A Maui Onion Celebration

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - August 04, 2005
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Ryan Arnaud (center) of Kahana, Maui, won last
year’s keiki onion-eating contest by consuming
5.3 ounces in the 60-second time limit

There are food festivals to celebrate almost everything — many of them grand affairs that end up costing a small fortune to attend. But it is to The Maui Onion Festival that I give the title of “most unpretentious food event in Hawaii.” The Maui Onion Festival doesn’t claim to have the perfect location — although it has a very nice one on the shorefront at Whalers Village, Kaanapali. It doesn’t feature clever wine pairings, it has no silent auction and it doesn’t even have a cover charge. It just bills itself as a fun, family weekend celebrating the humble onion.

In the past 15 years, however, it has so successfully marketed itself that thousands of locals will flock there this weekend — and meet up with hundreds of returning Mainland tourists who come each year to enjoy the simple two-day event.

“I think that the festival offers something unique,” says organizer and director of PR Aubrey Hawk, “in that we are able to bring a piece of upcountry Maui to Kaanapali — the ultimate resort. Every year I see tourists and locals standing chatting with farmers frying onion rings or selling their produce, and I think people feel like they’re seeing a real slice of country life here.”

Not to mention the fact that some of the top chefs on Maui give live (free) cooking demonstrations throughout the weekend. “The quality of the food here and the fact that people can sit and watch these remarkable chefs at work is really fun for people,” comments Hawk.

For me, it’s also one of the most satisfying food contests that I judge all year. While most people put a great deal of effort into preparing a dish for competition — they really get creative on Maui. The Maui Onion Professional cooking contest is one of the highest quality cooking contests in the islands. I always get the feeling that the chefs care so much who wins — and they stick strictly to rules that require them to feature the Maui onion in all its glory.

Last year’s winner, Christopher Napoleon from the Kaanapali Beach Hotel, practiced making his recipe dozens of times before he entered it. His Maui Onion Stuffed Veal Loin with Maui Onion and Leek Fondue was a runaway winner with the judges. Of course, I’m a sucker for anything that celebrates local produce. And even more of one for a festival where farmers and chefs are the heroes of the day. But there really is something very simple and special about this weekend.

This year the festival will focus on children, and a variety of activities — including an onion-eating contest — should keep them occupied while moms and dads enjoy food samples from chefs such as Mark Ellman (Maui Tacos), Ivan Pahk (Vino) and Bobby Masters (Hula Grill).

The festival is Aug. 6 and 7 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For me, and for thousands of others who’ll visit Whalers Village over the weekend, it offers a rare opportunity to take a deep breath, relax and take stock of the incredible beauty of Maui and its amazing produce.

I like to think of it as taking time to smell the onions.

Happy Eating!

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