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From Spear to Fork

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Isaac Bancaco

Andaz Maui Executive Chef
It’s early morning, and the deep blue Pacific Ocean is placid and glassy a quarter mile off Napili-Honokowai on Maui’s west shore. The dark green silhouettes of Molokai and Lanai sit next to each other on the horizon. Underwater visibility is easily 70 feet, and the water is 81 degrees, just like any other day.

A few bubbles disturb the surface, and a dark figure in the depths grows larger. With a small splash and a big gasp, Isaac Bancaco emerges from the water. He’s been under for a long time. His father, captaining the small boat nearby, watches with pride as his son reloads the bands on his speargun and prepares to dive again. They exchange a nod that communicates everything.

Isaac breathes in and out rapidly several times, hyperventilating, and then inhales deeply before plummeting straight down into the aquamarine waters he’s been sourcing dinner from his entire life.

Where did your passion for fishing originate?

I come from an ocean family. And being from an ocean family, we always had fish. I still remember how my grandfather, my dad and I would go to light the fire before we got in the water. Back then there was a little more fish than there is now. After the fire was lit we'd go spearfishing, shoot a couple of fish to feed whatever family was going to show up that day, and come back.

We used kiawe (mesquite) wood, and it takes a while to cook down. So by the time we got in and out of the water, the fire was perfect. We'd clean the fish right on the shoreline, add Hawaiian salt, and it went right on the grill. And that's kind of where the passion came from, for fishing. Grandma would come down a short time after that with rice and her side dishes, her pancit and adobo (Filipino dishes), her vegetables that she would stew, and we'd have a little feast with the family.

My grandma is of Hawaiian descent. She has a little bit of Filipino and Chinese but when she married my grandfather, she married into a Filipino family. And he loved his Filipino food, so she had to learn how to cook Filipino from my grandfather’s sisters. I was always inquisitive, so I would stick my nose and fingers in everything, especially food. And you know she didn't like that because she is proud of her cooking and she wanted me to taste it when it was done, not in the progression. But that’s how I learned, and so my passion for cooking really came from my grandma.

I grew up surrounded by great fishermen but also pretty darn good cooks, too.

"It's extremely important to pay attention to the care and sourcing of the ingredients."

Does spearfishing make you reflect on where your food comes from as a chef?

Yeah, it's extremely important to pay attention to the care and sourcing of the ingredients. For me, when we deal with fish, I want to know what the fish ate because the fish is going to taste like what it eats. You want to know what the fish or the cow or the pig eats because chances are that's what's going to mesh well and be able to be paired best.

We get Malama pigs which are locally grown here and they're fed a vegetarian diet - apples and fruits. And if you smell the meat it smells floral and fruitful like that. Same thing with mahi mahi, which feeds on different bait fish, they're going to taste like that. My favorite fish are bottom fish - uku, onaga, opakapaka, upu - because those fish feed on crabs, crustaceans and smaller fish that dwell closer to the base of the ocean. I don't know about you, but I love crab and so do these fish that I love. So one of the classic pairings would be crab with some of these bottom fish, and they almost have that sweet ocean aroma to the flesh and it’s easier to pair that way.

What’s your philosophy in building a menu?

At Kaana Kitchen, our signature restaurant at the Andaz Hotel Resort where I work, a lot of the menu is extremely flexible and based on what's available, on seasonality, not only in the ocean, but with produce. The way we write our menu is not based on coming up with this grandiose idea of how this dish should be, and what should be in it. It's more so along the lines of what the farmers and fishermen are getting at that time, and then adapting our ways of cooking and style of cooking on our menus based on what we can gather at that time.

It’s kind of a reflection of how you do it at home, right? If your garden doesn't have holly ferns because it's not in season, you're not going to say, "We're going to go to the neighbors and raid their holly ferns." You gotta just take what you can out of your own garden, and it's kind of the same concept. I go to the families that I care about on Maui, the families that are still doing the fishing and farming, getting their hands dirty, or getting their hands fishy, so to speak, and really understanding the story of who they are and where they've been, what they do, and I translate that to our guests.

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