Meet the Maui Resort Chef Keeping Hawaiian Food Local (Not Imported)

Bancaco emerges from an early-morning skin dive off Maui's west side; Maui cuisine; Hawaiian food
Bancaco emerges from an early-morning skin dive off Maui's west side.Bailey Roberts for Men's Journal

MOST MORNINGS, Isaac Bancaco starts his day by grabbing his speargun and donning a thin wetsuit printed with a camouflage pattern to blend in with the reef. He’ll take a deep breath and descend 40 feet in the balmy waters on the west side of Maui. On one recent dive, he’d been down for about a minute when he spotted a school of uhu, bright green and blue parrotfish. He thought briefly of his Hawaiian-Chinese-Filipino grandmother, Lani, the best skin diver in the family. Then he took careful aim and pulled the trigger, nailing his target.

Back on the beach, Bancaco, the executive chef at the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, showed his catch to his friends—local fishermen who offer him first dibs on their freshest catches of uhu, palani (surgeonfish), ono (wahoo), mahi-mahi (dorado), ahi (yellowfin tuna), opakapaka (pink snapper), uku (blue-green snapper), and hapu‘upu‘u (sea bass), all to prepare and serve to hotel guests.

Bancaco is an anomaly among Hawaiian resort chefs, in that he stocks his menu with such local fare. Most visitors to the state don’t eat much truly Hawaiian food—the islands import nearly 90 percent of ingredients from elsewhere. Which is astonishing when you consider that Hawaii is home to 10 of the world’s 14 climate zones, making it perfect for growing almost everything from kale to coffee to papaya. Yet years of distribution issues and the prohibitively high cost of land have forced many Hawaiian hotels and restaurants to rely on outside shipments rather than the riches in their own backyard. It’s a fact that drives Bancaco, 38—a third-generation Hawaiian who grew up on Maui feasting on fresh-caught palani and eggplant, bitter melon, and papaya from his grandmother’s garden—crazy. “Why are the big resorts serving Alaskan salmon or scallops?” he wonders. “Why are they importing ingredients that have nothing to do with Hawaii?”

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And so Bancaco has given himself a mission: to essentially reverse the state’s food-import ratio. His menus at the Andaz, a 301-room luxury resort on a pristine beach in Wailea that serves some 2,000 meals a day, are created with 85 percent local ingredients. There is seafood like ahi, kampachi (amberjack), and grilled octopus, as well as ancient “canoe crops” (so named because they were brought to Hawaii by canoeing Polynesian explorers more than 1,500 years ago), which became Hawaiian staples, such as taro, breadfruit, and uhi, a purple yam.

Preparing ahi in the kitchen at Ka'ana Kitchen.
Preparing ahi in the kitchen at Ka’ana Kitchen. Bailey Roberts for Men's Journal

I admit to Bancaco I’ve tried poi, the traditional Hawaiian paste made from taro, on previous visits to Hawaii and never become a fan. He laughs and asks me to try it again, his way. We’re chatting in the events kitchen, a quieter cooking space at the resort, while he deftly slices an avocado in his palm. He covers a crescent of it with some sweet-onion jam and tops it with puffed quinoa and pink Hawaiian sea salt. After taking a bite—the flavors are tangy and caramelly from the jam, creamy from the avocado, with a textured crunch from the quinoa and salt—I’m convinced to try his version of local ingredients that had previously been on my “no thanks” list. The following day at breakfast, I fall in love with dense and fluffy poi doughnuts, taro French toast, and breadfruit grilled with coconut oil. “Authentic Maui ingredients make us who we are as native people,” Bancaco says. “It’s a way for me to share what I was brought up on.” I’m not the only one eating it up: Bancaco was named Maui Magazine’s chef of the year in 2014, and Frommer’s rated his Ka‘ana Kitchen as “exceptional.”

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Bancaco grew up in Kula, the lush up-country area of Maui at the foot of the Haleakala volcano, home to farms and cattle ranches. A “roly-poly” kid who felt too big to climb the citrus trees in the backyard, Bancaco found refuge in the ocean, feeling weightless in the surf. He often went skin diving and spearfishing in the early morning with his father and uncles, then spent the afternoon sitting around the dining room table, shelling piles of beans from his grandmother’s garden. In 1999, after finishing high school, he left Hawaii and enrolled in culinary school in Portland, Oregon. That led to jobs at fine-dining restaurants on both coasts of the mainland, including at Food Network star Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger in Massachusetts and then to fellow Hawaiian Roy Yamaguchi’s restaurant in Los Angeles.

Working with Yamaguchi—one of the first Hawaiian chefs to marry native island ingredients with French technique—was formative. “Until that point, people thought of Hawaiian food as a can of Spam and a can of pineapple,” Bancaco says. “The Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement in the late ’90s and early 2000s first put our cuisine on the map. After my mentorship with Roy, I felt ready to be part of its second wave.”

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On the hunt for the freshest stuff possible.
On the hunt for the freshest stuff possible. Bailey Roberts for Men's Journal

Bancaco returned to Maui in 2010. Three years later, he was tapped to help launch the Andaz’s fine-dining restaurant, Ka‘ana Kitchen. Determined to showcase Hawaiian ingredients, he built an extensive network of local farmers, ranchers, and fishermen, who now supply his kitchen. In doing so, he’s also transformed the way many of them do business. For years, Maui farmers tended to plant a single cash crop—like the famous Maui onion—for export. Bancaco, by contrast, has partnered with farmers to diversify their operations, growing nearly all the ingredients he needs at the Andaz. Terry Chang, who co-owns Evonuk Farms, supplies the Andaz with herbs, beets, and those luscious, silky avocados. “His dedication to source local produce is a huge benefit to farms like ours,” Chang says. “It’s a win-win for farmers and chefs.”

Bancaco also honors local traditions by utilizing by-products that would otherwise go to waste. He uses macadamia-nut flour from slightly imperfect nuts that would otherwise get trashed, and he taps whey from a local goat-cheese provider to spin into tangy sorbets and rich risottos. “A great example is how he salts and cures the ahi blood line, which just about everyone else throws away, to make a replacement for anchovies,” says Keli‘i Heen, executive vice president at Argex Beverage and former personal chef to Microsoft’s Paul Allen. “It saves money, sure, but it also honors the Hawaiian tradition of using everything possible from the fish.” Bancaco hopes to pass down his passion for local food traditions to the next generation of Hawaiian eaters and chefs. His restaurant is the highest employer of graduates from Maui’s culinary school, and he volunteers with the Boys & Girls Club, teaching students how to use ingredients like local wild boar and Maui onions. “Part of what I want to show them is that farm-to-table isn’t some trendy idea,” Bancaco says. “Our ancestors ate from within a one-mile radius. It’s not a new thing. It’s just something we’ve got to get back to.”

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