Greg Gifford grew up on Cape Cod, feasting on the tomatoes, zucchini, rhubarb and other bounty that his mother would harvest from the family’s backyard garden; Greg’s contribution was the bones of the fish he caught in local waters, which he’d bury in the garden’s soil to provide it with nutrients. He entered the restaurant business at fourteen when he was hired as a dishwasher at a local diner. There, chef after chef hurled burnt pans at him, and he decided he’d rather have their job—which he now does, though through his thick New England accent he laughs, “But I’m doing right by the dishwashers! I don’t burn the pans.”
It was not long after Gifford graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1982 that a friend of his mother’s gave him the phone number of a guy on Maui named Dickie Moon. Gifford called Moon, who was then the VP of TS Restaurant Group. “If you come out, I can get you a job,” Moon promised. Gifford got on a plane, Moon kept his word, and three decades later, Gifford is still with the company, now as the head chef at Duke’s Beach House in Kā‘anapali. In this capacity, he has befriended Maui’s farmers, incorporating their produce into the dishes that leave his kitchen: rainbow baby carrots, sweet Kula greens, vivid cherry tomatoes. He uses Maui grown whenever he can: avocados, corn, bananas, mangoes, herbs, ti leaves.
“Farmers and chefs both work long hours,” Gifford says. “We build relationships out of the needs we have. Certain farmers love to farm and you can taste it. It’s not easy: Farmers on Maui deal with rainstorms, floods, drought, and land is definitely not cheap. They can’t do it alone and a wonderful way to support them is to put what they’re growing on the plates we’re serving.” It was Gifford’s stalwart commitment to Maui’s farmers that won him this year’s award. “We may have to rely on the Mainland for toilet paper,” he says, “but why for food?”