First Kaanapali Fresh Festival Lures Foodies to a Maui Retreat
21 years ago, a dozen Hawaiian chefs set out to define something bewilderingly vast called Hawaii Regional Cuisine. While you had seemingly unlimited freedom to fuse cooking styles and techniques, the goal was to use the freshest local ingredients, where possible. At the time, that made for a shorter list of suppliers.
Two decades later, Hawaii is sprouting food-related festivals that often showcase full farm-to-table menus, to the surprise and delight of rare-to-well-done visitors shuffling in from the beach in search of dinner. The second Hawaii Food & Wine Festival is this weekend; last weekend saw the launch of Kaanapali Fresh, which also bids to become an annual event. (“Did you know? There are more than 1,100 farms and 150 ranches on Maui.”)
To give you an idea of the draw, I had never been to any Hawaiian island before traveling to Maui for Kaanapali Fresh (after Starwood Hawaii came to town, they got back in touch with an invitation to attend the festival and stay at a reduced rate–the flight was on me).
With the onset of Facebook and real-time vacation-photo uploading, it’s been harder and harder to ignore Hawaii’s existence during Seattle’s gray stretches. (Mid-winter, you sometimes wonder if anyone’s left in town at all, outside of Starbucks staff and injured snowboarders.)
But a whole vacation of beach, blankets, and bingo is just not in my wheelhouse. It was the temptation of wining and dining on the fat (and taro) of the islands that got me to plan a long Labor Day weekend trip.
Kaanapali Fresh wasn’t as outsized an experience as the Hawaii Festival, but it came with an impressive itinerary: the event began on a Friday with a Progressive Kaanapali dinner (appetizers, dinner, and dessert in three locations), continued with a farm-to-table extravaganza on Saturday night, and culminated with a lower-key beer-barbecue-and-music celebration on Sunday, featuring Third Eye Blind.
You could also go on a coffee plantation tour, shop at a farmer’s market at Whalers Village, take in a champagne brunch, and learn about infused cocktails. (Save up for next year’s installment: early-bird packages went for $365, so if you put aside about $30 per month, you should be all set.) On its inaugural year, the Progressive Kaanapali evening and Moonlight Concert sold out.
On the evidence, it helps if your “first annual” anything is backed by the Kaanipali Beach Resort Association, who are used to convention-sized logistics. There were no absurd lines or shortages, and substantial thought had been given to your comfort and convenience. Despite being held in the open air on the Royal Kaanapali Golf Course (you were directed to the 3rd green), Saturday’s Food & Wine Festival came with arrangements of sofas you could relax into, as well as taller café tables for the stand-and-eaters.
It would be unfair to compare the setting to festivals elsewhere, as Kaanapali makes you feel like you’re in a movie from sunrise to sunset. Sustained breezes in the mid-70-degree evenings blew napkins and empty cups about, but also fanned palm trees against the sky. Every evening was punctuated by a rush of the camera-bearing toward a luminous sunset.
If you can attend just one event, and local food is your interest, you can narrow your choice down to the first two dinners. The progressive dinner, with its on-the-move highlights, holds its own with the major food and wine festival night–the Westin Maui Resort & Spa outdid itself, thanks to the talents of chefs Garret Fujieda and Francois Milliet.
But if you’re interested in chatting with farmers, chefs, and winemakers (as well as sampling their work), the festival night is the clear winner. The actual winner of the Food & Wine Festival was Francois Milliet, of the Westin Ocean Resort Villas, who with partner Chef Wesley Holder and L&R Ranch won gold for his Molokai sweet potato with wild boar bacon dish. Silver went to Chef James Domingo, of Leilani’s on the Beach, partnered with Watanabe Produce, for his sous-vide pork belly tossed in truffle unagi sauce appetizer.
According to my informal polling, this year’s musical winner was featured slack key guitarist Makana, who was the topic of all the non-food-related conversation for the rest of the weekend.