The chefs at these two island properties rely on local ingredients and regional culinary styles to elevate menus for members and guests.
Puerto Rico and Hawaii are almost 6,000 miles apart. What they lack in proximity, they make up for in unique regional cuisine that showcases the nuances of each island with ingredients, cooking styles and culture.
At Dorado Beach in Puerto Rico, Executive Chef Mario Pagan (pictured) harnessed his Puerto Rican roots to create a restaurant concept called Melao for members and guests. Here, Pagan features dishes inspired by the islands. (View menu here.)
“Melao represents all the fun and flavor that defines who we are as Puerto Ricans,” he says. “Puerto Rican cuisine has roots in a variety of cultures—Spanish, African, American—which makes experimenting a lot of fun.”
Pagan, a graduate of Johnson & Wales, likes to blend all sorts of influences into each dish on the menu at Melao. Ahi tuna tartare is served with green plantain tostones and a wakame aïoli. Shrimp spring rolls feature dehydrated coconut and a guava chili glaze. Pan-seared foie gras is served with a sweet plantain tempura, port reduction and pistachios.
“We are breaking the stereotype that Puerto Rican cuisine is only rice, beans and roasted pigs,” says Pagan. “We have a lot more to offer.”
His Caribbean lobster-tail thermidor is a prime example. “Lobster thermidor is as classic as it gets, but to make ours more regional, we use tarragon, escabeche onion and a yuca-bacon mofongo,” says Pagan.
Melao’s most popular dish is seafood paella. It features lobster tail, squid, bay scallops, shrimp, mussels, and plantain “spiders” (shredded green plantains shaped into patties and fried until crisp).
“We use a lot of modern techniques to elevate each dish,” says Pagan, who notes that sustainability and sourcing can present challenges on the island. “Regardless, it’s important to showcase our region to our members and guests—and we do that through food.”
Sean Christensen, Executive Chef at Maui Country Club (MCC), agrees.
“As chefs, it is up to us to continue traditions in regional cuisine while also continuing to change and improve it,” says Christensen. “It needs to be important to us for it to matter to our members.”
According to Christensen, Hawaiian regional cuisine features a blend of ethnic Pacific Rim influences paired with traditional Hawaiian ingredients, which are as fresh as they get.
“Coming to Hawaii as a young cook was a transformative experience,” he says. “It’s hard not to be inspired by local food when you see it hanging from the trees and swimming with you in the ocean.
“The quality and freshness is almost overwhelming,” he adds. “When I first came, all I wanted to do was try every fruit, cook every fish, and learn not only about the ingredients, but about all the different cultures behind them.”
Since then, he’s been doing just that.
“Utilizing the freshest island fish is most important to me,” says Christensen. “I get a lot from our members who fish. Many of our members have fruit trees on their properties, own boats, and even run farms. I love working with them to bring in local products.”
One member, Gerry Ross from Kupa`a farms, brings Christensen a big mystery box once a week full of local organic produce. He and his staff work all of it into specials and menus. “We also save all of our food waste, and [Ross] turns it into compost,” he adds.
Christensen takes regional cuisine one step further by showcasing it with wine pairings. “When doing winemaker diners, I’ll pair wine with island flavors like Ahi with pinot noir, or ginger and lychee with sauvignon blanc,” he says.
Menus at MCC include fresh ceviche, Ahi tuna poke, and sashimi. Locally made Inamona finds its way on to a lot of Christensen’s plates, too, along with toasted Macadamia nuts, Up Country goat cheese, and pohole (fiddlehead ferns).
“Hawaii is a melting pot,” says Christensen. “We never stop learning from each other in the kitchen. I find myself learning other cuisines and making it more Hawaiian, simply by substituting ingredients.”