Hawaiʻi History Through Food!

Kō Restaurant’s Chef Aris Aurelio Carries on a Maui Legacy…

Aris Aurelio, executive chef at Kō Restaurant, wasn’t dreaming of a career in the culinary industry as a youth. He lived and breathed cooking and food from a very young age, but didn’t know a position as a chef was a path he could take as an adult.

Growing up in the Philippines, the family kitchen was where he could express creativity while providing for the ʻohana.

“I didn’t exactly decide to work in food and beverage, I kind of fell into it,” said Aurelio. “My passion for cooking began when I was a young kid living in Cauayan Isabela, Philippines… spending countless hours in the kitchen, learning from my parents and grandparents. I grew up farming my own food, foraging for ingredients, and cooking alongside my family. I never considered that this could become a career—I just viewed it as part of life, something I enjoyed and took great pride in.”

Aurelius started in the kitchens at Kea Lani in the early ‘90s, working his way up the ranks. His success was bolstered by Chef Tylun Pang, who saw his potential and put in the energy and resources to mentor him.

“Years later, after I moved to Maui and took a job as a dishwasher alongside my father at Fairmont Kea Lani, which was called Kea Lani hotel back then, I met Chef Tylun Pang—and everything changed,” said Aurelio. “He reignited my passion for cooking and showed me it was possible to make a career out of something I had always loved to do. As my mentor, he put me through culinary school at Maui Culinary Academy and led me through the ranks, eventually bringing me to the forefront of Kō.”

The late Chef Tylun Pang is a bit of a Maui legend. His concept restaurant Kō was a culmination of his recognition of the beauty of our local cuisine and fresh-grown produce, much ahead of the curve of culinary trends. Less-known was his special ability to develop talent in his own kitchens, and the pride that he took in that work.

With Chef Aurelio at the helm, the traditions of Chef Pang and Kō are now in his hands, and that is not something he takes lightly.

Pork Belly Bao Buns. Courtesy Fairmont Kea Lani

“I want to inspire thoughts of family and community, of memorable meals meant to be shared,” said Aurelio. “A place where people come for more than just food, but to celebrate where they came from, learn about others, and embrace the diverse influences that make Hawai‘i so special. There is a unique story behind every single dish on the menu—I want to share those stories.  

“And of course, I want people to think of Chef Pang. Kō was originally conceptualized by him over 10 years ago and I take immense pride in carrying on, and building upon, his legacy.”

Aurelius says his edge is cooking from the heart, and staying true to his roots. He believes his authenticity gives way to innovation. He also holds lessons from his late mentor close.

“Always take the high road—in and out of the kitchen—always lead by example, always put your ego aside and embrace humility and humbleness, these are among the most important lessons that Chef Pang taught me and they are lessons that I will not only carry with me forever, but will hopefully share with others,” said Aurelio. “Chef Pang taught me how to cook with passion, how to put my passion in my food.”

As the beneficiary of these lessons, Aurelio is well-suited to continuing training and mentoring in his kitchens.

Chef Aurelio has gone from student to mentor. Photo courtesy Fairmont Kea Lani by Trevor Clark of Clarkbourne Creative.

“Never stop giving back. I feel that is Chef Pang’s legacy,” said Aurelio. “He never stopped giving, sharing, inspiring and teaching others. I am doing my best to nurture and continue his legacy.

“We are keeping his legacy alive in many ways, but one of the most public ways is through the continuation of the Tylun Pang Scholarship fund. Jules Rodriguez, Cook III here at Fairmont Kea Lani and a gracious recipient of this scholarship has created an amazing new Kō menu item. Proceeds from this entree will go towards the scholarship fund, which is awarded to a Maui Culinary Academy student every year. It is important to me and the entire team that we continue to support, inspire and bolster the next generation of chefs.”

While the team continues to grow Maui’s next generation of chefs, their focus on Maui produce and the development of groundbreaking Maui cuisine is impressive. Original presentations and recipes like the seafood lau lau, ahi on the rock, Lemongrass Catch, and their pork belly bao buns have their own following on the menu.

“To me, seafood lau lau is one of the best representations of Kō. We took a traditional Hawaiian recipe, elevated it with the islandʻs freshest seafood, then gave it some flare with a Filipino sauce. It is indicative of our food culture in that it’s an example of how a traditional recipe can be elevated and tweaked to incorporate different cultural influences,” said Aurelius. 

Aurelius says he loves to work with seafood. He also reminds us that our own modern society has put a divide in the connection between feeding the family and growing food.

Ahi Tataki On Shrimp Toast. Courtesy Fairmont Kea Lani

“Growing up, farm-to-table was not a ‘concept’ or a ‘movement’ like it has become over time—it was just my way of life,” he said. “That mentality provided my foundation all those years ago and continues to be the driving force behind my food and the ever-evolving menu at Kō. If local produce or proteins are available, we [always] go local first. Overall, 80 percent of Kō’s produce is sourced locally.”

Aurelius also shares our local culture through the dishes on the menu, educating visitors to the restaurant with the island’s unique history and significance.

“Learning the history of Hawaii through food…experiencing the influences from all over the world that make up what Hawai‘i is today is the best way to truly understand our local culture and history here. Honoring those who came before us by utilizing their recipes and influences, and allowing them to inspire new ones—that is something special.”

For more information on Chef Aurelius and his team and to experience Kō Restaurant go to KoRestaurant.com.

4100 Wailea Alanui Dr., Kīhei

jen russo