Tropica Chef Boasts Bold Island Flavors, Off-beat Wine Pairings

Tropica Chef Boasts Bold Island Flavors, Off-beat Wine Pairings

We recently sat down with Maui Chef de Cuisine Rich Hinojosa, the most recent culinary import to the Valley Isle. Posting up at Ka`anapali’s most expansive al fresco restaurant, Tropica, Hinojosa is pushing the envelope with creative platings that he honed at award-earning restaurants in Arizona. The difference is that he’s now melding the array of fresh island produce, fish and ingredients with his complex dishes before casting them in to the limelight.

Read on to see how this former sous chef from Mary Elaine’s (at the Phoenician in Phoenix) and the exclusive caterer, Praying Monk, handles training his staff on wines, his favorite pairings, and exactly where he stands on the use of liberal amounts of butter on your plate.

B on Hawaii: There seem to be a growing number of Maui restaurants that are putting a lot of time in to their wine lists. With the challenge of a less than savvy staffing pool, how do you, uh, deal?

Chef Rich Hinojosa: First off, I’m super in to wine. I’ve pretty much taken over all the wine buying. And I should add that we’re keeping it really customer friendly. The value on our list is great for the customers. Second, I’ve been training the front-of-house staff to not only understand the list, but what wines work with which dishes, and why. They’re pretty in to it.

B on Hawaii: So you have faith in the service industry in Hawaii? We don’t hear that often…

Chef Hinojosa: I do. And we’ve even gotten to the level that they are sharing some of that education with diners. There’s something to a light education during dinner, to open people’s eyes a little bit. It’s an experience they can take home with them.

B on Hawaii: When we dined at Tropica, we couldn’t help but notice the sauces… which seemed complex. With the trend around these parts steering towards spotlighting the unadulterated (and locally sourced) protein, what’s your philosophy?

Chef Hinojosa: My belief in cooking is all about the balance. I don’t really consider myself a heavy sauce kind of chef. You have start with the best local produce, which here in Hawaii, is easy to do. But it needs to be paired with eloquent reductions to spotlight how bold those natural flavors really are. We don’t like our fish swimming in sauce. But a little butter never hurt the cause.

B on Hawaii: Toss an example our way, please.

Chef Hinojosa: Sure. I’ve been doing a diver sea scallop lately. It’s so plump and flavorful; but when you scoop a bit of saffron ginger Mirin sauce over a bight, maybe fork up a bit of Kapalua tomato and Kahuku sea bean—you’re really tasting the best of Hawaii.

B on Hawaii: Now you’ve got our attention. Another, please.

Chef Hinojosa: I have a tasting menu that I just launched, and it features a risotto made with a Kula onion puree, local baby beets and a homemade parsley oil, followed by a seared Monchong with (local) braised Swiss chard, pureed potatoes and a Sherry-vinegar-butter sauce. And let me tell you, the feedback I’ve been getting on the risotto—from die-hard risotto fanatics—is astounding.

B on Hawaii: Talk a bit about these wines you touted earlier.

Chef Hinojosa: I’ve recently been bringing in the most non-commercial wines I can find—and ones from regions that are a little off-beat, yet established. I have a few Charles Smith varietals, from Washington State, that fit a number of dishes we’re serving. His merlot pairs incredibly with one of my favorite dishes here at Tropica: The roasted pork belly. We use a Five-spice dry rub, some shoyu and salt, and slow bake it for hours. We add a relish of sour Kula onion, a balsamic reduction and some tomato, and the blend between sweet and sour takes you in all directions. The wine and pork really anchor it home.

B on Hawaii: You have clearly been thinking about this! Another, please.

Chef Hinojosa: There are a number of smaller runs from larger wineries in Spain that I’m in to right now. Like, everyone [other restaurants around Maui] will be getting their commercial cases, and I’ll seek their small run vintages. I found a 100% Tempranio from Riberia: And I paired it with our tenderloin. That’s poached in Burgundy and served with Kapalua egg yolk, braised Belgian endive and a Maytag blue cream cheese. We add some Yukon gold potato that has been poached in herb liquid, which we dry, then crisp in duck fat.

B on Hawaii: Did you say, “Crisp in duck fat”? Just want to make sure we got that correctly.

Chef Hinojosa: Yep. That’s the stuff. Remember, bold, but not in your face. The diner might not realize the process that those simple potatoes went through, but when the ask why these are the best Yukon’s they’ve ever tasted, we can explain. Happily.

B on Hawaii: Any special events readers should know about coming up at Tropica?

Chef Hinojosa: Every second Thursday of the month we do a chef’s table. It’s limited to 12 seats, and I host the whole dinner. We customize a 4-course menu, none of which is on the regular menu, and take it from there. It’s the best way to experience Tropica, as people really get to see where I’m coming from. And it’s incredibly reasonable at $59 per person, with wine pairings.
We also offer the new tasting menu nightly, which is a great sampling of our dishes. It’s $45 for 4 courses, or $65 with wine pairings.

B on Hawaii: Excellent, thank you chef.

Chef Hinojosa: Thanks B!

Tropica is located on the ocean side of The Westin Maui Resort & Spa. Call 808 667-2525 or visit www.westinmaui.com for reservations and info.

"Charles Smith's merlot pairs incredibly with one of my favorite dishes here at Tropica: The roasted pork belly. We use a Five-spice dry rub, some shoyu and salt, and slow bake it for hours."