Born and raised on Maui, chef Isaac Bancaco embarked on a grand adventure to begin his culinary career. Growing up in a family, and a culture, where food and history are so revered, Bancaco made the early decision to pursue a life on the line. Shortly after high school graduation, the chef departed for Portland to pursue his culinary education at the city’s Western Culinary Institute (now Le Cordon Bleu), finagling an externship at Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger in Boston and working four years through the restaurant’s kitchen ranks before heading back to his native Hawaii. Now the Chef de Cuisine at the Grand Wailea’s often lauded Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, or “Humuhumu” for short, the young chef manages to have a stronghold on a busy hotel restaurant operation, and fearlessly leads the kitchen with ease.
“We do anywhere from 250-325 covers a night. We’re staffed with six cooks plus myself. I have three food runners at all time, three busboys, eight servers, two lounge servers and two to three bartenders. Two to three hostesses at any given time,” he explained when we had a chance to chat during my visit to Wailea. “And one full time manager and a part time manager that helps us out on busier nights. So, we’re staffed.”
During my visit, he was kind enough to let me tag along on a tour of one of the local farms he works with to keep the kitchen at Humuhumu stocked with fresh ingredients. We embarked early one weekday, arriving just as the farm started to hum with production. Managed by farmers Walter Evonuk and Terry Chang, the thirty-acre Evonuk Farms, located in Kula, is nearly heaven on earth, with nothing but blue ocean just beyond the surrounding rolling hills.
“We grow a little bit of beans – french beans, yellow beans,” explained Terry on the tour. “Two different types of eggplant. Our main production is herbs. We have about twenty-five herbs that we grow year round. When we get to Thanksgiving and Christmas, that’s when it’s really busy.”
The two carry on a farming tradition started by Walter’s parents nearly twenty years ago, with help from a handful of part-time staff. Meeting on the mainland as architecture students, Walter and Terry made the move to Maui to continue with the family’s harvest. And despite the transition from city mouse to country mouse, Terry beamed as she explained their roles on the farm.
“He grew up here, and I spend most of my time in the shop – all the customer service, all the packing, all the orders. Once in a while, I’ll come out to help with the harvest, but mostly, I just make sure things get out and that our customers are happy.”
“He just has to make sure I have what I need,” she said, laughing.
“Sometimes with the weather, there’s nothing you can do about it. We’re always fighting with disease and bugs which never leaves the island. It’s always a struggle. Right now, we’re running into a new fungus disease on our basil that just came to Hawaii. The problem is, once it’s here, it’s here. Ed, my father-in-law, talks about how when he first started farming twenty years ago, he was growing tomatoes and zucchini – all these things we can’t grow anymore. But back then, he said you could just drop a seed in and it would grow like crazy, no bugs, no disease. Now, it’s just like, one by one, everything is getting harder and harder.”
I was curious if they’ve had to make regular adjustments to the type of products they’re growing because of it.
“Well, we’ve been doing herbs now, our bread and butter, for about twenty years now,” Walter noted. And we just have to make it work. We have to change the way we do things constantly, but we try to keep the same crops. It’s one of the things we pride ourselves on is having a very diverse, consistent herb farm.”
As we conversed later that evening – and I dug in to a few of Humuhumu’s signature dishes – Chef Bancaco explained why it was important to both him, and his diners, to work with local farmers and to honor all that Hawaii has to offer.
“Food was always a part of my upbringing and background. There are so many influences we’re raised on here in Maui – Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, Filipino, American obviously, and of course, Hawaiian. So, with all of those cultures combined, not only is it language and the ways of life, but also the food,” said Bancaco. “I was always very cultured in that sense, but I was always intrigued with the ability to recreate those different cultures, staying true to them. That’s what Ming taught me. He is Chinese by background, raised in America, but he’s very true to the training he received from Japanese and French chefs, and as a mentor to me, I was exposed to that. Here at Humuhumu, we try to adhere to that. There are a myriad of cultures we see here in Hawaii, and we do get innovative and creative but all within the realm of being Humu food, and being in Hawaii, and having an understanding of where we are and what our guests are looking for.”
*Many mahalos to the Grand Wailea Resort for inviting me to enjoy the property during my press trip to Maui.
**Photo credit: Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender
Pictured dishes, from top: sashimi of Japanese hamachi, Sake Kasu, Yuzu pickled Maui onions, cilantro (Evonuk), and crispy lotus; “vegan sashimi” of Kaffir lime-scented Moloka’i watermelon & Maui Gold pineapple, with pineapple mint (Evonuk); Humuhumunukunukuapua’a pan seared diver scallop with Thai basil blossoms (Evonuk), orange supremes & orange-grape reduction