MOST MORNINGS, Isaac Bancaco starts his day by grabbing his speargun and donning a thin wetsuit printed with a camouflage pattern to blend in with the reef. He’ll take a deep breath and descend 40 feet in the balmy waters on the west side of Maui. On one recent dive, he’d been down for about a minute when he spotted a school of uhu, bright green and blue parrotfish. He thought briefly of his Hawaiian-Chinese-Filipino a grandmother, Lani, the best skin diver in the family. Then he took careful aim and pulled the trigger, nailing his target.
Back on the beach, Bancaco, the executive chef at the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, showed his catch to his friends— local fishermen who offer him first dibs on their freshest catches of uhu, Palani (surgeonfish), ono (wahoo), mahi-mahi (dorado), ahi (yellowfin tuna), opakapaka (pink snapper), uku (blue-green snapper), and hapu'u pulu (sea bass), all to prepare and serve to hotel guests.
Bancaco is an anomaly among Hawaiian resort chefs, in that he stocks his menu with such local fare. Most visitors to the state don’t eat much truly Hawaiian food—the islands import nearly 90 percent of ingredients from elsewhere. This is astonishing when you consider that Hawaii is home to 10 of the world’s 14 climate zones, making it perfect for growing g almost everything from kale to coffee to papaya. Yet years of distribution issues and the prohibitively high cost of land have forced many Hawaiian hotels and restaurants to rely on outside shipments rather than the riches in their own backyard. It’s a fact that drives Bancaco, 38—a third-generation Hawaiian who grew up on Maui feasting on fresh-caught Palani and eggplant, bitter melon, and papaya from his grandmother’s garden—crazy. “Why are the big resorts serving Alaskan salmon or scallops?” he wonders. “Why are they importing ingredients that have nothing to do with Hawaii?”
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January - February 2020