Class Act at Maui Culinary Academy

Class Act
UH Maui College, Pa‘ina Building
310 W. Kaahumanu Ave., Kahului
Reservations strongly recommended (984-3280); seating hours 11:00am-12:30pm; $30 per person plus gratuity

Some of the island’s most trend-setting lunches are being served at Class Act, part of the restaurant arm of the Maui Culinary Academy. The secret ingredient is the students’ unbridled passion for food; they’re excited to embark on their new careers, and the world is still that proverbial bowl of cherries.
The restaurant is staffed and run entirely by students, and supervised by Culinary Academy professors. It’s situated above the food court in the Pa‘ina Building, above a half-dozen other food outlets that cater to students and the public: Farm to Table, Paniolo Grill, Raw Fish Camp, World Plate, Campus Cafe and the Patisserie. The Culinary Academy moved into its current, expansive space in 2003, establishing itself as a top-of-the-line program. The move, and the ensuing upgrades, are things program coordinator Chris Speere says make him “very proud.”
The Class Act dining room looks out over the windward coast of Kahului Bay. Elegant lighting and carved wood tables and chairs are juxtaposed with modern and classic design. The menu is a five-course pre-fixe that changes weekly and rotates along with the class schedule. Themes include Pacific rim, new American, Italian, Asian, Latin and French. Half of the class works in the kitchen, the other half handles the front-of-the-house service, and halfway through the semester they switch. They’re not necessarily trained professionals, but professionals in training.
After you’re seated and served bread and water, it’s amuse bouche time. The deep-fried poi mochi balls on fresh lomi salmon debuted at the Culinary Academy’s ZAP event held earlier this year. The mochi has a most unusual texture, crispy on the outside, gummy as Hubba Bubba on the inside. It can be sweet or savory, in this case a little of both. The rice flour behind mochi is versatile, a texture and flavor chameleon.
This is the debut semester of Chef instructor Kyle Kawakami. Chef Kawakami is on the cutting edge of culinary techniques, as is evidenced by the menu. “Our goal of having a sustainable island-based menu and training students utilizing local purveyors is moving right along,” says Kawakami. “In the future we’d like to have a featured item like the pohole fern from Hana, and have the vendor actually in here telling you about that product.”
At first I was a little disappointed that I was there on Pacific Rim day, thinking I was going to see the familiar rice and fish fusion and sauces. I was completely wrong, as the menu twisted and turned and kept me on my toes. The eggroll was served with a mango chutney and Thai basil oil. The pesto-grilled shrimp and pohole fern salad was the best use of pohole I’ve ever experienced. Tender bite-sized shoots of fern gave way to a briny flavor, while the shrimp added a mellow, chewy, herby shellfish finish.
The winning dish of the afternoon was the deconstructed oxtail soup. The oxtail consumme was rich in flavor and color, a nice dark mahogany brown. The deconstruction of the soup consisted of the oxtail appearing as a meat pillow padded by a thin layer of pasta dough, highlighted with micro ginger and cilantro caviar. These little beads of highly concentrated flavors are attained with the assitance of complicated chemicals that I won’t explain here; suffice it to say it’s not your everyday process, yet it’s totally safe and very edible, and shows how much the students are pushing the envelope. My little oxtail pillow was a gastronomic delight, and the surprise soft crunch of the boiled peanut inside added to the overall mystique of the dish.
Joining me at the table was Sasanna Baboshoff, a mixologist from Three’s Bar and Grill. A Class Act newbie, she proclaimed her favorite entree to be the re-invented loco moco.
After the salad and soup course, a palate cleanser of homemade sorbet is applied, featuring apple fennel and Kula strawberry. Then it was on to the aforementioned loco moco, a Hoisin-braised short rib with horseradish cream, on a bed of risotto with truffle oil, with a sous vide poached egg crowning the glorious dish.
If you have never heard of sous vide, I won’t hold it against you—it was my first time learning about the process, which I am still trying to wrap my mind around. It involves holding your food in a vacuum seal, and putting that in a water bath at a consistent temperature. If you’re in a top-of-the-line kitchen like the one at the Academy, a machine assists. At home, good luck; I’ve heard using a cooler may work. Ideally, the egg will never overcook, always remaining the perfect temperature.
While the fish entree didn’t stand above those two dishes, it still deserves mention for being perfectly prepared. Fish is tricky—cook it too long and it’s dry, too little and it’s raw, which might not be the proper texture. The steamed opah was excellent, and the fresh ginger hiding beneath it brought out more of its mild and sweet flavor.
At this point you likely won’t have room for dessert, but my advice is to make room. The ginger crunch cake served with Jasmine tea gelato was a perfect finish. Cappucino and regular coffees are available as well. You won’t find any alcohol served here—it’s just too much for the program to maintain a liquor license—but you’re welcome to bring your own beer and wine (call ahead to see what’s on the menu for pairing purposes).
After the meal, I chatted up Bill Carroll, a longtime diner at Class Act. “When they first opened we used to bring our own glasses and bread,” Carroll said. “But now look how far they have come.” He said he rarely misses a week, and looks forward to Class Act’s new creations. He also said he picks up items at the food court, which sells some of the manufactured goods the students create and package, like roasted pineapple jam and seasoned sea salts, while the Patisserie outlet sells fresh baked breads, cakes and cookies.
The Class Act students have just made the switch; those who were in the front of the house are now in the kitchen, and vice-versa. So it’s a whole new experience for the rest of the year, until their final seating on December 5, which features a special, ramped-up $50 dining experience. Also of note: This Friday’s Noble Chef fundraiser for Maui Culinary Academy at the Fairmont Kea Lani; call 984-3261 for tickets and info.