New management at the state-run Maui Culinary Academy, you say?
I was a little confused at first, too, as the food-service program is under the umbrella of Maui Community College, which is part of the University of Hawaii. So why would outside management step in to help run the already successful program?
Chris Speere, the program's coordinator, invited me to lunch at the Leis Family Class Act the other day to explain about the new partnership with Sodexo, Inc., a for-profit organization.
The Maui News / CARLA TRACY photo
Second semester student Sonia Autry is part of the team in the Leis Family Class Act restaurant, upstairs in the Pa‘ina Building. Diners will find extended hours in the facility and much more.
The Class Act is an incredible restaurant run by student-chefs that serves lunches on Wednesdays and Fridays. Anyone on Maui may dine there.
"We've always struggled to take Maui Culinary Academy to the next step," he said. "It's like getting a shiny Ferrari for your birthday, and only being able to drive it in the first gear."
As he explained, chef-student Sonia Autry brought to the table a little amuse bouche of vichyssoise of artichoke and basil "caviar," the latter popping in the mouth like real and expensive Sevruga.
Comment: Everyone on Maui may enjoy the food at Maui Culinary Academy. You don't just have to be a student or faculty member. Call them for catering, and enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner in numerous outlets on various days.
When: You may order food from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday; and 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Most restaurant outlets are located ground level in the Pa'ina Building at Maui Community College in Kahului. Prices are very reasonable and takeout is available.
The Class Act: Upstairs in Pa'ina Building. Open for lunch seatings from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday. Cost is $30 plus tip. You may BYOB. Call 984-3280.
For other details: Call 984-3367.
She said her class was experimenting with molecular gastronomy, and basil "caviar" is a learned creation.
Before Speere could get to the meat of the matter about Sodexo, student-chef Carolina Curtin (who is also employed as pastry chef of Mama's Fish House) brought a sous vide item of cryovacked watermelon served atop arugula puree.
It was looking a lot like the techniques that acclaimed French Laundry Chef Thomas Keller uses. Never had I seen such bold and state-of-the-art practices at Maui Culinary Academy before.
Speere continued between bites and I tried to listen, which was hard, because the food was off the scale in taste, color, texture and presentation.
"Basically, we started looking at how we could expand. The program is over 32 years old, and we've always had only so many instructors to teach only so many classes. The faculty could only handle so much and was prohibited by the state of Hawaii to hire any more people."
In comes Sodexo, Inc., an international conglomerate that is in 80 countries with over 355,000 employees.
With their help, Maui Culinary Academy now is able to hire people to take on all of the catering jobs that comes its way, and to expand its hours in the food outlets and even in the classroom - so interested students may take night courses and people in the community may buy breakfast and dinner to eat in or take home.
You'll also find a host of food Saturdays, when the Maui Swap Meet runs outside in the college parking lot.
"It's hot and windy out there at the Swap Meet and in here (the Pa'ina building) is like a cool oases with sports on TV," Speere said. "Right now, it's a tight job market out there, and with Sodexo, so we're able to employ students internally."
But it wasn't easy for many to accept Sodexo at first.
"This was the biggest change that ever happened to us," said Speere. "There was a lot of fear at first - like the Evil Empire was going to come in and muck up what we had in place. But in reality, the exact opposite has happened."
Sodexo used to run Hawaii Super Ferry's food service and when that closed down, its boss, Ed Costa, was approached by Speere to step in at MCA.
"We really hit the jackpot with Ed. He has a great demeanor and he loves food. He's a chef and leader. He's infusing energy and has already hired 10 students."
Costa also joined us at lunch and had some great ideas to grow the program that now has 165 students.
"The community can benefit from all of this and the Pa'ina Building is an exciting place to meet for lunch or dinner," Costa said. "We're developing a new nighttime pasta program where they make it right in front of you. Pasta with nut-brown butter and sage, say. Students are getting trained on the job and getting paid for it."
The partnership is unique in that it's a first for a state-run community college to partner with a for-profit food-service management corporation.
"We're a nationwide model," said Speere. "But the profits go back to the school," said Costa. "We just get a management fee as we take care of operations."
Chancellor Clyde Sakamoto, a true-blue foodie, stopped by to weigh in.
"We hope Sodexo will identify students and then place them in exciting international opportunities," said Sakamoto.
"Long term, we hope to attract kids from all over the world to learn here and that we'll have an increasingly sophisticated culinary force."
There's never been a better time to dine at MCA or to sign up for classes.