Story by Shannon Wianecki
Working at Maui’s posh resorts after college, I was privy to some astonishing private parties—lavish affairs that spared no expense. At one especially elegant gala, guests used mother-of-pearl spoons to sample caviar from the carved ice volcanoes that served as centerpieces. Among the most creative dinners I remember was an awards banquet fashioned after the rallying cry from the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Delighted guests walked into a banquet hall transformed into a field of living cornstalks and were greeted by waiters wearing crisp baseball uniforms.
Helping make these events happen can be almost as much fun as attending them. Recently I asked the executive chefs at three of Hawai‘i’s finest resorts to share some of the luxurious, over-the-top dining experiences they’ve executed. All I can say is: Whoa. Whatever your most decadent desire, the staff at Maui’s elite resorts can make it happen.
Over-the-top is the order of the day at the Grand Wailea Resort & Spa, where hand-carved Italian chandeliers sparkle above the hotel’s lavish 28,000-square-foot ballroom. Spectacular ice sculptures, chocolate fountains, roving magicians and acrobats, and “melonheads” (actors with faces painted like watermelons, hidden amidst buffet spreads) are just a few of the marvels I witnessed while working here.
According to Executive Chef Eric Faivre, nowadays even the cooks are entertaining. “The trend is definitely to have the chefs coming out of the kitchen and cooking to order for parties of twenty to two thousand,” he says. At a recent party for Lexus, teams of toque-wearing chefs stood ready to sauté fresh fish and flambé bananas. “We had over twenty chefs out there,” says Faivre. “Guests love to see the chefs in action.”
Chef Faivre’s favorite event of recent note was more casual—but equally impressive. To reward their top employees, a software company flew musician Bryan Adams over to perform outdoors in the resort’s Molokini Gardens. “We did picnic baskets, with seven or eight items in each, for a thousand people,” says the chef. Inside the baskets, guests found poached salmon cleverly contained in bamboo steamers, chilled Thai beef salad in glossy red Chinese to-go boxes, and chocolate mousse and crème brûlée in miniature Mason jars. “It took us over ten hours to package everything. But when we saw everybody sitting with their baskets enjoying the concert, it was amazing.”
More intimate affairs take place by the resort’s hibiscus-tiled pool. The “Platinum Cabana Dinner,” is a nine-course feast that commences with an amuse bouche (a chef’s palate teaser) and finishes with mignardises (miniature desserts served with coffee at the finish of a fine meal). What fills the seven courses in between? “Kobe beef, local spiny lobster—pretty much anything the guests want,” says Faivre, who teams up with lucky diners beforehand to design their menu.
Custom menus are nearly de rigueur at the Four Seasons Resorts Lana‘i, two palatial retreats that have a reputation for meeting a guest’s every whim. Often, rather than outrageous fare, it’s comfort food that well-to-do guests crave, says Executive Chef Oliver Beckert. He relates the story of one couple who fell in love with the chocolate cake served at the Manele Bay resort when they visited ten years prior. The hotel has since changed menus—and management. That didn’t faze Beckert, who tracked down an ex-employee who remembered how to bake the cake. “We’re serving it to the guests tonight,” he says.
Another guest hankered after a special dish he’d enjoyed while vacationing in Italy. Beckert rang overseas for the recipe. “It was very hard, because the chef didn’t speak English. Some of the ingredients were hard to find in the United States.” Nevertheless, his team pulled it off. “The guest actually said it tasted better here,” chuckles Beckert.
Fours Seasons guests receive this sort of VIP treatment upon arrival. Every guest receives a welcome amenity—ranging from pineapple spears dipped in dark chocolate to a trail of rose petals leading to a bubble bath and a bottle of chilled champagne.
Bubbles aren’t the only things filling resort bathtubs, either. Guests have requested tubs brimming with champagne, Jell-o, and warm milk. Answering these tall orders is no easy feat for the kitchen crew. For the milk bath, the cooks had to heat several crates’ worth of milk in forty-gallon stockpots and safely transport it to the guest’s room before it cooled. “We made it happen,” says Beckert.
At the Fairmont Kea Lani, barbeques are a big hit with celebrities and newlyweds, says Executive Chef Tylun Pang. Guests staying in the resort’s villas have the option of hosting a barbeque in their private courtyard. “I think it’s a really special venue,” says Pang. “We’ve had Hawaiian trios playing in back where the plunge pool is, while the chef is cooking steaks and lobsters.” Not just any musicians and chefs, either. Grammy Award-winning slack-key artists have made appearances, as have visiting rock stars.
Over the years, Chef Pang has assisted with luxurious events of every imaginable sort. “We’ve had clients who’ve done little Iron Chef competitions, with chefs flown in from their area,” says Pang. “The sky’s the limit.” But Chef Pang’s personal favorite was a simple affair: a surprise picnic. He and the resort’s general manager, Chris Luedi, wanted to acknowledge a returning guest and his family. “We wanted to thank them for their business and treat them to something really special,” says Pang.
“We took them off-site, to a beach. I prepared a multilayered bento box with dishes representing the island’s different cultures: lobster tempura, grilled Upcountry asparagus, sake-glazed tenderloin, passionfruit créme brûlée, and three chocolate samplings. I brought the client down to the beach. He didn’t know what the heck was going on; he thought we were going to a restaurant next door. Then he sees Mr. Luedi with a little serviette wrapped around his arm, there to serve the champagne,” laughs Chef Pang. “It’s not every day you get served by the executive chef and the regional vice president.
For Chef Pang, such personal touches are the real hallmarks of luxury. Rather than excess, he seeks to offer guests authenticity.
“We hit it out of the ballpark when we can give an honest, local experience,” says Pang. “I truly believe that’s luxury. To have it served from the heart, unscripted, and authentic—that’s something you can’t buy. It’s what I look for, as a guest.”
Whatever version of luxury you hope to find at Maui’s resplendent resorts, whether it’s opulent or intimate, all you have to do is ask. And sometimes you don’t even have to do that.