Three years ago, Etheredge took over the hotel’s teppanyaki restaurant. When devising a concept for the space, he admits, “I created something to help me learn and keep me engaged. It was purely selfish.” The new restaurant is his playground, where he can test innovations. At Capische, regulars want their favorite dishes to remain on the menu in perpetuity, but down in Il Teatro, “We get to do whatever we want.”
The other half of that “we” is Christopher Kulis. Since the boss couldn’t be upstairs and downstairs at once, he hired someone to assist with the new venture. Not every chef has a performer inside of him (thus culinary schools now have “celebrity chef” classes). But Etheredge found someone with both the credentials and personality. Another CIA alum, Kulis relocated from Napa, where he cooked for world-renowned chef Thomas Keller at Bouchon.
Etheredge and Kulis take turns at Il Teatro. Cracking open cookbooks and scouring menus from recent trips abroad, they compose new recipes that highlight Maui’s cornucopia of vine-ripened vegetables and fresh-off-the-boat fish. Old World recipes get an island makeover: sashimi-grade ‘ahi is rolled in polenta, pan seared, and laid on a bed of creamy butternut squash. Ono, a delicate white fish, is given the Scandinavian treatment: house-cured, and drizzled with preserved lemon vinaigrette and arugula sprouts. Regional Italian wines are chosen to enliven each course.
Both chefs enjoy the opportunity to interact with the guests. “We get to see everybody’s reactions as they eat,” says Kulis. Adjusting to the limelight took some practice. Now the seasoned front-of-house chefs know when to crack a joke and when to withdraw from conversation. Like musicians who play off their audience’s energy, they improvise here and there, and let creativity dictate the evening’s rhythm.
Topped with thick shavings of pecorino cheese, the ravioli dish looks like an edible Rothko and tastes just as brilliant.
It’s an added treat be a part of the cooking process—even as an observer. Inhaling the aroma of each course as it’s prepared stimulates the appetite and enhances digestion. Aspiring chefs can treat the evening as a crash course in gourmet cooking. Etheredge will gladly explain what he’s up to as he rolls pumpkin gnocchi or trims a filet.