It's back-to-school time, and the students at Maui Culinary Academy are doing their homework, and then some.
Last week, my husband and I indulged in a four-course feast they cooked at the Leis Family Class Act restaurant.
It was served upstairs in the state-of-the-art Pa'ina Building at the University of Hawaii Maui College in Kahului, and our taste buds gave it an A+.
The Class Act Chef Instructor Kyle Kawakami is all smiles as he offers up a dessert of cherry blossom sponge cake with yuzu creme brulee.
The Maui News / CARLA TRACY photo
Student-chef Cord Munoz is truly professionalism personified with his clean look and polite mannerisms as he presents miso-sake broiled black cod (butterfish).
The Maui News / CARLA TRACY photo
Maui Culinary Academy student Renwick Adriano hands bread hot out of the oven to his Pastry Chef Instructor Teresa Shurilla. “He’s channeling a French Parisian,” says Shurilla. “I’m calling him the ‘bread guy.’ ” Shurilla and her students bake all of the bread for The Class Act and sell loaves at the Swap Meet on Saturdays. Varieties include French baguette, multigrain, sour- dough, walnut wheat, and much more.
The Maui News / CARLA TRACY photo
Heck, I'll even kick it up a step further by saying it was like we were dining in the best restaurant on Maui with views of the ocean, impeccably dressed and professional wait staff and stellar tastes. But we weren't the only ones to think so.
"The cream of carrot soup is amazing," says Jolene Trenholm, who's been dining at the Class Act for more than 25 years. "The tastes burst into your mouth. You think you are on the top of the mountain, and it can't get any better. Then it does. It's so good, it gives me chicken skin."
"They're really adventuresome this year," adds another diner. "They put ice cream in a super spicy carrot soup. Who would have thunk it? Yet, it's delicious."
The Class Act at a glance:
Hours: Open Wednesdays and Fridays for lunch only with seatings from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
How much: $30 per person, plus gratuity includes four-course prix-fixe menu with iced tea, amuse bouche, appetizer, soup or salad, entree and dessert. French-pressed coffee service is extra. You may BYOB.
This Friday: Lunch has a French influence with entree choices of fresh opakapaka a la Meuniere; confit of canard (duck); and vegetarian crepe with chevre.
Closed: On Oct. 20, 22, 29 and Nov. 26.
Private dining room: Is available for parties of up to 16 people.
Reservations required: Call The Class Act at 984-3280.
The Class Act is open to anyone, not just students and faculty; it serves lunch only, on Wednesdays and Fridays. This semester's menu was designed by new Class Act Chef Instructor Kyle Kawakami.
"He was a real rock star as a student here," says Juli Umetsu, who currently runs the front of the house. "Former Class Act Chef Tom Lelli had some big shoes to fill and Kyle as a former student was well aware of it. He spent many sleepless nights getting ready to open here."
So what happened to Chef Lelli?
"We asked all the faculty to take on new leadership positions," says Chris Speere, who heads Maui Culinary Academy as the program coordinator. "It broadens all of their perspectives and it develops stronger lines of communication."
So Lelli is now downstairs in the Food Court (open to the public from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Thursday and until 2 p.m. on Friday) and other instructors have been moved around, too.
"Jake Belmonte was teaching at night and now he's teaching daytime," says Speere. "Dean Louie is in the Skills Kitchen. Juli Umetsu will be moving next semester to restaurant supervision. Dan Schulte will take her place. Don Sprinkle is retiring. A lot of large corporations and businesses model this behavior and ask staff to change jobs. It brings to the table something that's even better than before."
"The culinary team at the academy has never been stronger and is continually raising the bar and moving our program forward," Speere adds.
Indeed. While Lelli's food was absolutely phenomenal, Kawakami's menu rocks with innovation, texture and taste. A Maui boy, he grew up in Kula and has cooked everywhere from Fairmont Kea Lani Maui to restaurants in Michigan, Los Angeles and Oahu. In the past three years, he's continued his culinary education at the Culinary Institute of America in California's Napa Valley.
"I miss Chef Tom like the dickens, but I am really excited for Chef Kyle," Umetsu says. "He's the most versatile instructor we have. He's definitely moved around a lot and he has a good perspective of what students are going through. He knows their skills sets and experience levels and so he knows how to allocate his resources."
It all shows in the menu, which "travels" to a different locale each week. This way, you can never get bored. "We're keeping to the same theme with a different cuisine that will rotate from Latin to Mediterranean to French, Italian and New American and, of course, Asian," he says.
"I tell the students I'm learning with them. This is definitely a work in progress. It's a whole new experience."
Friday, The Class Act travels into the heart of France with an appetizer of Big Island Hamakua champignon (mushrooms) and applewood-smoked bacon vol-au-vent. It's a puff pastry with a hole cut out on the top for a lid that lets out aromas.
The next course is asparagus soup or salad of frisee with lardons (pork) cooked sous vide (bagged at low temperatures). Entrees are fresh opakapaka a la Meuniere, dredged in flour and cooked in brown butter with lemon and parsley; confit de canard (leg of duck poached in its own fat); and vegetarian crepe of caramelized Kula sweet onion and chevre (goat cheese).
September's dessert is strawberry Gateau St. Honore (cream-filled puff pastry) with a Tahitian-vanilla ice cream.
You'd be hard pressed to find a meal of this caliber anywhere else on Maui for the price of $30 per person, plus tip.
In addition, the breads baked for The Class Act are simply incredible. MCA's Pastry Chef Instructor Teresa Shurilla has turned into a bread "machine" ever since her husband, Chris Shurilla, fixed the oven. You must try some.
And, last but not least, MCA's premier annual event, The Noble Chef: Taste of the Islands, will be held this year on Oct. 29 at the Fairmont Kea Lani Maui in Wailea.
"For 14 years now, over 300 guests have turned out each fall for the elegant fundraiser, where they enjoy delicious wine and food pairings and raise their paddles for the island's most exciting live auction," says Speere. "This year's event will feature celebrity chefs from neighbor islands and Maui, who will each prepare a dish for the dinner's five-course menu and mentor MCA students, while raising much-needed funds for scholarship, development and expansion of our culinary-arts program."
Guest chefs will include Fabrice Huet of the Four Seasons Resort Lana'i at Manele Bay; Colin Hazama, of St. Regis Resort's Kauai Grill on Kauai; Collin Thornton, of The Fairmont Orchid on the Big Island; Sheldon Simeon of Star Noodle Lahaina; and Donald Wressell, Guittard Chocolate Co.
"I believe Maui County can be proud of MCA, our energetic and passionate faculty, our state-of-the-art Pa'ina facility, and our chef students who continue to respond positively to the challenges we set before them," says Speere.