Knights of the Dining Table

Catch up with the Chaine des Rotisseurs, pacesetters for opulent island dining.

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Shannon Wianecki | Photography by Ron Kawahara  |  Jason Moore

knights dining“Closed for Private Party” reads the sign on the door of your favorite restaurant. Peering inside, you see a beribboned officer flanked by guests dressed to the nines. The officer lays a sword on the shoulder of the man before him. “Vive la Chaine!” shouts the group, raising champagne glasses and welcoming this latest initiate to their ranks. The wait staff files in, delivering one exquisite course after another: a parade of translucent oysters plucked from the sea that very day in Kumamoto, Japan, poached Tahitian prawns, and veal medallions awash in white asparagus béarnaise. Hanging in the background is a striking red-and-gold coat of arms.

You glance up and down the street.

You’re still on Maui, though the ceremony inside dates back to the year 1248 in France. The coat of arms, with its golden shield, larding needles and turning spits engulfed in red flame, belongs to the Chaine des Rotisseurs, a descendent of King Louis IX’s royal poultry roasting guild. What, pray tell, is a medieval society of French goose roasters (well-regarded professionals in their day) doing in a modern Maui restaurant? Why, nothing less than celebrating a long-standing tradition of fellowship, fine dining, and the pleasures of the table.

Now that you know what to look for, you’ll notice the Chaine coat of arms prominently displayed in Maui’s finest dining rooms—signifying that the restaurant has entertained the elite group of gastronomes. Royal guilds fell out of fashion during the French Revolution, but food-loving Parisians revived the Chaine in 1950. Local chapters, or bailliages, sprang up around the  globe, dedicated to promoting the culinary and enological arts through example, education, and camaraderie. Hawai‘i residents (who jump at any excuse for a feast) were quick to join. Maui’s bailliage will celebrate its 30th anniversary this October.
For the past three decades, local chefs have used Chaine functions as an arena to outdo one another. Last summer at Café o Lei, Chef Dana Pastula treated the Chaine to 16 adventurous tastings, including poached egg with chanterelle foam and honeyed fig stuffed with Roquefort—each course artfully paired with wine. Chef James MacDonald dramatically “beheaded” a magnum of champagne with a saber, while models decked out in Maggie Coloumbe’s sultry fashions sauntered around the dining room at I’O. Building on the tradition of goose-roasting, Chef Bev Gannon plied Chaine members with a foie gras sampler at her home in Hali‘imaile.

 

Dining with the Chaine “is like being a food athlete,” says Ron Kawahara, longtime guild member and officer. “You have to pace yourself.”

These grand gourmet marathons do come with a price tag. In addition to the price of individual events, Chaine members ante up local and national membership dues upwards of $500.

Membership is invitation-only, open to both culinary professionals and self-proclaimed gourmands.

During a formal induction ceremony, new members are awarded colored ribbons denoting their status. Thereafter, they are welcome to attend culinary extravaganzas not only locally, but around the world.

Chez Paul chef/owner Patrick Callarec has hosted the Chaine numerous times. “I love doing it,” says the chef, himself a 25-year member. “They want the best food there is. You get to really go out there—buy the best you can, take chances, serve things that people have never tried before. It’s fun.”  For one dinner at Chez Paul, he ordered wood pigeon flown in from Scotland. But the event that stands out most in his memory was held nearly 10 years ago at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. After a festive Christmas dinner, a horse-drawn carriage delivered guests down to the pool where they enjoyed cigars and cognacs. “Big hotels can go all out,” says Callarec wistfully. “At a small restaurant you still have to break even.”

Publicist Yvonne Biegel also recalls the splendor the Ritz-Carlton gave to the event in the mid-’90s. “Money was no object,” she says. “Chef Patrick Callarec was executive chef then and he would serve amazing food and wines, and we had beautiful cigars for everyone, because that was PC back then. And the decor was unbelievable. One year the F&B [Food & Beverage] staff moved potted trees into the restaurant and lit them with tiny white lights and turned off all other light in the room, so it felt like a fairy tale. They pulled furniture from all over the hotel to create a residential feeling in the ‘Anuenue Room or even out on the lawn. It was truly magical every time.”

 

The hoteliers or restaurateurs who turn themselves inside-out hosting events are rewarded by exposure to their best prospective customers—people willing to put their money where their mouth is. For devout food lovers, the high cost fairly reflects the value—an opportunity to savor unparalleled quality in a culinary world that is slowly surrendering its five-star establishments to more casual and convenient dining trends.

“Members of the Chaine tend to understand the value an expensive restaurant can provide,” says Chef Patrick O’Connell in a recent interview for Gastronome, the Chaine’s national publication. “Today there is a notion that if a restaurant is expensive, it is not a good value. Chaine members, on the other hand, are educated customers, better traveled, and more knowledgeable about the value they are getting at a fine restaurant.”

Nevertheless, Kawahara insists that members are not “food snobs.” “They’re just normal people, from all walks of life, who enjoy superb food and want to experience the luxurious side of life once in while.” He bought a tux especially for attending Chaine functions. “It’s the only time I get to wear my fancy shoes,” he says with a smile. “Black patent leather.” As for the ladies of the Chaine, aside from capitalizing on the rare chance to get spiffed up for red carpet events, they also use outings to flaunt forbidden pleasures: post-dinner cigars.

Extensive planning goes into each event. Chaine officers meet with the hosting restaurant’s management and kitchen staff. Together they painstakingly choreograph a meal worthy of royal charter. “Sometimes it gets ridiculous,” Kawahara admits. “At the Maui Prince we sampled 28 wines.”

It’s this kind of ridiculous fun that gourmet types particularly enjoy. At a recent planning session, outgoing Bailli (chapter president) Mitch Kysar popped a magnum of 1990 Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle. Announcing that “1990 was a special year for champagne,” he reminded those in attendance that bubbly “needs to be old enough to have a driver’s license before you can even think about drinking it.”

Kysar, a bit of a maverick, is known for wearing slippers with his tuxedo. While serving as Bailii, however, he had the responsibility to ensure that members wore their Chaine ribbons; guests arriving to dinner sans ribbon faced a $50 fine.

“Maui’s never followed the rules,” says Kawahara. “Normally a Bailli serves 3 years. Our first Bailii was Pardee Erdman, who served for 17.” Banquets hosted by the ranch owner called for more casual costume—kerchiefs and cowboy hats. Erdman welcomed guests to the Ulupalakua Ranch where, in true rotisseur fashion, he roasted sheep, beef, and pig on giant spits. (While not required for membership, the possession of a turning spit or rotisserie is a point of honor among members, signified by a special ribbon.)

Maui Culinary Academy Director Chris Speere is the newest Bailii to step up to the plate. Kawahara predicts that Speere “will be more technical with the food, paying careful attention to ingredients and presentation.” He took office in December at a swank gala hosted on the rooftop of the Lahaina Store Oyster Bar and Grill. Seafood was flown in from around the world for the “Black Pearl” event, which earned a coat of arms for the restaurant.

If all of this feasting and pageantry sounds like fun (and how could it not?) cozy up to a current Chaine member, start practicing your French for the next induction ceremony, and don’t forget to shine your shoes. Vive la chaine!

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