Chef Isaac Bancaco’s fusion flavors fuel West Side pride
It had been a while since I had immersed myself in the romantic nostalgia of dining on the beach in South Lahaina at Pacific’o. The sunset is incredible, the energy from the harbor is palpable, the salt in the air, the vibes from the nearby Feast at Lele luau, it all contributes to this gorgeous contemporary yet simple fine dining experience. The service is impeccable, and even while the dining room is hustling, each table really feels like it has its own space.
Pacific’o opened its doors in 1993, and continues its evolution as a landmark dining destination this year with new partners and a new executive chef. Joining original partner Louis Coulombe are managing partners Michele and Qiana Di Bari of Sale Pepe Pizzeria e Cucina in Lahaina. Maui’s own Chef Isaac Bancaco rounds out the new team leading culinary creativity and leadership in the kitchen.
Pacific’o has been a leader in the Maui farm to table scene by having its own Oʻo farm in Kula directly supplying and influencing its menu for over 20 years. Chef Bancaco is excited to continue this legacy by shaping the menu around the bounty of land that is near and dear to him.
“There is the connection between my dad’s side of my family being from Lahaina and also my being raised in Kula,” says Bancaco. “Oʻo farm in Kula is at the same elevation, where I was raised. It is just about a mile and a half away from my childhood house. I think that connection between Upcountry, the West Side and my passion for fishing, and the ocean makes me really driven about it.”
The menu features fresh fruits and vegetables from the farm that are harvested and delivered twice a week, but Pacific’o has also long relied on relationships with local fishermen.
“This restaurant has so many nuances, character, history, and mythology,” says Bancaco. “The menu had to be a connection between all those dots. Produce from Oʻo farm and upcountry, buying off the charter boats and commercial boats from Lāhainā harbor and elsewhere. Then mixing in some of our own touches, like our nod to a classic, but with a spin on it, the mahi-mahi Wellington. Then there is the fried chicken and malasadas, which is our riff on chicken and waffles.”
The collaboration between the kitchen and the farm is tight, and yet Hawaiʻi’s seasonal fruits and offerings can be a curveball for the menu.
“Traditional seasons that we would think of are a little bit different on Maui,” says Bancaco. “We got some great plums over the spring. I never thought I could get stone fruit in April. It’s the farmers that have to tell us what grows best in that location, the elevation with that humidity, you know, with minimal inputs because it is an organic farm.
“We’re not farmers, we are cooks. It’s really been a great collaboration where we are telling them the direction of the menu and giving them suggestions but at the end of the day the quantity of things that we can get to run a really busy restaurant is going to be totally indicative of what grows the best.”
Bancaco has a strong sense of his heritage and its contributions to his dishes, but what’s stirring up influence in the kitchen may surprise you.
“I do tap into my upbringing, but I am a little untraditional,” explains Bancaco. “My grandfather’s a hundred percent white boy from Kentucky and my grandma was Japanese. Then my other grandma was Hawaiian, and my grandfather was Filipino, but they were vegetarian. More often than not my Hawaiian grandma would be making a pinakbet with no meat in it and no fish sauce or maybe a little fish sauce, but no shrimp. But right now believe it or not, a lot of my influences are more based on the cultures and influences from the cooks in the kitchen.”
Inspiration is all about the “family dinner.” That is when the chefs make the staff meal and try to outdo each other, where the creativity doesn’t have the pressure of appearing on the menu.
“When a cook is trying to prove himself, usually family meals are where we start, right?,” says Bancaco. “A lot of times they’re going to put their best foot forward because they’re cooking for their peers. They’re going to tap into what they know how to make best and what they think is delicious from their repertoire and sometimes some of the best dishes on the menu come from that.”
The sous chefs also have a lot of sovereignty in Pacific’o’s kitchen.
“Every chef has a similar story and a similar experience with their crew,” Bancaco says. “We find inspiration from these guys, because they are the ones in the trenches and they come from all walks of life. Our sous chefs McKenna Shea and Nick Cleveland are really influential in the menu too. In fact, they have full reign on experimenting. Ultimately I have the final say on what goes on and how it all fits into a menu, but overall, as far as flavors and working with different ingredients, calling on different fishermen to try to go after a particular different species. It’s a team effort.”
Chef Bancaco has a passion for fishing, and you will also find his fresh-caught fish on the menu once or twice a month. He strongly feels like growing up in Hawaiʻi gives us an upper hand in culinary exposure.
“I think all of us have an advantage coming from Hawaiʻi, without even knowing it because innately we’re tasting ingredients that maybe our counterparts in Wisconsin or, you know, other areas of the country aren’t getting exposed to. Growing up with that stuff, makes your mind a little more expanded but it makes the palate a little more open to trying blending flavors.”
That expansion and blending has made Hawaiʻi one of the most sought after culinary destinations in the world.
“There’s some mysteriousness to Hawaiʻi, you know, it’s kind of like, what do you mean you’re five different nationalities?,” says Bancaco. “Everybody wants to come and visit here, and it’s paradise not only in visual beauty, but also it’s a paradise for growing. It’s a paradise for fish. It’s paradise in the middle of the Pacific where you have access to all the Asian stuff too. We have guys like Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, the kūpunas of our culinary world now.”
Among our local culinary influencers, Bancaco points to Maui’s chef and restaurant entrepreneur, Sheldon Simeon.
“Sheldon is such a great proponent, and his messages are so responsible,” says Bancaco. “How he delivers Hawaiʻi, it makes people want to clamor more and learn more about our culture and cuisine and our people mainly. Culture is just a mash-up of language, people and cuisine, right? I can have Hawaiian culture outside of Hawaiʻi as long as we have the people, the cuisine, and the language.”
Bancaco’s riff on chicken and waffles is not as simple as it sounds. A lot of thought and tinkering with the components of the recipe happens before it hits the menu.
“The fried chicken is actually a recipe I’ve been working on for a year and half,” says Bancaco. “You never quite get it right with the marinade, how long do you soak it in buttermilk, and what kind of flour do you use before you fry it. All those little nuances and details have to be hashed out. And what size do we make the malasadas because the size matters to how soft and gooey they are on the inside. We wanted a little bit of a sweet component, but we didn’t want to make the malasada sweet. So we added the maple chili on top of the chicken as a drizzle. We are inspired by the fried chicken and waffles, but at the end of the day the dish took so many turns that it has the essence of it but it is so different it can stand alone as its own creation.”
Another fusion dish on the menu at Pacific’o makes a nod to their new connection with Sale Pepe and chef Michele Di Bari.
“In my mind, pillars of where we are now and where we’ll go forward is the Cacio e Pepe,” says Bancaco. “Our relationship with Sale Pepe has a lot to do with the dish with Michele making the fresh pasta. It is a real bold preparation and process. We reduced the mirin, sake, ginger, and all the Japanese flavors, we literally made it into molasses. Then we mix miso into it. Then we mix it into butter so we have a consistent finishing agent. Fresh pasta cooked à la minute finished with miso butter, parmesan, black pepper, and a poached egg. I have to give props to my old sous chef at Andaz for developing an abalone miso risotto. It was one of the best things I have ever tasted, and it informed this dish. It’s an Italian meets Hawaiʻi meets Japan type of dish. All throughout the menu you will find nuances like that.”
Pacific’o opens at 5pm Tuesday through Saturday, reservations are recommended. For more information visit Pacificomaui.com or call 808-667-4341.
Located in The Shops at 505
505 Front Street, Suite 114, Lahaina