It’s hard to believe that Chef Ryan Luckey, who cranked out the amazing cuisine that helped put Pineapple Grill in Kapalua on the map, got his start in the restaurant business as a dishwasher. We’ve followed his illustrious career from restaurants like Erik’s Seafood Grotto, Red Lobster and Kapalua Grill and Bar. Nobody has seen places come and go on the Westside like Chef Luckey. Now he’s set his sights in Ka’anapali, where he will soon start as Hula Grill’s Executive Sous Chef.
Chef Luckey is living proof of the ohana formed when you grow up, work and stay in a community. His philosophies and interest in seeing the island prosper are rooted in generations of his family. His commitment to expressing himself through the art form of food will benefit the Ka’anapali–and Maui–for years to come.
We chatted with him recently about his move and to found out, among other thigns, what makes Luckey hungry.
MAUITIME: Tell us something that we may not already know about your work and being a chef.
RYAN LUCKEY: Well, for me being a chef is not about always about cooking what I may like, or think is cutting edge or cool, I always like to keep my customer in mind. I want my customer to enjoy what I am doing for them–that gives me the most satisfaction. If I can make someone happy by just cooking a well seasoned steak with mashed potatoes, or perfectly seared piece of Ahi with sticky rice and shoyu butter, then I’m a happy chef. I don’t concern myself with what the guy next door is doing. Sometimes the whole cooking scene just gets to competitive and we lose sight to what is really important: consistent, balanced and seasoned food made with love. To quote a former chef of mine back in the late 1990s, “Does it need ego, or does it need salt and pepper?” That’s my philosophy.
MT: How much formal culinary training have you had?
RL: I have really no formal training. I spent the past 18 years learning from my peers and my chefs–always ready to absorb something from someone, and always having an open mind, and never taking myself too seriously.
MT: Did you always want to be a chef?
RL: Not until my first cook job. I had prior jobs as a dishwasher and a busboy in old school restaurants like Erik’s Seafood Grotto and Denny’s, but when I got my first two cooking jobs, The Red Lobster on Front Street which introduced me to “food service” and then my first job in a classic style kitchen, the Kapalua Grill & Bar, this really opened my eyes to the whole world of cooking. This is all pre-Food Network, mind you, so it was a little more rugged in those days. But I felt this is something I could really get into, and I seemed to adapt to it well and quickly.
MT: How does your passion for using local ingredients influence your dishes?
RL: It’s the main focus in most of my dishes. We have great product, and I’ve seen it only get better in the past eight to 10 years. Farmers are finding new things to grow, and new ways to cultivate their product, making for an upward trend in the quality of product we are seeing in our Maui kitchens. I would almost insist on having at least one or two items from our islands in every dish I come up with.
MT: What has your experience taught you about cuisine on Maui?
RL: That it’s ever-changing. Our young minds are coming up the ranks like never before, hungry to learn and make their own mark in our local scene. I think our excellent culinary program at UH Maui College is a huge part in molding our young minds and making Maui a cutting edge culinary scene.
MT: What will you contribute to your new home at Hula Grill Ka’anapali?
RL: My passion for “doing the right thing.” Hopefully, I will share my leadership and teamwork skills and help Bobby and Chris continue their fine work in making Hula not only a very busy and high quality restaurant, but one that will attract cooks from all over our state and country. And hopefully make some cool new dishes.
MT: Where does your commitment to sustainable local agriculture and Hawaii-raised produced livestock come from?
RL: My local roots here. My grandfather was the director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation for 25 years, and really helped develop Front Street and Lahaina Town to what it is today–always keeping in mind the integrity and importance of the history of Lahaina and the culture it has sustained. The fact that my uncle and father have been fishing these local waters since the early 1970s, and just being in the position with my work history to help make a difference, and support my local farmers and business families, is important to me.
MT: Where do you see Maui’s culinary industry in five years?
RL: Continuing to evolve. I think we can offer the same level of cuisine as Honolulu or even some smaller city markets like San Diego, Seattle and Portland. I hope that we don’t go into a competitive “snobbishness” that some areas have developed. I would like us to stay humble and stay true to the local flavors and roots we have here in the islands.
MT: Can Maui or Hawaii look forward to a future Ryan Luckey restaurant?
RL: Uhhh… anyone who has some extra capital and a dream: let’s talk story. It’s hard to do it on your own. It would have to be the right partners, the right situation and the right concept, but never say never.
MT: What are your top three must have ingredients?
RL: Salt, butter and cilantro.
MT: What can locals and tourist alike look forward to with your new collaboration at Hula Grill?
RL: I think we want to stay true to what Peter Merriman, Scott McGill, Chris Schobel and Bobby Masters have been doing here for years, and just bring a fresh set of eyes, and some new ideas to continue to evolve the cuisine here and bring it up one more notch, as it seems to always do.
MT: How did growing up on the Westside influence what you do?
RL: Having the home town pride is huge. I’m proud to be a harbor rat, Front Street kid, and am always looking for a way I can give back to my community. Go Luna’s!