Chef Kyle Kawakami’s Maui Fresh Streatery has probably created more buzz on Facebook and Instagram than any other local food truck. You can find his bright red and green truck can be found at the Shell Station on Ka’ahumanu Avenue across from Maui Beach Hotel. He offers new Maui street cuisine every two weeks, which is part of Kawakami’s inventive farm-to-table strategy.
“When you are trying to do seasonal products, you have to be diverse with your menu,” says Kawakami. “Someone might have eggplant one week then all of a sudden eggplant harvest is done and you have green beans. The fishermen are coming with ahi and then the ahi run away and you have mahi mahi. If you are trying to depend on a menu that is static, then the whole concept of farm-to-table or localvore really doesn’t work.”
That means Kawakami needs to be flexible. “So right now we have done a total of 12 completely different menus, he says. “We started in August and we did seven months without repeating a two-week cycle. The cycle is 12 cuisine themes–we are in California right now. We just got done with Indian, then to Americana. Next we go to Japan, Italy, France, Korean and Southern USA–like grits and jumbalaya. Within those cuisines, there are thousands of different recipes you can choose from.”
His location at the Shell station is part of a partnership to attract more customers to their locations. He said they tried the Pu’unene and Kamehameha corner, but the recycling and car wash there made it too busy.
They’re open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 11am to 2pm, and have created such a following that it’s not unusual for them to run out of food. There are four dishes daily: a fancy french fry dish, salad entree, sandwich and hot entree. Most times, you can see what they have on the menu by a visit to the Maui Fresh Streatery Facebook page, which is updated nearly every day.
Though Kawakami graduated from the Maui Culinary Academy, he wasn’t a typical student. When he began he was managing a car rental company, having already gotten a degree at UH Manoa. During his time at the school, he got a job with Chef Tylun Pang at The Fairmont Kea Lani. After graduation, he was offered a teaching post there, and taught on Maui for nearly a decade. His next venture was the Maui Fresh Streatery Food Truck.
“I always like to travel,” says Kawakami. “I did a lot of traveling to San Francisco, Portland, LA, Seattle. I had the opportunity to travel through school up to Napa Valley, taking classes. The food trucks were always booming at the time. It’s weird–what happens in California is kinda two years ahead of what hits Honolulu and then it’s another year or two before it hits the neighbor islands. I had been watching it and eating at these food trucks in Portland and seeing what those guys are doing.”
Of course, Kawakami had been exposed to lunch wagons in college, but these trucks were very different.
“You know lunch wagons are the greasy chicken katsu, scoops white rice, and mac salad,” he says. “I had always been drawn to that. Then I saw what the chefs form the Mainland were doing. I worked on translating the lunch wagon and food truck food into something that could be put out of a mobile unit. It just worked out that way where the timing was right and i jumped on it. I thought Maui was ready to do something and we made it happen.”
You can see the results in what he’s done with his newest toy, a smoker he got for Father’s Day. With it he hickory-kiawe smoked some chicken and created something he calls “Tupac Tots:” chopped, smoked chicken, corn, black beans, cheddar and jack cheese, barbecue sauce, citrus crema and scallions, all perched atop a bed of crispy tater tots.
His menu also offers the Reuben Sando–corned beef, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing, Swiss cheese and S&J Bakery marbled rye. The sandwich comes with a side of Kumu Farms organic greens. The Sando did so well that it sold out in the first week, and he didn’t have any more corned beef. The sando changed to a Maui Cattle Company tri tip the next week.
The menu’s hot dish is a Pork and Hominy Verde with salad and tortilla. And the popular calamari and papaya salad features Kumu Farms non-GMO papaya, tobiko and an aioli drizzle.
“Kumu Farms have been huge supporters,” says Kawakami, explaining that they’re just one part of a growing local network that supplies his truck. “I’m talking with them three or four times a week to say, ‘hey, what do you have?’ If we can work hand in hand with you, and you have an outlet to send your products, then we create this locavore economy. We have fresh great local produce and the monies that we are generating here on the island are not getting sent out to Mainland produce. I am always looking for local small purveyors. S&J bakery does my all my breads. They have been huge community supporters. For seafood, I try to buy direct from local commercial fisherman or friends that go out and drop by my house with coolers of fish. Maui Sweet Cakes–Heidi Kramer–does some desserts. We have someone from Japan that does our cheesecakes. I have locally made lemonade. It just makes sense to support this whole network.”
Maui Fresh Streatery is also a part of the local nonprofit community, and helps schools in Central Maui get up to speed with their own school gardens.
“Our tip jar is one thing that we’re pretty proud of–all of the tips go to local nonprofits on the island,” says Kawakami. “We have donated to Women Helping Women, fundraising for little kids fighting cancer, other various organizations looking for assistance on island. We are trying to work with the local schools in this area, like the Grow Some Good concept. It’s huge out in Kihei and Lahaina where they have the big restaurants and chefs out there to support it, but somehow it doesn’t make its way here to Central. So we try to help out. We raised funds for Pomakai Elementary to get their garden going for the semester. It feels good to be part of that. When I started the concept of the philosophy of the truck I didn’t want to just be somebody here that is selling food and making money. I wanted to be part of the community in Central Maui.”
Kawakami knows the concept of the food truck and its rotating menu can be new for his Central Maui customers, but he says he’s in it for the long haul.
“Of course for people from the Mainland, they are more used to the different menu items,” he says. “Hawaii people, they are still getting there. I have customers that come in and say, ‘Hey, where is the dish I heard someone talking about?’ and it’s a dish we had four months ago and they are going to have to wait four months before it comes back. We have to kind of educate them as to what that menu style is, and why that is. They’re used to a menu that is hamburger steak, chicken hekka, katsu and garlic shrimp. There are plenty of places doing that and we’re not here to compete against them. [But] people are slowly getting it. I don’t mind having weeks that are less busy. If we stick with it, then the people who try it will, in turn, talk about it and tell others to try it. For us, that is the exciting thing: exposing people to dining adventures.”
MAUI FRESH STREATERY
137 E Ka’ahumanu Ave., Kahului