The number of food trucks in Hawaiʻi has exploded in the past few years, attracting some unique entrepreneurs to Maui’s roadsides—chefs with storied careers who plied their trade at some surprisingly swanky kitchens prior to going mobile. That means that the folks behind your food truck plate lunch might have come from some of the island’s most beloved and respected restaurants—places like Spago at the Four Seasons.
Chef Cole Hinueber owns and operates Kitoko, a tidy, wood-paneled food trailer stationed at South Maui Gardens, a nursery oasis filled with lush greenery, blooming flowers and bubbling water features–all tucked behind the Island Surf condo complex at 35 Auhana Street in Kīhei.
He specializes in bentos—simple but elegant Asian-style lunch boxes (or plates) with grilled meats and fish, typically served with crispy sushi rice or Okinawan sweet potatoes and accented with pickled vegetables and fresh local produce. His gelato is dense, indulgent, and expensive to make, so he keeps the portions small. The smell of warm sourdough loaves and hand-tossed pizza emanates from the tiny Blue Door Bakery next door, a recent acquisition.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Hinueber, now 36, had been the pastry chef at Spago in the Four Seasons Hotel in Wailea. In a matter of days, the restaurant was shuttered and the staff furloughed, putting an end to his relatively brief stint at the famed fine-dining establishment which had recruited him all the way from Europe just two years earlier.
“I don’t really want my career defined by Spago,” Hinueber tells Maui Times. “It was a good run…but I’ve been in the business for 20 years,” he says, recounting a long career that began in his home town of Wausau in Northern Wisconsin doing prep work at the age of fourteen. After that, he apprenticed in gourmet kitchens around the world, including ten years in France mastering the art of baking pastries.
“I knew that, in order to create the solid foundation that was going to allow me to have a good lifestyle and a decent income, it was important to put in the leg work to earn my stripes,” he says. “So, I always targeted what I considered to be the best places” without any consideration for the hours or pay. “It was just about where will I learn the most? Where will I get the most experience?
“Through my travels I became more focused on my career—more passionate about food—and I was fortunate to learn several different languages and live in several countries,” recalls Hinueber. His destinations included stints cooking aboard a yacht in Monaco and a French cruise ship in Northern Australia. He served up Italian dishes in a fine-dining restaurant in Melbourne, Australia while attending university. He subsequently moved to France, where he focused on baking pastries for a decade.
He studied in the French Alps with chef Pierre Gagnaire, who oversees multiple Michelin three-star restaurants, including his eponymous dining room in Paris, Sketch in London, and Twist in the Las Vegas Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Hinueber moved on to the Four Seasons between Nice and Monaco, a legendary hotel overlooking the Mediterranean with its own Michelin-Star restaurant, where he worked under a nationally-acclaimed pastry chef. From there, he was recruited by Spago at the Four Seasons in Wailea to fill the pastry chef position in 2018.
He had another offer in Champagne, at a high-end restaurant in a new boutique hotel with chefs he knew and liked. He visited the region, but in the end he decided to shake it up a little bit.
“It would’ve been a great professional experience,” he recalls of the job offer in France’s most famous wine-growing region. “But there was nothing but grapes everywhere, and I was like, ‘I can’t live there. I gotta go to Maui.’ It was more a lifestyle choice I suppose.”
Two years into his new position, COVID-19 shuttered many of the island’s restaurants, Spago included. “When we were all furloughed due to the pandemic, I hadn’t gotten any unemployment and I was watching my savings dwindle, so I decided, ‘I can’t just sit here and watch everything melt away,’” he explains. “I wanted to open a bakery, but it wasn’t the right moment with such low activity on the island. So I decided to roll the dice and open a food truck.”
With the return of tourism uncertain, he needed to come up with a menu that appealed to local residents. “I decided to go with bentos, because it’s something that local customers are comfortable with, that speaks to them, and at the same time I can do my own twist. It leaves a lot of freedom and allows me to have fun.”
Hineuber re-worked the menu several times as he tested out the dishes on friends and family. He attributes his success to a strong commitment to locally-sourced meat and produce. He says his ingredients are organic “by and large” and almost all local. To acquire what he needs, he works with both the large, well-known growers, and other smaller farms, some of which only supply a couple of restaurants.
Kitoko opened in July 2020 in a gravel lot behind the Azeka Place shopping center. The site was dusty and windy and lacked a sense of place. “We had a certain level of success there,” recalls Hinueber, “but in order to move our product forward in the market, we felt like we needed someplace more appealing.” So, for December and January, he moved the trailer to Wailea Village where he had a lanai with sunset views and table service. The chef claims the Wailea Community Association forced him out of that location. He says it didn’t seem to matter to the group that the land owner had given his permission, and he doesn’t think they treated him fairly. “It was a huge hurdle to overcome, but we managed.”
“It’s been a challenge getting the respect put on your name,” Hinueber says. He tries to counter the “roach coach” image some people still have by dressing in a crisp, white chef’s hat and coat. “As long as you’re a food truck it’s kind of like people consider you to be a rinky-dink operation,” he says, “despite having been so blessed to have been written up in ‘Town & Country’ magazine and ‘Condé Nast Traveler.’”
A quick review online reveals that Kitoko has, in fact, enjoyed exceptional reviews by some well-respected travel publications. Kauaʻi shrimp, braised beef, and local swordfish bentos are local favorites, with the best seller being a braised beef loco loco with Maui Cattle Co. beef, crispy sushi rice, and green papaya salad.
Kitoko’s signature seafood platter, served family style for two or three people, includes Kona lobster, Kauaʻi shrimp, and seared marlin, with rice and vegetables for $115. “It was kind of audacious to try out of a food truck,” says Hinueber of the pricey dish. “I was hesitant to try for over a year…but from the first day it was successful.”
If that has you suffering from sticker shock, keep in mind that Hinueber also caters private treehouse dinners at the Hotel Wailea, where guests enjoy a multi-course gourmet meal, champagne, and sunset views for about $1,000 per person—a far cry from bento boxes.
While it gave him his start in the world of mobile cuisine, the 14-foot food truck wasn’t quite sufficient for the size of Hinueber’s culinary ambition. On Feb. 1, he took over the Blue Door Bread Company at South Maui Gardens. The food truck and bakery are open 11:30-8:00 p.m. Tues. through Sat., but they open the doors earlier most days and plan to extend their morning hours soon.
Hinueber notes that having the bakery provides more workspace and refrigeration. “It lets us do more pastries, higher volume, and expand our line that way.” He’s pleased with the way the new location is working out. “Lately, over the last few months with the live music, foot traffic and a few other vendors, the activity has really been accelerating,” he says.
Hinueber is introspective when asked about the abundance of other vendors. “I don’t see any competition. That’s not how I view things,” he insists. “I don’t use that lens. Every one of my neighbors has been a collaborator. The key is to create a little hub of a few businesses and as a group you can bring people together.” For example, he provides bread for sandwiches at neighboring business Da Green Coffee Bar.
“I think everybody’s here to help each other, and I think that mentality has really helped me, because I’m only competing with myself. Can we be better tomorrow than we are today? There’s no need to worry about what the other guys are doing,” he says. “What can I do to get better?”
The key to the latter, according to the chef, is hiring good crew members. “We’ve tried to focus on the staff and have it be an educational experience as well as a livelihood for everyone. The idea is that everybody shows up to work high-fiving each other, everybody is very excited about the project, very passionate.”
He credits his low turnover to offering good benefits and pay to the staff, and proudly says he pays better than some of the hotels. “If you want to create that solid team, it’s very important to put value on the staff.”
Is he pleased with the success of his food truck business? Sure. And he’s optimistic about the mobile food industry as a whole. But he has concerns.
“The food truck revolution is great, but it should be noted that it’s a warning about the state of our economy,” Hinueber cautions. Like housing, Hinueber says that restaurant space isn’t affordable on Maui, so skilled chefs like him are sort of relegated to the food truck option.
“A lot of us professionals, we have the experience, we’ve put in the work and the time and you’d think we’d get to a point where we could afford to…rent a restaurant, but it’s the start-up cost that is the obstacle,” he laments. “This is what the economy is dictating. It’s not that they’re not competent to run a restaurant, it’s just that the numbers don’t make sense.”
“The fact is, these places are not affordable, so that’s why we have to use food trucks and it’s actually not okay.”
For newcomers, his advice is simple. “The low-ish startup cost is just one factor, there are a lot of hours that need to be put in. There’s a lot of risk taken,” he says. “So it’s a worthwhile risk for those who are really committed, but you’ve got to be sure, because it’s not an easy road to take, either,” he cautions. “It can be an amazing and rewarding experience, but you’ve just got to be sure of yourself.”