Maui chef and restauranteur Mark Ellman co-formed the Hawaiʻi Regional Cuisine Movement and launched 17 restaurants with the help of his family, partners and friends.
by CARLA TRACY
Maui Nō Ka ʻOi Magazine
Acclaimed Maui chef/restaurateur Mark Craig Ellman, 67, of Frida’s Mexican Beach Cantina, passed away peacefully during his sleep on Sunday, Feb. 26, at his home in Lahaina.
Originally from Southern California, Ellman began flipping burgers at Texas Tommy’s in Topanga Canyon as a teenager. In 1977, Ellman and his wife, July Ellman, founded the Los Angeles catering company called Can’t Rock ‘n’ Roll, But Sure Can Cook, creating dishes for the likes of Neil Diamond, the Beach Boys and Frankie Valli.
Continuing his climb up the restaurant and chef ladder, Ellman moved to Maui in 1985, and a few years later opened Avalon Restaurant & Bar in the former whaling port of Lāhainā. It was there that he banded with 11 other chefs to form the Hawaiʻi Regional Cuisine Movement, which put the aloha state on the world restaurant map for the first time. The group included notables Sam Choy, Roy Yamaguchi, Roger Dikon, Beverly Gannon, George Mavrothalassitis and others.
“Mark Ellman was one of a kind,” said Gannon, who recently sold Haliʻimaile General Store and Gannon’s: A Pacific View restaurant on Maui. “One of the most positive, thoughtful, generous people I have ever known. He always took the high road. Never a bad word about anything or anybody. He was that guy.”
In 1993, Ellman and partner Shep Gordon opened their first of several Maui Tacos restaurants, which they franchised and sold to the Blimpie’s chain before it went all over the U.S. In addition, the Ellmans opened Penne Pasta Cafe in Lāhainā along with Mala Ocean Tavern with their daughters Ariana Guarnier and Michelle Ellman. In 2006, Ellman replicated his latest concept with partner Gordon as Mala Wailea. They hired “Top Chef” fan favorite Sheldon Simeon to shine at Mala’s lobby lounge, Migrant. Mala Wailea partners included shock rocker Alice Cooper, basketball legend Don “Nelly” Nelson, music icon Willie Nelson and Oscar-winner Clint Eastwood.
“I met Mark and Judy in 1988 at Avalon, his first restaurant on Maui … and Maui’s first great meal using local ingredients … unheard of in 1988. I knew on first meeting that I had met a kindred soul, and that got stronger and stronger till the weekend of his passing,” Gordon said.
Gordon continued: “He was the perfect partner and friend. He loved Maui only second to his family. He cooked at my house dozens of times with chefs from around the world, and his dish always tasted the best, no matter what he made or who else was cooking. I’m sure it was because of all the aloha and love he put in every dish he made.”
In 2011, the Ellmans opened Honu Seafood & Pizza next door to Māla Ocean Tavern, which they sold recently. The family opened Frida’s Beach House in Lāhainā, their 17th restaurant, in 2015 and still operate it.
Ellman has been featured on such TV shows as “Emeril,” “The Today Show,” and the Discovery Channel’s “Great Chefs of Hawaiʻi.” He has been featured in “Bon Appetit” and “Food & Wine” magazines and wrote a book and founded the nonprofit organization, both with the same name: “Practice Aloha.”
As everyone that knew him can attest, Ellman was the epitome of someone who practiced aloha daily, and he touched countless people around him with his kindnesses.
Gordon continues that, “I dreamed last night Mark was making his famous paella in my house as he did so many times. Thank you, Mark, for always reminding me to be thankful for all the blessings we have. You will be missed my brother … save me a seat at the table. I’m sure wherever you are you are feeding people.”
Ellman is survived by his wife, Judy Ellman, daughters Ariana Guarnier and Michelle Ellman, grandchildren Tennyson and Amalie Guarnier, and sisters Gerry Ellman and Laurie Levinsky. A Celebration of Life will be held in April.