Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Mieko Horikoshi
I’m at my first Taste Maker wine dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Wailea. The mood is ebullient, and the service staff perform with genuine aloha.
I ask the charismatic general manager, Randy Spencer, “Who’s the chef in the kitchen?” He says, “Chef Dan! He’s been with Ruth’s Chris for ten years. He’s a local boy who went to St. Anthony High School.” Randy’s comment piques my interest. I wonder, What’s a local boy doing in a Ruth’s Chris kitchen?
A week later, I get the chance to find out, when Dan Bader and I meet in the soon-to-be renovated Ruth’s Chris dining room to chat. As he talks about his life, the puzzle pieces fall into place: His love of food and travel comes naturally. “Our family moved to Maui from a small farming town in Sandusky, Michigan, when I was in the tenth grade,” he says. “My dad owned the second-largest John Deere store in the Midwest, so we traveled to a lot of conventions throughout the U.S.
“My mom was a great cook and my dad liked to grill just about anything. They shared a love for good food, traveling, and dining in fine restaurants. One of my earliest food memories [is from] when I was around nine years old and we visited New Orleans. We ate at Antoine’s in the French Quarter—at the time, Antoine’s was one of America’s grandest restaurants—and I ordered crêpes Suzette.” The tender crêpe was filled with sweet citrus segments and drizzled with warm, buttery caramel. Flambéed at tableside with Grand Marnier, the dessert set his budding-foodie heart afire.
Another trip, this time to Michigan’s Mackinac Island, reinforced Dan’s growing appreciation for food. “We ate at the Grand Hotel and I had lamb chops for the first time. Cooked in fresh herbs, they were so good.”
Dan graduated from St. Anthony High School in Wailuku in 1979. At six feet, three inches, he was the tallest guy in the school and a top scorer on the basketball team. Food was his other passion. “Growing up here definitely influenced my style of cooking,” he says. “Hawai‘i’s such a multicultural and culinary melting pot. My mom would make those oh-so-‘ono Azeka’s short ribs and I would eat a whole pan before dinner.”
In 1980, Dan left Maui and landed in California, where he worked under award-winning chef Frank Champa at The Four Seasons Pavilion Restaurant in Newport Beach. His next position was chef tourant under Bruno Cirino at Antoine’s Restaurant in Newport Beach’s Hotel Meridien. “During the time I worked for Chef Cirino, the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association honored him as Chef of the Year, and we won the title for Best Restaurant of the Year.”