic green mountains loomed in the distance. This land was once a bustling location for sugarcane production and commerce for over a hundred years. Waikapu was the home to the area’s plantation workers, many who came from around the world. We were en route to the Maui Tropical Plantation to experience the interactive Maui Chef’s Table, which began in 2011. Approaching the duck pond and fountains, next to the 4-year-old Mill House Restaurant on the property, we stood astonished in front of 12-ton gears reclaimed from the old sugar mill.

The views were unreal – swaying palm trees, flowers shooting their scent and color around us with the towering West Maui Mountains hugging the dreamy farmland landscape. A young Asian family donned in matching Aloha print Hawaiian shirts and sundresses were posing for pictures nearby.

My husband’s first inclination was to head to the outdoor bar for a pre-dinner cocktail while I just wanted to get lost in the lush landscape, roll in the grass, breathe deeply the air and environs. Everything felt alive. As he waited for a royal shrub cocktail (of course, cocktails are made from their plantation-raised herbs and fruit), I beelined in the opposite direction past the patio dinner seating towards the vast unsurpassed landscape. If I hadn’t been with my husband, I probably would have kept running! The sun was setting and basking the ethereal landscape with its golden hues. All I wanted was time to stand still.

Maui Chef’s Table was something no one had mentioned to me until I discovered it online. It’s not readily advertised. So, I wondered how Maui Chef’s Table would compare to city living. It exceeded all expectations.

The 900-acre Maui Tropical Plantation is filled with Hawaii’s finest produce – sweet potato, onion, pineapple, plumeria, lilikoi, bananas, lemons, papaya, mango, taro, salad greens, coconuts, eggplants, carrot, macadamia nut, avocado, corn, herbs, and more natural resources. After trying to capture the environment with some Instagram-worthy photos, we found our dinner place in the open-air lanai where we were directed to a table in the back with three other couples from San Francisco, New Jersey, and Boston, who were celebrating milestones like honeymoons or many years of marriage. Our multicourse meal began with a sparkling wine clink with our celebratory dinner guests and encouragement from the host to interact with the chefs, to get up and move around.

By supporting microclimates and local farms around Hawaii, produce for the dinner and restaurant comes not only from the 60 active acres from Kumu Farms on the plantation but also the surrounding Hawaiian Islands. While Kumu Farms grows over 35 crops, it is their non-GMO Sunrise Papaya that has put them on the map. Find fresh organic produce available for sale at their Plantation Farm Stand Monday through Saturday too.

The chefs closely collaborate with local farmers and fisherman who sometimes bring in rare and interesting seafood. Maui cattle beef is sourced from Hawaii Ranchers in Eastsider Hana although the plantation is often home to Texas Long Horn, Black Angus, Wangus and Wagyu cattle. Cattle ranching has long been a part of the owners’ family and the story of the land. Grass-fed cattle have stabilized abandoned hillside pastures filled with invasive plant species.

Also, Pacific Biodiesel farms sunflowers in the old sugar cane fields, for the production of cosmetics, cooking oil and biofuel – some of which is used at Maui Tropical Plantation. They are experimenting with growing chickpea and safflower as sustainable resources. The unexpected allure of the large blooming sunflower fields has resulted in more guests visiting the inner property to take “selfies” with the Maui Sunflowers.

As the night progressed, I found myself not wanting to get up from the table because I was enjoying the conversation and laughs with my new friends from other cities. It felt like a dinner party among friends. We were encouraged to visit the approachable chefs working in unison where their creative precision and placement of each food item happened like a dance or well-orchestrated song. Tweezers carefully placed microscopic items while sauces squirted assembly-line style. Each plate had been artistically thought out. Easy-going Chef Taylor Ponte worked alongside Courtney Leigh, Alisha-Rose Marquis, and Donovan Macinnis while they told us stories of their training and how they ended up in Maui. New ingredients for an LA girl popped up in dishes like jabuticaba in the ricotta, which is a grape-like fruit that grows on the trunks of trees. The well-loved Hawaiian tangy fruit – lilikoi – appeared as the dessert sorbet flavor donned with lemon balm, star anise, and mac nut milk.

Our three-hour communal dining experience included six deliciously simple (but complex) dishes with a course of luscious bread that arrived with butter – sprinkled with black sea salt. The chefs discussed each plate before serving the local delicacies and surprises. The first course is what I call the “whet your whistle” course, the teaser to get your palette ready. The amuse-bouche consisted of a colorful bite on a toasted crisp dressed with chili lime yogurt, mini cucumber balls, caviar, and a mixture of herbs, nuts, and spices known as dukkah.

The Hawaiian kanpachi (yellowtail fish) was my favorite course, simply cooked over local mesquite with sweet corn and summer squash. Head cheese was an unexpected second course, and surprisingly the meat jelly made with the flesh from the head of a pig, paired with sweet potato greens, yolk curd, and star fruit was a flavorful medley. The strip loin drizzled in bone marrow juice was plated for our last course with swiss chard and Ali’i oyster mushrooms. An occasional treat from afar presented itself like caviar or saffron butter sourced from Iran. Although dishes were small, we were pleasantly full by the end.

Fall into the magical world of Maui Tropical Plantation where Old Hawaii meets new – with a new sustainable future. The plantation’s local and timely ingredients growing a few feet away from the kitchen culminate in a Chef’s Table experience that becomes varied, endlessly creative, and unique to the island of Maui.

Each week the Chef’s Table offers a different theme prepared with in-season ingredients. Held once a week on Saturdays, tax and gratuity are included in the price ($150) as well as bread and coffee, but alcohol is not included except the first sparkling wine toast. Guests can order cocktails or paired wine with each course for an additional cost. Allergies or dietary restrictions cannot be accommodated.

Try to schedule a night at the Chef’s Table at least two weeks in advance. If you can’t attend a Chef’s Table, consider a visit to the Mill House Restaurant to enjoy the property and sit at the edge of the terrace facing the landscape. The food is just as delicious and there is no fee to enter. Happy Hour times will score you $10 dishes. Other opportunities on the plantation include plantation tours, Tropical Express tram rides, a zip line, and visiting the Millhouse Roasting Company and Plantation Store.

Don’t miss this stop on your next Maui adventure. It’s worth it – a night you’ll never forget!

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