It’s not often that a classroom wins Best Restaurant. But here on Maui, it’s happened. Open Table recently bestowed the Best Restaurant title on Leis Family Class Act at the Maui Culinary Academy.
When Maui Culinary Academy moved into the Pa’ina building a decade ago, they took up planning and executing the food service on campus at the food court that features several different fast/casual outlets that offer sushi,sandwiches and other prepared hot foods. If that wasn’t enough for the culinary students to manage, they also have an upstairs fine dining establishment called the Leis Class Act that they must operate as well.
“MCA students fill all professional service and culinary positions to operate the Leis Family Class Act (LFCA),” says Chris Speere, the External Coordinator for Maui Culinary Academy. “These include, table servers, back servers, bus service, bar service, hosting and assistant dining room manager positions. In the kitchen, MCA students lead station assignments on the grill, broiler, saute, pantry, staff meal, dessert and stewarding stations. Chef Instructor Tom Lelli oversees all kitchen instruction. Juli Umetsu is our Dining Room Service instructor. Both Tom and Juli have highly qualified backgrounds and exceptional industry experience which provides the driving force behind the LFCA success.”
At Leis Class Act, students get experience in the back and front of the house. You might think that would make for inconsistent service. Not according to folks who use Open Table. The restaurant ranks number one on the list of Best Hawaii Restaurants on their website, beating big-name establishments like Mama’s Fish House (3rd) and Merriman’s (10th). Open Table says the results are the result of 110,000 votes that have come in so far, and that they continuously update them, but Leis Class Act has remained on top for the last quarter.
Juli Umetsu, the Leis Class Act Dining Room Instructor, attributes it to her emphasis on the students grasping what the restaurant’s guests need. “We are in the business to satisfy and serve our guests,” she says. “If they can understand what the guest needs and what it takes to be an exemplary restaurant in our guests’ eyes, we are gonna be a successful restaurant.”
Leis Class Act might be one of Kahului’s best kept secrets because it only runs during the fall and spring semesters. Maui Culinary Academy opens it for lunch dining on Wednesdays and Fridays and reservations are highly recommended. Seating in the dining room (which can serve up to 75 patrons) starts at 11:30am. Open Table does around 200 reservations a month at Leis Class Act, and the students serve about 400 customers every month. It’s often sold out.
“The experience for MCA students in the Leis Family Class Act is ultimately a stepping stone to their future success in the Academy and our industry,” says Speeres. “MCA students that successfully navigate the high performance requirements of the Leis Family Class Act have proven to move through the program to attain program degree offerings in culinary, baking and pastry and restaurant supervision. The Leis Family Class Act provides a benchmark for consistency, persistence, guest service and teamwork that students can apply and carry into the world of work to meet employer expectations.”
The menu at Class Act reflects modern fine dining cuisine. Chef Instructor Tom Lelli creates the menu based on a variety of fundamental and advanced skills the green chefs need to undertake to hone skills. You will find many major world cuisines represented, usually themed by the week.
Students create a full five courses that include three choices of entrees. Items like Pate de Champagne, shiitake mushroom and salmon potstickers, seafood gratin with mushroom duxelles and tarragon grace the appetizer preparations. Items like grilled lamb with porcini red wine sauce, crispy five-spice pork belly, spiced and roasted pumpkin crepe with preserved lemon are some of the entrees you might find in a semester. The dishes are always on the cutting edge. Lelli pushes the envelope with his students, just as they would have to do in the real world.
Pastry Arts Chef Instructor Teresa Shurrilla collaborates with Lelli to create the dessert menus in the appropriate theme. In the French menu, you might see a duo of creme brûlée, while the Moroccan menu could offer almond and sesame baklava with orange water ice cream.
Speere says the menu becomes more challenging for the students as the semester progresses. The students have just eight weeks to master the major cuisines featured in their “global table” menu.
The restaurant also offers the best views of any place in Central Maui, giving diners a chance to see the dramatic and tempestuous North Shore coastline from its second story vantage. The oceanside of the restaurant is flanked with floor to ceiling windows. Modern furniture and high ceilings round out the dining room, but the exhibition kitchen opposite the ocean view can steals the show. Not only do these fledgling chefs have to pull out all the stops, but they must do it in front of their customers.
Lunches are set at $30, and you can bring your own bottle of wine, as they do not serve alcohol. They do have tea and coffee.
“Keeping cost in line and operating at a acceptable level of required profit margin is constantly a challenge in the educational environment of our Culinary Academy,” says Speere. “As a program we know that students must understand the financial responsibility of operational a profit business venture. Our faculty are tasked with instruction, management of their labs, preparing and creating safe, wholesome and innovative cuisines and controlling cost. This is no easy task as our students move from kitchen to kitchen, in some instances every five weeks. We keep costs low without the normal cost for labor but we are faced with many other challenges that reduce our efficiency to generate revenues in a consistent manner. It’s our goal to mirror industry standards toward profitability and to remind our students that to add value to the workplace they will be required to understand and practice works skills that provide positive financial results for their employers. In other words, we all must earn our keep!”
The Maui Culinary Academy has been successful in turning out students that go on to make make their name in the industry both here on Maui and on a national level.
“John Mizukami is working as the longest standing sous chef in our nation’s most prestigious restaurant–Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry–in Yountville, California,” says Speere. “Jeff Scheer owns Maui Executive Catering, one of Maui’s most progressive catering firms, focusing on fresh locovore driven menus. James McDonald continues to push the culinary envelope with his distinctive flair as owner/chef of Pacifico, I’O, the Feast at Lele and O’O farms. Sheldon Simeon has gained national recognition as a competitor on Food Network’s Top Chef program, and was a James Beard “Rising Star Chef” semi-finalist last two years. Brandon Shim serves as Corporate Chef for Tommy Bahamas restaurants in Hawaii.”
Not only have the students done well but the academy is gaining recognition in its own right: the American Culinary Foundation recognizes it as one of the 71 “Exemplary” culinary programs in the nation. The program is also working on expansion with a Food Innovation Center that will assist local small businesses and chefs with specialty food concepts. The old student cafeteria in the Pilina building will be renovated to create the space for this plan.
For more information on Maui Culinary Academy, check their website at mauiculinary-campusdining.com. For reservations for Class Act, call 808-984-3690.
About Jen Russo
I write lifestyle and culinary columns for MauiTime. I love being a Maui girl and adore my big family. Dedicated food taster, blogger, internet fanatic, and Maui and Hawaii specialist.