Hawaii’s culture of cuisine is as diverse as its setting is inspiring. Surrounded by lush tropical landscapes and brilliant blue waters, it is no wonder local culinary artists are masterfully creative. Elevating traditional dishes by incorporating ambrosial tropical produce, they add an element of Hawaii in all that they do. From artful savory dishes to fragrant specialty cocktails, the premiere chefs and mixologists on Maui—Ginniberries, Merriman's, Tommy Bahama and Garnish Events—share their passion for food and spirits that are as visually exquisite as they are delicious.
If quality is any indication, Tommy Bahama’s manifestation of island luxury cuisine is second to none. As General Manger Robert Aspaas of Maui’s Wailea location explains, “We fashioned a lifelong philosophy of leisure...Tommy Bahama has grown to represent the good life in all its wonderful forms.” Creating an experience that lends itself to tropical indulgence is their inclusive mission. By sourcing products locally, they’re able to offer a wide variety of ‘Island Inspired American’ dishes, including vegetarian and gluten free options as well. With a menu that continues to evolve, their local fish specialty featuring a tropical fruit beurre blanc has become a true Tommy Bahama signature.
They aim to give guests a relaxing, enjoyable experience through their expert service and innovative cuisine. Aspaas adds, “We pride ourselves on an audible sigh of relief when we greet guests with a mai tai, a tray of coconut shrimp or ahi tuna tacos. This is achieved through constant contact with clients, event coordinators and wedding planners, striving to show them how versatile we can be while always staying true to the Tommy Bahama brand.”
Pioneering the culinary industry is no simple feat, as visionary chef and restaurateur Peter Merriman knows. Over the course of 20 years, he realized that the perfect culinary marriage meant not only a harmonious union of flavors and textures, but an intimate relationship between the chef and his food. In doing so, he became the first in Hawaii to enact the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, bypassing large distributors in favor of personal relationships with the farmers and ranchers themselves. As an artist whose simple and authentic island flavors are a product of the tropical environment, Merriman has proven his culinary success and honors his respect for organic ingredients with handcrafted detail.
Merriman’s awe-inspiring Kapalua location is perfect for on-site weddings, enhanced by an award-winning menu. Their wok-charred ahi with won bok cabbage slaw and a wasabi dipping sauce is a Merriman’s original, as well as their crispy mahi mahi ponzu with sesame grilled shiitake mushrooms. Public Relations Director Elizabeth Ferrer notes their unique use of taro, a traditional staple in Hawaii. “We use a lot of taro in our dishes. It is unexpected and versatile- definitely something you will not find anywhere else.” Merriman’s brilliant pan sautéed taro cakes and beautiful local vegetables served with a delicate tomato ginger coulis is not only wonderfully innovative, but a hearty vegetarian option. Ferrer encourages couples to be adventurous with unique seasonal ingredients, but most importantly to create an experience. “Years from now your guests will remember the location and the food. They won’t remember favors and other such details. Focus on warm ambience and stand out cuisine—those will never be forgotten.”
Like Merriman, Michelle Nakaya drew inspiration from her farm-to-table childhood in rural Minnesota when establishing her catering company Ginniberries in 1996. “To me, food is an experience—you see texture and color, smell, taste...it’s a sensory experience,” she says. Nakaya creates a simple, clean aesthetic in the composition of her contemporary dishes, while maintaining that same complexity in her flavors. Two of her signature dishes have become proven crowd favorites: pancetta tenderloin and Kona coffee tenderloins, both of which are rich and savory, served with sweet Maui onion jam. Then there's the herbaceous fish lau lau, delicately steamed in parchment with earthy shiitake mushrooms, taro leaves and a coconut chili sauce, a testament to the Asian-Pacific Rim flavors of the Islands. For Nakaya, catering preparations begin with the bride and groom. She meets with clients to personalize a menu to their taste and theme. “I try to get a sense of where they’re from, what their background is, even what their favorite restaurants are, so that I get an idea of their preferences and taste. I encourage them to allow the food to be an expression of themselves.” Love is in the details, thus she ensures an understanding of theme by taking into account the overall aesthetics of the venue so she can incorporate personal details into the flavors and styling of the food.
Steph Smith, owner of Garnish Events, echoes Nakaya's sentiments and impeccable attention to detail. Unlike most catering companies, however, Smith chose to focus on one seemingly overlooked aspect of celebration. Self-described as boutique cocktail caterers, Garnish uses the same personalized approach when preparing for an event by specifically focusing on the importance of the cocktail hour before the meal, which ultimately sets the tone for the rest of the reception. “The drink is a craft itself and deserves the attention to look and taste beautiful, so the bar is an experience on many levels. We want people to come within ten feet and smell the oil from the orange peels, sweet basil and fresh lilikoi puree.”
Some of their most successful cocktails have been inspired classics spiked with a unique island flair. “Barefoot in the Garden is one of the drinks people love and is an unexpected pairing. It combines muddled cucumber and cilantro, fresh squeezed lime juice, simple syrup, elderflower liqueur and tequila and is garnished with cilantro.” But for guests who want something they’re more comfortable with, Garnish can oblige...with a fresh twist, of course. “The Passion Love is another wedding favorite as it is reminiscent of a fresh, local cosmopolitan. We mix fresh passion fruit, lime and cranberry juices with vodka and a ginger sugar rim.” Garnish insists that mixology is an art; to create perfectly balanced cocktails in the most beautiful, decorative way. For this reason, never will a store-bought alcohol bottle be seen on their bars, but rather displayed in distinguished decanters, served in rustic mason jars or vintage champagne coupes. Smith hopes to create a carefree, whimsical environment for guests to enjoy delicious, elegant cocktails. “We want them to experience them in their entirety,” she insists. “To drink them in with their eyes and breathe in their scent.”
The most invaluable characteristic of each company is their deep respect for the Islands and the extraordinary local ingredients they produce. Their success lies in maintaining the integrity of organic products and marrying them in fusions that are fresh, simple and perfectly balanced. Tommy Bahama, Merriman’s, Ginniberries and Garnish manage to creatively showcase unique tropical flavors into classic dishes, giving birth to revolutionary cuisines that are each distinctive. Their attention to artistic detail is evident in the lovely composition of their drinks and plates, and when planning for the most important day of your life, every detail counts. As Steph Smith believes, “There’s room for beauty everywhere."