Shannon Wianecki | Photography by Jason Moore
Beneath two giant tents, guests linger over the succulent tri-tip pulehu (barbeque) steak served family-style. Outside, despite the light rain, the chef turns a few steaks on the grill for second helpings. The dinner we just enjoyed was perfect; best of all, the hostess didn’t have to do a thing, thanks to Chef Ralph Giles of Catering from Soup to Nuts.
For at least a decade, catering on Maui has been dominated by a handful of companies. Nowadays, thanks in part to the island’s booming wedding industry, a wide range of caterers and private chefs contend to make your culinary dreams come true.
But finding one of these professionals isn’t as easy as you might expect. Few advertise; most depend on word of mouth. Wowing your holiday guests with a sumptuous feast may require a little investigation. Never fear—here are clues to uncovering local chefs who will cater to your every whim.
Choose the Right Cook for the Job:
Caterer vs. Personal Chef
Caterers and personal chefs provide distinct services; choose one or the other according to the scope of your event and your personal taste. If you’re hosting a lu‘au for 200, hire a catering company. They operate out of commercial kitchens, employ wait staff, and supply equipment such as linens, silver, and serving dishes. Many can assist with acquiring tables and tents, even décor and music.
Personal chefs, on the other hand, are appropriate for more intimate dining occasions—that beachside table for two, or your cousin’s 40th birthday.
Personal chefs cook on-site: in your home, on the beach, or at the facility you’ve rented. Often engaged by a single family for weeks at a time, personal chefs can respond to family members’ individual tastes. They generally don’t supply linens or dishes, but do handle all the shopping, cooking, serving, and clean-up. When hiring a personal chef, choose someone you get along with, as they’ll likely be spending a considerable amount of time in your living space.
While Chef Dan Fiske prepares crispy-skin onaga (ruby snapper) for 10, the children in the house are treated to impromptu cooking lessons at the counter. Lucky them; their teacher is the former sous chef from Capishe? During his tenure at that highly regarded Wailea restaurant, Fiske began picking up private bookings on his days off. He discovered he preferred the intimacy of working as a private chef.
“I love to entertain,” he says. “I like small parties, fewer than 20 guests, so I can really share the food I love with them.”
Fiske is a hound for fresh produce, digging up heirloom tomatoes and chayote sprouts on weekly trips to his favorite Upcountry farms. He travels with what he calls his “portable pantry”: restaurant-quality ingredients that aren’t easy to come by, especially for families on vacation.
While accompanying one family on a trip to Namotu, Fiji, Fiske learned to shuck coconuts and prepare roro—a traditional dish steamed in leaves and coconut milk.
Leave It to the Professionals
Once you’ve narrowed your chef/caterer choices down, ask a few questions before booking: what sort of training and experience do they have? Maui’s private chefs and caterers run the gamut from part-time hobbyists to industry professionals hailing from world-class restaurants.
Aside from cooking skills, a professional chef should have liability insurance and required permits, and be comfortable adjusting to your needs, even when they change.
Any self-taught gourmand can produce a tasty meal, but it pays to hire someone familiar with food-safety principles, such as keeping cold food at 45ºF and hot food at 140ºF—not as simple as it sounds in tropical settings.
Originally from Boston, Chef Ralph Giles has 25 years’ experience owning and managing large catering companies. As he dishes up 160 plates of steaming wild rice at a local wedding reception, his employees quickly wrap them to seal in the heat before they’re served.
The professionalism of Giles’s operation is clear from the attitude of his staff, which includes two chefs, several servers, utility persons, and a floor manager—none of whom seems to be breaking a sweat, despite the evening’s tight schedule. Giles has cooked for presidents, royalty, and celebrities but, unlike many caterers, he doesn’t drop the names of former clients.
“What takes place at a party is only for the guest,” he says. “It’s an occasion of intimacy.”
Giles says his most memorable parties have been those with outrageous themes that carried over to the menu. For an event held on the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, for example, Giles researched the actual menu served onboard that fateful night. Tableware and drinks were reproduced, and guests came dressed in period costume.
Fulfulling exotic cravings or designing a menu around dietary restrictions are all in a day’s work for private chef Tracy Edelhertz. Here she tops sea bass with a carrot curry sauce.
Order What You Really Want
When it comes to custom menus, caterers and private chefs outshine their restaurant-bound counterparts. Chef Tracy Edelhertz of Triptop Productions tailors her menu to upscale clients who request raw foods, low-carb, and South Beach or other specialty diets. Don’t assume that throwing a party requires throwing in the towel on your diet (though no one minds if you use the occasion as an excuse). Ethnic dishes, too, can add flavor and authenticity to special events.
“I customize each menu according to the needs of my client,” says Edelhertz. “I don’t like doing the same thing over and over.”
Edelhertz came to Maui to cook for the Baldwins, one of the island’s oldest missionary families. After building a reputation and financial backing, Edelhertz switched to full-service catering and event planning. In exchange for the use of the commercial kitchen at the Pa‘ia Youth Center, she teaches youngsters to cook.
As if that isn’t enough to fill her plate, Edelhertz is developing a new niche: gourmet airplane food for Maui’s private jet travelers. Her in-flight options (despite no-slosh restrictions) are mouth-watering: seared duck breast, lobster ravioli, and pork tournedos with sour cherry port sauce.
Clearly when planning a private dining event, the sky’s the limit!
Chef Ralph Giles | Catering From Soup To Nuts
(808) 357-9444 | www.cateringfromsouptonuts.com
Chef Dan Fiske | The Surfing Chef
(808) 280-1138 | www.privatemauichef.com
Chef Tracy Edelhertz | Triptop Productions
(808) 891-2323 | www.triptopmaui.com