KAANAPALI - Maui Onion Festival is one of the island's longest continuously running events, celebrating its golden anniversary (25 years) on Saturday, May 3, in Kaanapali. Since this is my golden anniversary as a Lahaina resident, I've been looking back fondly at memories of my Maui "firsts," like the first time I saw golden curls of tempura-battered onion rings sizzling in a giant wok at Whalers Village and the surprise of sweetness on my tongue as I bit through the crispy goodness. As a member of one of the first PR teams for this event, I recall the thrill of having a Maui onion lei created and seeing it debut on TV. We sent it to the Today Show, and Willard Scott modeled the lei while talking about the unusual festival during his weather and centenarian report.
In the past few years, Maui Onion Festival has expanded its repertoire to include several chefs' contests as well as a bartenders' mixology competition. The Maui Onion Challenge takes place a month before the festival to provide an opportunity for Kaanapali Resort chefs to develop a new recipe, spotlighting the "little sweetie" Maui Onion. Many of the dishes will be on the restaurants' menus prior to Maui Onion Festival on May 3.
On a recent Tuesday morning, six local writers and bloggers gathered at Roy's Restaurant to sample seven of these never-before-seen dishes and judge them based on use of the main ingredient, balance of flavors, creativity of the dish and presentation. The artistic display of the food and melding of tastes, textures and colors was out-of-this-world. We all felt the chefs went beyond expectation to make the island's namesake onion a star.
Maui onion rings come out of a wok during the Maui Onion Festival at Whalers Village. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE MAUI ONION
Kaanapali's newest restaurant, Sangrita Grill + Cantina, presented the first dish to the judges. Chef-Owner Paris Nabavi and Chef de Cuisine Eduardo Pineda made Maui Onion Flautas with seasoned chicken and Maui onion cream cheese sauce. On the side was a Maui onion jam spread over cream cheese - a tasty touch.
Next up was Executive Sous Chef Christopher Napoleon with a Maui Onion Spiced Braised Short Rib. He served it over a caramelized onion and butternut squash puree, finished with Maui onion-Madeira wine sauce, mini-onions and sun-dried onion chips - artful and delicious.
Chef de Cuisine Jared Krausen of 'Umalu at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa delighted us with Sufferin' Succotash: Maui Onion 4 Ways. Maui onion-crusted medallions of ahi were seared and served on a wood plank with deep-fried, shaved Maui onion lollipops, accompanied by a Maui onion and edamame succotash and Maui onion demi-glaze - creative use of textures.
The Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas Chef Alvin Savella of Ocean Pool Bar and Grill prepared an amazing Maui Onion & Bacon Jam Beef Tartare. This rich square of beef and bacon was accented by a Maui onion foam, pork cracklins and Balsamic pearls - an explosion of taste and texture.
Chef Les Barayuga from the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa wowed us with his presentation skills in a Maui Onion Tiger Shrimp Skewer served over pickled Maui onion and green papaya salad in a tied ti leaf parcel like a work of art. The clean flavors were enhanced with Maui onion-jalapeno puree.
Roy's Ka'anapali Executive Chef Joey Macadangdang prepared a mesmerizing Maui Onion Trio: a sliver of foie gras was added to classic Maui onion soup and topped with a flaky onion biscuit; seared ahi was served over Big Island Wild Boar sausage with hot mustard and Maui onion puree; and a dollop of caramelized Maui onion bread pudding was flavored with sachimi buerre blanc. A winning combination.
Executive Chef Ryan Luckey of Leilani's on the Beach closed the challenge with an exciting, Peruvian-inspired dish: Maui onion-marinated flatiron steak with Maui onion-garlic Chimichurri sauce over Maui onion and cassava root puree brushed with yellow aji and green Mexican chili sauces. It's a dish filled with complexity, creativity and balanced flavors.
We congratulate Chefs Macadangdang, Luckey, Krausen and Savella, whose dishes garnered the highest scores. These finalists will compete in public on Saturday, May 3, at 10:30 a.m. during the Maui Onion Festival at Whalers Village. For an event schedule, visit www.whalersvillage.com.