Bev Gannon has been making waves in the Hawaii fine-dining world for over 30 years, and today she's more enthusiastic than ever about crafting bold new dishes that pack flavor into every gourmet bite. "You can't rest on your laurels. You can't rest on your last meal," says the James Beard-nominated chef and restaurateur. "You have to constantly be looking for what's new."
Throughout Gannon's accomplished and groundbreaking career, she has managed to stay on the cutting edge of innovative cuisine, while forging a thriving business in an industry that's notoriously challenging. It turns out she's seen dramatic changes in the Island dining scene over the years, and she's looking forward to seeing how things continue to evolve and improve.
Gannon is perhaps best known as one of the 12 founders of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC) movement, which championed the use of locally-sourced meat, fish, and produce in an emerging genre: Hawaii-centered fusion cuisine. In the early '90s, she and a small group of pioneering chefs, including Sam Choy, Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, joined forces to figure out how to make gourmet-level agriculture economically sustainable in Hawaii.
“When I first got into the food business in Maui in the late '80s, I wouldn't even put tomatoes on my menu because they all came from the Mainland and were terrible and mealy,” she says. At the time, nearly all the mahi mahi being served in restaurants across Maui was frozen, not fresh. Gannon had to cover the fish in heavy sauces to breathe life into what should have been a star ingredient on its own.
To solve the lack of high-quality ingredients, she and her fellow chefs began building relationships with farmers and fisher-men and -women who could provide their fresh, local produce directly from farm to restaurant. In the beginning, it was expensive to buy local, but the HRC chefs committed to taking a loss in the short term to build up their vendor base. “When Malama Farm first started raising Berkshire pigs, it was tough for them to get to the slaughterhouse and then to market. I couldn't make money ordering their pork but I still bought it,” says Gannon. “Now they've been in business 10 years, and many local restaurants buy from them, which means it costs less for me to get that pig on the table.”
Over time, the quality and selection improved dramatically. “We didn't have to mask flavors anymore,” Gannon says. “Now, I work with local tomato farmers who grow incredible heirloom tomatoes on-island. Same with my lettuce. Change begins at a local level.”
Gannon's claim to fame doesn't end with the success of Hawaii Regional Cuisine; she's built a notable career based on breaking culinary ground that's lasted for more than 30 years. A former road manager for singer Liza Minnelli and a graduate of legendary culinary arts school Le Cordon Bleu in London, Gannon went from running a catering business out of her Makawao home kitchen in the early 1980s to opening a restaurant—the critically acclaimed Haliimaile General Store—with her husband, concert tour producer Joe Gannon, in 1988.
Gannon also served as Hawaiian Airlines' executive chef for over a decade from 1999 to 2010, has authored several cookbooks and won countless awards including six HONOLULU Magazine Hale Aina awards and the Maui No Ka Oi Aipono Award for Chef of the Year.
That's a lot of laurels. But, true to her word, Gannon keeps her focus on the road ahead of her, pushing herself to continue elevating the level of her cuisine and keep developing exciting and creative new dishes.
“I travel quite a bit these days, mainly to see what is going on out there,” she says. “I learn something new everywhere I go. I was in California the other day, and learned about this poblano pepper liqueur that's so good; I could create a cocktail from that. And I ran across a deconstructed fish taco that has so much possibility—imagine putting an Asian twist on that!?”
“I like to think of my cooking as 'eclectic American cuisine' with Asian overtones,” Gannon says. “Dishes are always shaped by what's available at market. Maybe strawberries are in season so I'll think about making a fruit tart, but then I'll include an almond paste the way they do in France. Then maybe a kaffir lime glaze on top, to add an Asian element. I might marinate a roast chicken with garlic and ginger, serve it with a morel mushroom sauce, to create a Eurasian entree.”
Gannon and her husband recently traveled to the South of France, around Saint-Remy-de-Provence and Cassis, exploring farmer's markets, butcher shops and delicatessens for new regional flavors she could possibly include in future menus.
“I've been coming to Provence for many years, and what I love most is the vitality of the region. When we visited, white and green asparagus were in season. To taste an asparagus, or cauliflower or leeks, that may have been picked as recently as an hour earlier; it's a flavor like nothing else,” says Gannon. “This freshness reminds me of Maui these days, where the local farmers come to market with produce and, whatever they're bringing in is what you're cooking with.”
Gannon often rents an apartment when she travels, so she can cook the fresh market ingredients and learn how it all tastes in the moment. And then she brings her new knowledge and inspiration back to Hawaii. “Travelling like this is how I get rest, but it's also how I fill up my creative coffers,” Gannon says. “I bring that excitement back to my kitchen.”
Of course, running a restaurant involves much more than just cooking up delicious dishes. The business aspect is just as important, and just as challenging. Gannon says she's always trying to learn more about how to run her restaurant better. “I talk to people all over,” she says. “I am a sponge when it comes to finding out how other people do it. Is there a better way? I'm so interested.”
She says she used to think of Haliimaile General Store as a mom-and-pop shop. “We'd say, oh, it's just a mom-and-pop restaurant, it doesn't matter. Well, yes, it does matter. There are always ways to make a better restaurant, how it runs, how it looks.”
Buying local is still expensive, but Gannon and her team keep a close eye on their numbers to make sure they can continue to invest in quality ingredients that support local purveyors. “In the restaurant industry, the margins are tiny. I jump for joy if I can have a net profit of 7 percent.” Gannon says. “What you have to do is figure out how much money you need to make, then grow your business to get there. It's not easy, but that's the industry.”
Maui regulars have to come to know Haliimaile General Store and Gannon's for top-quality ingredients, entrees and service. Even in an era of social media and Yelp reviews, Gannon still primarily relies on word-of-mouth to attract new clientele. “Haliimaile General Store is 30 minutes from any resort area so, for new visitors, even if they read a review, they're not going to venture over until they ask someone to make sure it's worth the drive,” says Gannon. While the vast majority of Gannon's restaurant reviews online are positive, the chef will often search out less-than-glowing ones. “We have systems in place to have a waiter and the manager come over to make sure everything's okay, and each table gets touched two or three times over the course of the meal to make sure customers are happy. Our kitchen isn't always perfect, no kitchen is, but it doesn't mean we can't correct things immediately.”
Working in the restaurant industry has been a constantly evolving journey for Gannon, ever since she first walked into Bank of Hawaii when she moved to Maui over three decades ago. “I opened a checking account, looked at the manager and said, 'I'll never bounce a check.' That was 38 years ago,” Gannon says. “As I was growing my restaurants, having a relationship with my bank was important.” When the chef visited France recently, she was able to make a call to her relationship manager at Bank of Hawaii The Private Bank to get euros before her trip. If she needs to access funds or has questions about her account, her relationship manager makes sure everything she needs is taken care of. Having Bank of Hawaii managing her money frees Gannon up to focus on her passion: food.
“Running a restaurant is one of the hardest jobs in the universe. It's the first thing you think about when you wake up and it's the last thing you think about when you go to sleep at night—if you go to sleep at night,” she says. “It's not a job that you manage as part of your life. You have to approach it as, this is your life.”
“I'm still doing it, because I love what I do,” Gannon says. “The minute I'm not enjoying it anymore, that's the minute I stop.”
Who inspired you to cook:
My mother because she was such a bad cook...it made me travel the world in search of fabulous food.
Table or booth:
Baked potato filled with butter, crème fraîche and heaping spoonfuls of caviar.
Favorite cooking possession:
My cast iron skillet.
What would you bring to a potluck:
What they all want always...the crab dip!
Favorite local delicacy:
Spiny lobster and opakapaka.
Very, very dirty martini with three blue cheese olives.
Bucket list goals:
Write one more cookbook, go on an around the world cruise or African safari.
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