The Holiday Test Kitchen

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Menu by Chef Taylor Ponte | Story by Becky Speere
Photography by Mieko Horikoshi

I stand in the Woodburns’ bright Upcountry kitchen and admire the bird’s-eye view of the island from a bank of windows. Diane Woodburn, the publisher of Maui No Ka ‘Oi Magazine, greets chef Taylor Ponte and his partner, Natasha Joslin, as they arrive with bags and coolers and boxes of goodies.

It’s the week after our 2022 ‘Aipono Restaurant Awards at Old Lahaina Lu‘au, a celebration of Maui’s best restaurants and chefs, and a fundraiser for the Maui Food Bank and the University of Hawai‘i-Maui College’s Culinary Arts Program. Recalling Taylor’s humble and heartfelt acceptance speech for his Chef of the Year award still moves me. Today, he’s energetic and eager to teach us a thing or two about cooking some of the dishes he loves.

I join editor-in-chief Lara McGlashan, and Chris Speere, my husband and former chef coordinator of the Academy and the Maui Food Innovation Center, and we begin organizing the ingredients. We chat with Taylor and Natasha about Kamado Maui Catering, their private dinner and catering venture. When The Mill House restaurant at Maui Tropical Plantation closed due to Covid, both Taylor and Natasha were laid off.

“People were so depressed and were wanting to connect with friends,” says Taylor. “Because of all the insecurity everyone felt in public places, we wanted to create something that was like being with ‘ohana [family].”

And so they launched Kamado, an all-inclusive dining experience serving wonderful Hawai‘i Regional cuisine — with a personal touch. Taylor and Natasha bring vintage table- and glassware they have found or inherited to their events, including a set of hand-painted floral plates given to Natasha’s mother by “Mama Doris” Christenson, the matriarch of Mama’s Fish House, who passed away in 2021.

Diane returns from the yard with fresh-cut olive branches laden with green and black fruits. I help spread them on the table as Natasha arranges the dahlias she brought loosely in a vase.

 

“I chose these flowers because of their soft, delicate petals,” says Natasha. “Plus, they match Mama Doris’s plates.” She pulls one out of a box and holds it up for us to see.

Diane and Natasha discuss table settings as Taylor opens a cooler, removes several ingredients and begins the mise en place (putting everything in place). “I created today’s menu because it’s pretty simple, and a lot of the prep can be done ahead of time,” he says.

According to the lovely menu cards they’ve printed out, there are three courses: a salad, an entree and a dessert. We begin our test-kitchen experience by making the salad.

“First we’re going to clean the arugula, breaking off the large stems and ends like this,” says Taylor, demonstrating. He enlists Lara’s help, and soon a mound of greens fills the wooden bowl.

Next, Taylor shows Lara how to supreme an orange. “Cut off the stem end and the bottom of the orange, making sure you can see the flesh,” Taylor says. Then he takes a long knife and cuts off the peel in a curve, following the shape of the fruit. “Some chefs cut away quite a bit of the flesh with the peel, but I like to round it out — it’s how I learned to do it at Maui Culinary school.”

“Taylor was one of our star students,” pipes in Chris. “He [trained] at some of Hawai‘i’s top restaurants.” Indeed, Taylor’s resume is long and storied, including an entry into the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Young Chefs Competition, and a summer spent studying under fellow UHMC Culinary School graduate Jonathan Mizukami at Vintage Cave Restaurant on O‘ahu.

“Working under Jon, who was the former sous chef at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry [in Yountville, California, near Napa Valley], was very memorable, and helped shape my work ethic,” says Taylor. He eyeballs Lara’s knife-work and declares it good. “You’re hired!” he says.

Taylor tops the arugula with candied macadamia nuts, fresh blackberries, dill-pollen bursts, fresh goat cheese and Lara’s supremed orange sections; then Natasha puts it in the fridge to keep crisp. Taylor whips up the vinaigrette in the food processor and pours it into a cruet. Then he picks up the big orange pumpkin.

“Let’s cut this in half — carefully — and remove the seeds,” he says, and Diane jumps in to help. She cubes a stick of butter, places the cubes into each pumpkin half, and wraps both halves in foil. Into the oven it goes.

Taylor oils a large cast-iron skillet and heats it up on the stove. He places a pork loin in the pan and sears it on all sides to a golden brown. Meanwhile, Diane spreads out a pound of bacon on a cutting board, arranging the slices so they overlap like shingles.

“Pork loin is a relatively lean cut of meat, so the bacon adds a little fat to prevent it from drying out,” says Taylor. “Plus, who doesn’t love bacon?”

He places the loin on the lower edge of the bacon slices, then shows Diane how to roll it up, forming a big pig-in-a-bacon blanket. Diane places the loin seam-side-down on a foil-lined baking sheet.

Lara stirs together the secret sauce. The combination of Maui Bees honey and Taylor’s homemade holiday mix of cinnamon, allspice, cloves and nutmeg scents the air, transporting us back to childhood days of excitement and family gatherings. Taylor drizzles the sauce over the loin, then puts it into the oven next to the pumpkin.

Natasha smiles warmly as she watches our process. “This is exactly what we want Kamado Maui events to be like,” she says. “We love it when guests join in and make it their own. Everyone’s happy, engaged and contributing to the fun!”

Next, we prep the ingredients for dessert, a strawberry galette. “A galette is a tart without sides,” says Taylor. “It’s flat and rustic and easy to make because the pie dough doesn’t have to be perfectly shaped.”

Taylor slices the strawberries and puts them in a bowl. “These are the best berries from Lapa‘au Farm — taste them,” he urges. I bite into one. It’s juicy, sweet yet tart, and has that firm, just-picked texture.

He sets the strawberries aside and turns to the food processor to make the crust. “Blend the flour and salt first, then add the vinegar, mixing for about 20 seconds,” he says, and does just so. He adds cold butter cubes and pulses it all to the perfect consistency. He adds some cold water, “but not too much,” he warns, and the result is crumbly and doesn’t look much like pie dough. But he scoops it onto the countertop and gently works it into a recognizable dough. He makes two dough balls, covers each in plastic wrap and puts them in the fridge to chill. “Chilling it helps ‘relax’ the gluten for a more tender crust,” Taylor explains.

Meanwhile, Diane combines the filling ingredients in a large bowl, and makes the egg wash for the crust. Natasha pulls the pumpkin from the oven, scoops the flesh into the food processor and blends it until it’s smooth.

Taylor removes the dough from the fridge and he and Diane carefully roll out their balls into wonky circular shapes. “Remember, they don’t have to be perfect!” he assures her. Diane divides the berries among the rounds, placing them in the center, then folds the edges of the dough up around the berries to form a makeshift crust. Taylor brushes the crusts with the egg wash and sprinkles them with sugar.

“I always wanted to try sprinkling sugar on my pie crusts,” says Diane. “Now I know how!” Taylor places several cubes of butter on top of the berries, then slides the galettes into the oven.

An hour later, we’re ready to eat. We gather around the beautifully set table with glasses of Lokelani Sparkling Rosé from MauiWine and toast to Taylor and Natasha, to ourselves and to the holidays we love. Then we sit down to enjoy our ‘ohana, and the fruits of our test-kitchen labor.

Like many other Maui chefs, Taylor Ponte uses local produce whenever possible. For our test-kitchen menu, he brought arugula from Hua Momona Farms; pumpkin, raspberries and citrus from Okoa Farms; macadamia nuts from Waihee Valley Plantation; goat cheese from Haleakala Creamery; pork from Lopes Farm; honey from Maui Bees; and strawberries from Lapa‘au Farm.

Taylor’s advice for spending less time in the kitchen and more time with your guests? “Make the dressing, pie dough, candied macadamia nuts and spiced honey the day before,” he says. “I also like to roast the pumpkin and puree it in advance.”

 

 

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