Kea Lani's Kō Opens: A Conceptual First For Wailea

An Ode to the Fare Molded by Plantation Workers, Re-invented and Re-freshed

Kea Lani's Kō Opens: A Conceptual First For Wailea

Tonight will be an exciting evening on the Wailea, Maui, coastline: It is the official opening of Kō. An ingenious, new restaurant concept opening inside the Fairmont Kea Lani, Kō is the brainchild of chef de cuisine Juaquin "Jake" Belmone, as cultivated by executive chef Tylun Pang and food & beverage director Peter Sylvester. It has been two years in the making.

The idea is thus: Hawaii has been long known as the Melting Pot of the Pacfic. A century ago, thriving sugar cane plantations sought the help of workers who migrated from China, Japan, Philippines and Korea, not to mention the Hawaiians and Caucasians who were already living across Hawaii. With them, they brought the knowledge of their respective cuisines, and ingredients unique to their cultures. In the warm Maui evenings, neighboring "camps" would experiment with fish and produce they found across the island, using techniques from their pasts, melded with those of their new compatriots. At Kō, Belmonte aims to recreate as many of those original dishes as he can muster.

We nailed down Belmonte, Pang, Sylvester and manager Alika Yoen (who spearheads Kō's unique wine, cocktail and sake program) the night before the opening for the scoop on Kō's unique approach to truly classic Hawaiian cuisine.

B on Hawaii: First, tell me how the idea came about to change Café Ciao Restaurant to something new.

Chef de Cuisine Jake Belmonte: Two years ago we were all sitting around a conference table, and we decided it was time to give our signature restaurant a new concept. I went home and spent the week going through my family's photo albums, and historical books about Hawaii. I found images from the plantation days, and it hit me. There's a vast variety of fare from those times that you simply can't get at any luau. It's a rainbow of cultures that came together to make Hawaii... Hawaii. I brought the concept to the management, and it was sealed. We wanted to focus on the different cultures that became Hawaii.

B on Hawaii: How does one figure out what it was that these plantation workers were eating?

Jake Belmonte: In the last few years we've celebrated the centennial anniversaries of the Filipino, Korean and Japanese communities in Maui. During that time, a surprising number of materials surfaced that showed how the workers here on Maui were supporting their families
back home—who would in turn send ingredients on the ships to their loved ones back on Maui. Pretty soon, the cultures started inter-marrying. So you had one guy from the Philippines drying fish in his backyard, and his Korean wife showed him a new spice to add to that. It blended Hawaiian fish, baked Filipino style with Korean seasoning. He would then share this at lunch the next day with all the other workers, and the ideas spread.

B on Hawaii: Wow. And you'll do all this at Kō? What is your ancestry?

Jake Belmonte: I was born on Oahu, raised for 10 years in the Philippines, and then back in Hawaii. The beauty of Maui is that we had this huge wealth of knowledge in our kitchen even before we came up with the concept. Our kitchen staff has ancestry from every settled
culture in Hawaii—all I had to do was tap their knowledge.

B on Hawaii: What's the vibe of the restaurant?

Food & Beverage Director Peter Sylvester: We have 120 al fresco tables overlooking the pool and ocean. The colors are all colors you'd find on a sugar cane plantation; rich browns, beige, green and so on. It's very organic, like the fare we serve.

Executive Chef Tylun Pang: Good point. Everyone is so focused on eco travel these days. We wanted to offer our hotel guests and locals a historical, authentic eco experience just sitting down at the table. And as much of our food is attained locally as possible. We are
getting Alii mushrooms from Hamakua on the Big Island, and corn from Kahuku on Oahu. But most everything else is coming from right here on the slopes of Haleakala.

B on Hawaii: Alright, let's get down to the nitty. What are we serving?

Chef Jake Belmonte: One of our signature dishes will be "Ahi on the Rocks". We deliver to your table orange ginger miso marinated slices, and a rock heated to 375 degrees. You sear the tuna to your liking—it's very interactive. Another dish I'm very proud of are the lumpia, which are straight from my grandmother's recipe book. We'll offer a traditional shrimp and pork variety, as well as a shiitake and chicken option. We'll have steamed Manila clams with sweet Kula corn and local chorizo and watercress. And the Portuguese bean soup is as
authentic as it gets.

Peter Sylvester: Let me add that Chef Jake's lobster tempura is perhaps one of the most decadent dishes I've ever seen. It's served with a trio of sauces that complement: A grapefruit soy sauce, pineapple sweet chili sauce and a spicy garlic and sesame sauce.

Chef Pang: And, we will have a "Daily Inspirations" section of the menu that will change daily to include sushi and offerings our fisherman and farmers present to us that day. It makes for an exciting change of pace for regulars.

B on Hawaii: This concept seems to jive well with Fairmont's charge to lead the pack in "green" hotel operations. Coincedence?

Peter Sylvester: Fairmont does an incredible job of keeping green. This concept dovetailed so perfectly with that philosophy. Being able to take advantage of things like the Maui Cattle Company beef and all the local produce and fish is so sustainable, we're really lucky. Or,
shall I say, our patrons will be really lucky.

B on Hawaii: I understand you have a relatively unique wine selection?

Alika Yoen: We actually have the pleasure of offering a wine list that has 30% biodynamic or organic wines. On top, we have a selection of over a dozen sake's imported for our restaurant from Japan. Last, we'll have a seasonal cocktail menu that offers things like a melon caipirinha. It will change from honeydew to watermelon and so on,
depending on the season.

Kō will be open from 5:30 p.m. to either 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., depending on season. Kō will begin serving lunch on June 1st.

Visit or call (808) 875-2223.

"I found images from the plantation days, and it hit me: There's a vast variety of fare from those times that you simply can't get at any luau." –Chef Belmonte