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These Chefs Are Transforming Hawaii’s Food Scene

Originally published in USA Today 10 Best

The casual visitor to Hawaii may be surprised to learn that a number of French chefs have been reimagining the islands’ cuisine by incorporating a variety of ingredients and culinary techniques that are traditionally associated with France.

This blending of distinct cooking styles has resulted in the creation of some delectable specialties that speak “aloha” with a French accent, ranging from fresh seafood dishes to inventive and delectable pastries.

Chef George Mavrothalassitis | Chef Mavro

Originally from Marseilles, France, chef George Mavrothalassitis is a James Beard award winner and the proprietor of the renowned eponymous Honolulu restaurant, Chef Mavro. An upscale establishment, it celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018.

With a menu that features seasonal French Hawaiian fusion accompanied by an exceptional wine list, Chef Mavro serves beautifully plated artful specialties with nuanced, complex flavors.

Chef Mavro's bigeye pokeChef Mavro’s bigeye poke — Photo courtesy of Chef Mavro

Mavrothalassitis explained, “The cuisine of Provence and the cuisine of Hawaii blend extremely well. I don’t mean the cream and butter sauces of northern France or classic French cooking, but rather the lighter fish and seafood-based dishes of the south.”

He has created several French-inspired recipes at his restaurant. One example is his signature onaga baked in a salt crust with a tomato-ogo-herb sauce, which is based on the traditional Provence method of baking fish in rock salt.

He explained, “In Hawaii, I discovered the onaga (the local red snapper) was perfect for this recipe. In France, I served the dish with sauce vierge, which is made with diced tomatoes, shallots, garlic, lots of olive oil and a combination of herbs such as chervil, chives and tarragon. While I was testing the recipe here, I realized that tarragon and ogo, the local Hawaiian seaweed, was giving my recipe a licorice flavor – totally delicious and totally unique. So, my onaga baked in rock salt with tomato ogo sauce was born.”

Chef George MavrothalassitisChef George Mavrothalassitis — Photo courtesy of Chef Mavro

Another Hawaiian recipe that’s served at Chef Mavro with a French flair is bigeye ahi poke with sake emulsion. He says, “At first, this seems like a totally Hawaiian dish with Japanese influence, when in fact it’s mostly French fusion. The recipe features diced ahi, similar to a tartare, flavored with olive oil, shallots and fresh herbs – instead of using sesame oil and green onion, which is Hawaiian-style. And we serve it with sake foam and nori chips.”

Chef Yuya Yamanaka | Paris + Hawaii

As the name suggests, Paris + Hawaii is a Honolulu restaurant that blends the best of these two culinary worlds. Opened in 2018, this modern restaurant is led by Chef Yuya Yamanaka and is an inventive amalgamation of these two destinations’ diverse gastronomic styles.

After completing culinary training in Osaka, Japan, Chef Yamanaka spent three years in Paris honing his skills. He arrived in Hawaii in 2016, drawn to the area for the incredible surfing, as well as access to excellent, local produce and proteins.

Dessert tart at Paris + HawaiiDessert tart at Paris + Hawaii — Photo courtesy of Paris + Hawaii

Not surprisingly, the entire menu of Paris + Hawaii is daring and delectable. One especially creative dish is Paris ahi poke, which is actually two separate dishes served together with a poached egg. The French influence is the beef tartare, made with Big Island grass-fed beef smoked with kiawe wood and topped with kukui nut powder. The Hawaii-focused element of this recipe is the ahi poke, lightly dressed with soy sauce.

Chef Yuya YamanakaChef Yuya Yamanaka — Photo courtesy of Paris + Hawaii

He notes, “When I came to Hawaii, it wasn’t necessarily about influencing Hawaiian cuisine. I came because of the natural beauty, the incredible produce, the year-round growing season. Hawaii is in many ways a blank canvas, and there is ample opportunity for growth and elevation. My intent initially was to provide a strict French cuisine, but construction delays allowed me time to experience the flavors. It has never really been about one cuisine or the other, it has always been about showcasing the amazing flavors available. It’s all about the taste.”

Chef Fabrice Benezit | Grand Wailea Resort

An award-winning pastry chef in France, chef Fabrice Benezit worked his culinary magic at several major US resorts before arriving in Maui in May 2018. He is the Executive Pastry Chef for the landmark property, the Grand Wailea – a Waldorf Astoria Resort.

Food lovers flock to the Sunday brunch at the hotel’s premier restaurant, Humuhumunukunukuapua’a (Humu’s for short, named after the reef triggerfish), where guests can taste an assortment of his exceptional breads, cakes, cookies, chocolates and other desserts, which are as visually appealing as they are delectable.

Beautiful pastries by chef BenezitBeautiful pastries by chef Benezit — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini

Many of his creative pastries are classic French delights with a Hawaiian spin, such as the Kona coffee éclairs, pineapple madeleines, and black raspberry macarons. Others include beignets (French doughnuts with Maui vanilla anglaise and powdered sugar), Maui gold pineapple flambé and rum cake in coconut shell, trifle Molokini (passion fruit syrup, Maui vanilla custard, dark chocolate, whipped cream, and roasted macadamia nuts), and zeppole (Italian doughnuts with Kula strawberry coulis).

He says, “I use my French recipes with a twist of Hawaiian flavors. I use Hawaiian ingredients as much as possible because Hawaii not only offers so many wonderful fruits, but also vanilla, unique flours such as taro, different roots and chocolate. There’s so much to learn, I think it’s a great combination for a chef.”

French Hawaiian pastries by chef BenezitFrench Hawaiian pastries by chef Benezit — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini

He added, “French style is about techniques and skills, the discipline and the respect of the products. For me, being in Hawaii, it’s a brand new world of flavor, a new culture, and learning new techniques they used centuries ago. In France, we are very thoughtful in our processes, whether it’s making cheese, wine, or croissants. I have learned that it is the same here in Hawaii…all the fresh markets I have encountered here have incredible products – it is sometimes overwhelming to think what I could create with all these flavors.”

Chef Alexandre Trancher | La Mer

Another gastronomic superstar, Alexandre Trancher is the chef de cuisine at La Mer restaurant, located inside the posh and elegant Halekulani Hotel on the legendary Waikiki Beach. Beginning his career in France, Trancher earned a degree in culinary arts from Ecole du Sacre Coeur in Saint-Chely d’Apcher.

He also held posts at Michelin-starred restaurants in Athens and Tokyo. He arrived in Hawaii in 2011 and has incorporated numerous Hawaiian traditions into his French style of cooking.

When creating new dishes, Chef Trancher selects a mix of seasonal ingredients and applies the appropriate cooking techniques to develop the right combinations of flavor and texture. While working on the island, Trancher has used his vast culinary knowledge of ingredients to reinvent some French-style specialties using local Hawaiian elements.

View of Halekulani, home of La Mer restaurantView of Halekulani, home of La Mer restaurant — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini

For example, at Le Mer, he makes a weke (fish) dish with macadamia nuts and daikon radish. In France, however, he would create the recipe with a rouget barbet fish, as it has a similar flavor profiles to the weke, and hazelnuts and navet instead of the macadamia nut and daikon.

A few of Le Mer’s signature dishes include: abalone with crispy onions and smoked bacon; roasted lamb with eggplant mousseline, lacquered pearl onion and lemon olive oil marmalade; and Chilean sea bass topped with baby leeks, caviar and Maltese mousseline sauce.

Trancher loves discovering new tastes and flavors and reveals that he is inspired by other chefs on the islands. He cooked in the 2018 Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, his third time participating in this annual event. Being around his local colleagues and celebrated chefs from all over the world always motivates him to create new dishes with global influences.

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