Story by Becky Speere | Photo by Soley Aloha
There is a certain type of student who enters the field of culinary arts with a clear vision of becoming a chef. Taylor Ponte was such a student. In UH Maui College’s Culinary Arts Program, he was always eager to volunteer, came early to class, stayed late, and learned outside the classroom. He read cookbooks avidly and followed the careers of notable chefs. He was not afraid of challenges. He dove into the prestigious Chaine de Rotisseurs Young Chef Competition, seizing the opportunity to transform the contents of a mystery basket into a three-course menu in just three-and-a-half hours. He was inspired by his peers and became a protégé of Jonathan Mizukami, another UH Maui culinary school graduate who had gone on to become a sous chef at The French Laundry and executive chef of Vintage Cave Restaurant, then touted as O‘ahu’s top culinary venue. Ponte spent a summer with Mizukami, staging at Vintage Cave.
At Mill House restaurant in Waikapū Valley, Ponte’s rise has been swift: He was first hired to be the executive sous chef, then chef de cuisine, then executive chef, the post he holds now. His childhood in Upcountry Maui instilled a deep understanding of local foods, local cultures, local tastes, and at Mill House, Ponte has put that knowledge to work, crafting a menu that elevates and celebrates Maui as it offers inventive and unique dishes like taro risotto and pork musubi and smoked fish profiteroles. Every Saturday night Mill House holds a Chef’s Table dinner, which features course after course that demonstrates Ponte’s proficiency in his chosen profession.
In the spring of 2010—just ten years ago—Ponte was a high school senior preparing to graduate from King Kekaulike High School in Pukalani. This year the twenty-eight-year-old is the ‘Aipono Chef of the Year. Ten years from now, who knows where he’ll be? But wherever he is and whatever he’s doing, we feel confident it will be a success.
Every year Maui’s chefs vote to elect one of their own the ‘Aipono Chef of the Year, seeking the peer that most inspires them with creativity, knowledge, craftsmanship, innovation and community involvement. Here’s what a few chefs had to say about this year’s winner:
“Chef Taylor’s broad precise skill set, commitment to hard-working local food producers, and seemingly endless ability to make something common new again constantly leaves me inspired and in awe.”
—Jana McMahon, Chef/owner, ChefJana.com
“I love Taylor’s energy and passion for cooking and his love of the Islands’ bounty of produce.”
—Craig Dryhurst, Executive Chef, Four Seasons Maui
“Taylor is an inspiration.”
—Paris Nabavi, Chef/owner, Pizza Paradiso