The tremendous rise in popularity enjoyed by food trucks in the past few years has attracted some unique entrepreneurs to Maui’s roadsides—chefs with storied careers who plied their trade at some surprisingly swanky places prior to going mobile.
Would it surprise you to learn that the folks behind your food truck plate lunch might have come from the kitchens of some of the island’s most beloved and respected restaurants—places like Merriman’s of Kapalua or The Hāliʻimaile General Store?
Erik Cereceres is the owner of the Aloha ʻĀina BBQ food truck alongside Hana Highway in Haʻikū, located beside a small farmers’ market on the right side of the road just as you emerge from Maliko Gulch, east of Ho’okipa Beach.
His beef brisket, smoked chicken, fresh poke, and sautéed local fish plates are each as rich and flavorful as the next. Served with pohole fern salad and a warm slice of banana bread, his meals draw a strong local following, in addition to being easily accessible to first-time Hāna Highway adventurers.
Cereceres, 46, who goes by the nickname “Chewy,” started his culinary career early, at the age of 14. Growing up in Chicago, where 15 was the minimum age to work in a restaurant kitchen, Cereceres forged his birth certificate to get a year’s head start. He landed a job at Buona Beef, a local Italian butcher shop and deli counter. Like many teenagers, he drifted from restaurant to restaurant, taking on whatever role was needed.
While valet parking at an Italian joint called Carmines, he befriended the chef, who hired him to help open a new restaurant where he returned to the kitchen, this time as a sous chef. He eventually moved on to become an apprentice at Red Light, a pan-Asian fusion restaurant run by Chef Paul Wildermuth from Oahu. Wildermuth had graduated at the top of his class at the Culinary Institute of America and became Cereceres’ first mentor.
“When I started getting into fine dining [at age 18], there wasn’t that much going on in Chicago, culinary-wise like they were doing in New York or Napa,” Cereceres explains, recalling that working in a restaurant kitchen was considered very blue-collar work back then.
The young apprentice was soon able to work any station on the line, impressing owner Michael Kornick, purveyor of the renowned Chi Town eatery MK. (In 1991, at the age of 28, Kornick had been one of the youngest executive chefs ever hired by Four Seasons Hotel Company.) Under Kornick and Wildermuth, Cereceres learned a great deal about wine, as well, which inspired him to move to California’s Napa Valley. There, he went to work for celebrated chef Thomas Keller, and helped him open Bouchon, a sister restaurant to the famed French Laundry.
At the advice of a girlfriend, he moved to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands for a change of pace in the off-season from Napa. There he made new connections and learned about preparing fish and lobster. He began wintering in the Caribbean and spent summers in Vail and Orlando.
At the behest of another girlfriend in St. Croix, he moved to Indianapolis and helped her to open Brix, a wine-themed restaurant located in an old brick building in a historic neighborhood paved with bricks.
(It’s a play on words, he explains, stating the obvious.) While working there, another friend from St. Croix invited him to stay at her place in New York while he went to see Widespread Panic perform and the two of them promptly fell in love. So, he abruptly left Indianapolis for the Big Apple.
While looking for work in New York, he reconnected with David Burke, a culinary school roommate of Kornick’s who had gone on to TV fame on Top Chef. Cereceres had assisted Burke with a special event in Napa years before and Burke needed staff for his collaboration with the famed restaurant designer, Donatella Arpaia. Cereceres helped to open David Burke and Donatella on East 61st Street and remained there for a time, but it was stressful.
“We had just opened, we were still in the review period, and it was very tense in the kitchen,” Cereceres recalls, calling it hot, cramped, and miserable, with 20 or more staff working in a small space. “Plus, nobody’s getting paid very much. You do it for the knowledge.”
The launch of The Food Network in 1993 and the subsequent rise of “celebrity chefs” have drawn a new generation to the kitchen, but they’re a mixed bag, Chewy says, some of them talented, some not so much.
“Kids were going into culinary school thinking they were going to come out chefs,” Cereceres laments. “I’ve seen so many cocky kids who think that they’re so incredible, when they really just have the basics. Most of them don’t even belong in a professional kitchen.”
“Don’t go to school. It’s such a waste of money,” he advises. “If you want to do it, go and do it. I suffered and didn’t really make any money for a decade, but I was learning from great chefs how to do it in real time, so that was the best schooling for me.”
Chewy met Danae, the woman who would become his wife, while she was on a girls’ trip to New York with her longtime friend, blues singer Gretchen Rhodes (now a Maui resident). The couple hit it off and Danae agreed to meet him for a music festival in Las Vegas later that year. He proposed at the same festival the following year. The two got married on a white sand beach on Jost van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands and their son, Skylar, was born less than a year later.
The young family moved to St. John, where Skylar’s sister, Halia, was born. Shortly after, they decided to move to Maui.
Cereceres started working as a sous chef for Bev Gannon at Joe’s in Wailea, which has since closed. He was only there for six weeks before the chef at Haliimaile General Store quit and he was asked to take over as executive chef there, where he continued to learn under Gannon’s tutelage.
About a year later, the storied watering hole Charley’s Saloon in Pāʻia had an opening and he was anxious to move on. So, Cereceres took the job, revamped the kitchen, and learned the business side of things from owner Jonathan Hermann. After a while, he got the itch to get back to the fine dining world.
“It’s this wicked cycle that chefs get into where they get burned out and want to take a break from fine dining,” Cereceres explains. “And then you do that for a while and you get bored and then you really want to get back into fine dining and hone your craft some more, even though it’s hard work and a pain in the ass.”
Merriman’s in Kapalua was more than an hour drive from Haʻikū, so he wasn’t very familiar with the restaurant when he applied. Nor were they familiar with him, but his former boss David Burke was friends with the chain’s corporate chef and gave him a stellar recommendation. He soon took over as head chef.
“It was rough from the start,” he recalls. The commute was atrocious, he says, and three of his four sous chefs were gunning for his job. “They had been there for a while and saw me as an interloper.”
“When you have a restaurant that’s been there so long and some of the people have been there forever—regardless of how good they are—they wield a certain amount of power in the power structure there, only because they’ve been there for so long,” he explains.
Problems developed with the front of the house and personality conflicts in the kitchen were becoming a nightmare, he says. At the same time, he was going through a divorce. The corporate chef saw that he was burning out quickly and gave him the option of an amicable, negotiated exit. “I like to have all my ducks in a row and have the future planned and have another job before I quit,” Cereceres asserts, “but I just walked away, and it felt great.”
A friend told him about some folks who were working a roadside barbeque stand out by Keanae and needed help, so he joined their crew. As the others moved on, he eventually found himself running the business alone. He got things organized and removed some old cars and debris from the property, adding more parking spaces. But before long he found what he felt was a better location at the Garden of Eatin’, an established roadside attraction nearby.
Business was brisk until the pandemic struck and the National Guard blocked all non-residents from traveling on the road to Hana. Unable to get to his workplace, Cereceres found a new location at a dragon fruit farm near Peahi and built a new grill and roadside stand. It did well for a time, but he couldn’t help wondering if he’d get more business before the turnoff to Haʻikū, rather than east of it.
So, once again, he pulled up stakes and prepared to open a real brick and mortar kitchen at the new Maliko Farms market at the edge of Maliko Gulch. But the county wouldn’t give him a permit to install a required vent hood in the building due to zoning issues, he says, so he bit the bullet and bought the glossy black food truck that now bears the Aloha ʻĀina BBQ name.
While it was a major investment, the trailer was less than two years old, well equipped, and priced quite reasonably. A small business loan program offered during the pandemic helped to cover the cost. It has enabled him to expand his repertoire to include more choices that appeal to residents, who now make up a large segment of his customer base. Hence the ribs, brisket, poke, and fresh island fish added to the menu. “Now I had everything I wanted,” says Chef Chewy, “a fryer and ovens and all.”
His smoked and grilled meats are a hit among residents and visitors alike, and he’s garnered a strong local following. But because the land is zoned agricultural, he must close at sunset like the farmers’ market, which limits his dinner hours. This puts a damper on the live music he had scheduled weekly for a few months last year. The free performances had drawn a following at a time when live music was scarce, but it’s not worth the effort if he has to close down at 6:00 p.m., he says. Aside from that, he says that he’s had a good relationship with the Health Department and little trouble with the County since opening the truck up a year ago.
Competition from restaurants reopening has had less impact on his bottom line than the rising cost of meat. He had to take baby back ribs off his menu and limit the amount of brisket he sold for several months because they have the highest cost and he couldn’t justify raising the retail price more than he already had. He says he strives for a balanced menu, with less costly dishes that have a higher margin, like chicken and pork belly, to balance out the slimmer margin on expensive cuts of beef.
His plates normally cost $17, but there’s a $2 up charge for brisket. “It’s not cheap, so it’s gotta be good. If it’s just mediocre, people are not going to come back at that price.” He says that he has to charge that much just to cover food costs and his three employees’ salaries and make it all worthwhile.
It’s taken more than a year to turn a profit, but now that the tourists are back he says his customers are about half and half, visitors and locals. He’s beginning to make money and picks up catering jobs weekly that help the bottom line. He thinks that the many five-star reviews he’s logged on Google and Yelp! make a big difference.
“It’s super important to get those reviews built up and I think it took me a little later in the game to realize that, but I caught up pretty quick.” He encourages guests who make positive comments to post a review online and makes it easy by displaying a QR code for Google reviews on the front of the trailer. So, if you enjoy Chewy’s juicy burgers and smoky barbeque plates, go ahead and leave him a nice review.