My introduction to Chef Jojo Vasquez happened in October, at the Master P-noy Chef competition in the Maui Fil-Am Heritage Festival at the Maui Mall. Vasquez was taking his passion for locally sourced and inspired dishes up against defending champion Chef Joey Macadangdang. Vasquez’s dish incorporated a seafood broth with paria (bitter melon), the secret ingredient in the challenge. It was creative and refreshing. While he didn’t win the competition, I wanted more of Vasquez’ bright and crafty Filipino fusion. Lucky for me, he’s the Executive Chef at the Plantation House Restaurant in Kapalua. You can dine on Vasquez’s menu, breakfast through dinner, seven days a week.
There’s a whole lot to love here. The views Pailolo channel are spectacular, and the east end of Molokai almost kisses the head of Maui here. The open air dining room and bar overlook the rambling expanse of golf course, trees and mauka vista, and quick passing mists are common.
The Plantation House opened in 1991 and Vasquez came on board in 2013 after a stint with the Ritz Carlton Kapalua at Banyan Tree. He was also Executive Chef at Morimoto’s Waikiki, and appeared on Iron Chef as Morimoto’s assistant. Never really bit by the celeb chef bug, Vasquez’s attentiveness to food comes from his heart, family, roots and travels.
Vasquez says some of his favorite ingredients are local organic Kula corn, Swiss chard, Kula Dave’s tomatoes and Flying Squirrel Farm’s heirloom cherry tomatoes from Makawao. For proteins, there’s local snapper, kampachi, ahi and foie gras.
“For breakfast we added Banana Fosters pancakes, pineapple upside down pancakes, a Santa Fe omelet and my Sous Chef Mike Higashi created Wagyu steak and egg tacos with cheddar, jalapeño and house salsa,” says Vasquez. “For lunch we added Italian sausage hoagie with peppers and onions, Coconut shrimp with pineapple slaw and Korean barbecue sauce, organic Kula corn and Swiss chard risotto and Spicy chicken wings using the local Adoboloco ‘Maui no ka oi’ hot sauce.”
On a recent visit I started with the kampachi tartar and wakame salad–both recommended by Vasquez. The pressed and formed kampachi is served with a dashi-soy, and the dish shows Vasquez’s mastery of flavor and broth. The nasturtium from Monica Bodar’s Napili-Flo farm top off the experience with bright color and surprising spiciness hidden in the petals.
Vasquez’s ahi is magnificent all over the menu, from the morning Benedict to ahi sashimi at the bar, but he seems proudest of the dinner entree–seared ahi with Ali’i mushrooms, served with Swiss chard and kaffir lime vin blanc. It’s featured on the Plantation House homepage. It’s a gorgeous dish that will make you wonder why seared ahi isn’t always served with a delicate wine reduction cream sauce. The Hamakua mushroom is a perfect conspirator here, channelling its delicate, yet sturdy, textures in line with fish and wine perfectly.
“It is important to know the science of food,” says Vasquez. “What we do as chefs on a daily basis is based not only on skills, but on math and science. I was enamored by the creations of Ferran Adria and Grant Achatz. When I travelled with my wife, we always agreed that it would be to places for a culinary sabbatical as well. I yearned for more inspiration with every bite, and challenged myself to heighten my cuisine with these new applications. It’s always fun to play, but the goal is to elevate and not muddle the flavors, or over-process. The final plate should always keep the integrity of the dish.”
The monchong, my favorite of his fish entrees, exemplifies this integrity and adds a touch of his humble Filipino cuisine. The monchong is lightly bathed in a shallow broth of tamarind and coriander–a definite nod to sinigang. The local bak choy, tomato and micro watercress are remarkable with each bite. The Surfing Goat Dairy starter has a surprising savory granola that has an addictive texture and flavor with the fresh made on Maui goat cheese.
Vasquez says his favorite Filipino dishes are kare kare and adobo, but at home it’s his wife who does the cooking.
“Chicken adobo is our national dish and it’s always what my kids request for my wife to make,” says Vasquez. “Kare Kare is my comfort food. As a child, I always knew that there was a timely process to Kare Kare. The anticipation of this dish is ingrained in my brain; layers of scents culminate into a final product. To this day, just the thought of it still makes me salivate.”
Not long after the Master P-Noy contest, Vasquez and a handful of other local Filipino chefs–Joey Macadangdang (Roy’s, Ka‘anapali), Gevin Utrillo (Hyatt Ka‘anapali), Isaac Bancaco (Ka‘ana Kitchen, Andaz Maui), James Simpliciano (Simplifresh), Jake Belmonte (Maui Culinary Academy), Jojo Vasquez (The Plantation House), Larry Badua (Badua’s Catering), Riko Bartolome (Slow Food Maui) and Sheldon Simeon (Mala Wailea)–banded together to raise money in relief funds for the Philippines at the Binhi At Ani Filipino Community Center. For Vasquez, being a part of the community seems as important to him and his culinary work.
“We started planning before Haiyan struck,” Vasquez says. “It was actually difficult to find a nonprofit partner, so we decided to team up with American Red Cross and create a special fund for the Philippines. When the typhoon hit, so many locally based relief organizations came out of the woodwork. We tried our best to spread the funds where they would be of direct help to our people. We wanted to do more. We raised a little over $20,000. It’s not in the news anymore, so we need to keep the dialogue going in our own communities because the need is still great and the work is far from over.”
Chef Vasquez’s Top 5 to Try
1. Eggs Benedicts–seven to choose from! [Breakfast]
2. House-made soft pretzels with honey-mustard created by Sous Chef Robert Barrera [Bar Menu]
3. Kampachi tartare with dashi-soy and wakame salad [Dinner menu]
4. Seared Ahi with Ali’i mushrooms, organic swiss chard and kaffir lime vin blanc [Dinner menu]
5. Mango panna cotta with coconut tapioca and fresh berries [Dessert menu]
The Plantation House
2000 Plantation Club Dr., Kapala
Open daily, 8am-9pm