In the Hana backcountry, Native Hawaiian chefs, hunters, and fishermen collaborate each year to create the islands’ most authentic family dinner.
“You’ve got to come here with an open mind,” says Isaac Bancaco, award-winning executive chef at the Andaz Maui resort. He could be describing the fiercely independent, remote Hana region on the east side of Maui—a place that resists outside influence and interpretation by living its lineage as a stronghold of Native Hawaiian culture. But Bancaco has just emerged from a weekend of going holoholo (afield) with three generations of subsistence fishermen and hunters at a rare culinary collaboration. Called Hana Ku, it culminates in a public feast this July 14.
Isaac Bancaco is one of a handful of innovative young chefs who’ve been invited into the Hana community to experience indigenous place-based practices over a series of private weekend gatherings. Hosted by Native Hawaiian–run nonprofit Ala Kukui, each weekend features a selected ‘ohana (family), who take the young chefs into the wilderness to track wild pua‘a (pig) or butcher pipi (cow) or to throw nets for reef fish and wrangle he‘e (octopus) from their rock crevice homes. In turn, the chefs bring these providers into the kitchen and transform their collective catch into dishes such as marinated beef heart on pohole fern salad, Japanese-style risotto with fresh lobster sauce, and buttery Hawaiian-Portuguese he‘e stew, true to the islands’ multicultural roots.
“When we go to Hana, we’re in the families’ ahupua‘a [mountain-to-ocean region],” says Bancaco. “I follow behind and observe, so I can learn how these ways are passed from generation to generation—how they throw their nets, even how they tie their knots. It’s historical and extremely powerful.”
Local hunters, fishers, and gatherers in the Lind, Park, and Akoi families, featured in the recent collaborations, excel in the subsistence skills that put food on the tables of their extended family networks. And while other indigenous practitioners often struggle to keep younger generations engaged in the “old ways,” Hana youth are passionate about carrying on this ancestral knowledge because it ensures they can provide for their kupuna (elders) and their own young families.
“People used to say, ‘Oh, you so hana ku,’” says the collaboration’s creator, Ala Kukui executive director Kau‘i Kanaka‘ole. “It meant someone was backcountry, but that’s exactly where the expertise about our land and sea lives, with our kua‘aina, our backcountry practitioners. So the focus of Hana Ku is to celebrate the mastery of these kua‘aina and their reciprocal relationship with this place.”
For urban chefs like Andrew Le, a James Beard Foundation semifinalist and executive chef/owner of the multiple award–winning Honolulu restaurant The Pig & the Lady, being embraced by expert kua‘aina with generational ties to the rugged east Maui landscape is humbling and unmatched.
“To remove myself from my environment and come here, with all new people and no barriers, where everything is open and raw,” says Le, “that’s pretty special.”
The Aha Aina, a public feast, will be the only time when visitors, too, can indulge in the alchemy that results from these two forms of mastery working as one. All proceeds from the evening will go to support the nonprofit’s community programs, which honor the importance of passing ancient knowledge down through the generations so it can never be lost.
Headed to Maui? The Hana Ku Aha Aina is set for Saturday, July 14, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., at the Hana Retreat Ala Kukui; tickets are available through Eventbrite. A seat at the table, which includes the pupu-style dinner and complimentary beer and wine, will set you back $175; a Kupa‘aina table for 10 runs $2,000 and includes special gift bags for each guest. The $5,000 Kua‘aina table for 10 adds an oppportunity to mingle with the chefs and their families during a casual, garage-style dinner mixer on Friday evening and then take part in a predinner cocktail party before the main event on Saturday.