by Jen Russo
Chef James McDonald had a stellar year by any measure. He welcomed a new baby (number three), and won the Maui Onion Festival recipe contest with his Upcountry ravioli, a pasta tribute to Haleakala. His newest venture among five operations, Aina Gourmet Market, won awards for its design and celebrated its one-year anniversary. The list goes on, but it’s McDonald’s passion for food and using Maui-grown ingredients—and sharing that with the world—that earns him a spot on this list.
McDonald is executive chef and partner at several Maui venues: Pacific’o Restaurant, I’o Restaurant, Feast at Lele, O’o Farms and the aforementioned Aina Gourmet. “In 2000, the land was purchased in Kula but we had no particular thought of what to do with it at that time,” he explains of O’o Farms. “I grew my food as a kid, and the flavors are impeccable. I still hate having a middleman on my food purchases.” Now the farm not only grows food for all McDonald’s restaurants, but offers tours and gourmet on-site meals.
“Farming is tough,” McDonald acknowledges. “Seasons, pests, lack of water—and there are just some things you can’t grow. We had to figure it out.” Fortnunately, figuring it out is one of McDonald’s skills. When he started I’o, the idea of doing a competing restaurant next door to Pacific’o was almost unheard of. But the super-creative menu quickly garnered a whole new set of fans. When he opened Feast at Lele—a gourmet, five-star luau experience—he broke the mold yet again.
What’s next for McDonald? More daring reinvention. “I’m in the process of revamping the Pacific’o menu and we just launched I’o’s new menu,” he says. “My newer style focuses on the beauty of minimalism in food. Purity on the plate. I want my dishes simple and clean, [to] let the flavors shine through.” McDonald says that’s “one of the hardest things to master.” But luckily, he adds, “My profession is my passion is my life.”
CLICK HERE TO READ MORE from MauiTime’s January 13 cover story “20 for ’11: Who Matters on Maui?” featuring twenty movers and shakers in art, food and politics who are shaping our island’s future.