Native Intelligence: Maui

Cooking with Class

Story by Kyle Ellison. Photos by Bailey Rebecca Roberts.

When Leis Family Class Act Restaurant began accepting reservations for their August 30 lunch service, every table was booked within two hours—even the ones through December. Many restaurateurs can only dream of that level of success, which is ironic considering this Maui restaurant is actually a college classroom.

As part of the University of Hawai‘i Maui College Culinary Arts Program, students spend six weeks working in the kitchen and another six weeks as servers and hosts in the front of the house. “People like the experience of seeing the students in action,” says chef instructor Tom Lelli. “And we have a different menu every week. What other restaurant does that?”

While the semester might start with Latin cuisine like ceviche and chile relleno, other weeks you might find grilled octopus or lamb with Moroccan spices, or maybe scallop and shrimp gratin served from the French-inspired menu. Because the waiters are also chefs, you get an education with each meal. Duck confit, you might learn, must be cooked for six to eight hours at around two hundred degrees, and Cuban steak gets its flavor from the citrusy sauce, or mojo.

Because the restaurant is open just three hours per week (Wednesday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.), many have dubbed it one of Maui’s best-kept culinary secrets, though considering diners on OpenTable named it Hawai‘i’s “Best Overall Restaurant,” it’s fair to say the jig is up. “People who know and enjoy food are the ones that end up coming here,” says instructor Mark Malone. (One regular, Mark says, has come 212 times.) Add in the fact it’s BYOB and that the four-course, prix fixe menu ranges from $32 to $42, and it’s no surprise it’s also been hailed as one of the island’s best dining values.

Despite the accolades, Leis is still a school, where students are constantly being tested. That’s evident after one of the servers finishes naming cheeses on a tray to patrons. “Wrong!” interjects Lelli, who’s looking on. “That’s Morbier—it’s a French cheese. … I switched it up on him.”

Reservations can be made through OpenTable or at (808) 984-3280.