As business grew, so did the restaurant. An inn opened 10 years ago; a bakery two years back. The Inn at Mama’s Fish House is in growth mode again, with a new expanded lobby and luxurious adults-only rooms with private courtyards as more price-conscious options to the larger two-bedroom beachfront, garden cottages.
But fuelling Maui’s food revolution is as important as ever to this original, even as it enters middle age. For its 40th birthday, Chef Perry convinced the Christensons to buy the food suppliers a gift in the form of a $10,000 buoy. In doing so, Mama’s became the first private company in the state to subsidize what’s more technically known as a FAD – a fish-aggregate device – to facilitate deep-sea fishing.
“We needed our guys to catch more fish, so we dropped a line offshore for fish to come and explore,” Chef Perry says as blurs of white plates carrying the local seafood his investment coaxed out of the sea fly by.
“Hawaii has the best fish in the world, okay?” he continues. “We don’t need to be importing fish from the mainland. The way the currents flow and flush our shores, the stuff you often worry about in other parts of the world isn’t that much of an issue here,” he says, referring to paranoia around eating bigger, more mercury-laced species.
His evangelic boosterism has given Maui farmers preferential treatment, so much so that local producers have replaced most of the restaurant’s mainland suppliers in recent years. Increasingly, Mama’s – as well as other Maui eateries – is vigilant about working with producers who are flying under the radar on other islands. “I was watching the news last year and saw a guy in Kauai who has a clam operation,” Chef Perry says. Perhaps noticing my salivating, he delivers the bad news: “But he can only give us 30 pounds a week – we run out in two nights.”
Fortunately, his fat prawns – from a small family operation on neighbouring Molokai – are plentiful tonight and will turn out to be the best I’ve ever had, prepared minimally with local garlic and vanilla bean, a relatively new ingredient that today thrives in the deepest East Maui jungles.
As the stream of plates intensifies – “We do 800 meals most nights,” Chef Perry says – he intercepts, spins and explains each plate like an art gallery tour guide.
The salad: “Beets from Haiku; hydroponic beans from Kula, right by Oprah’s farm; sweet potato chips made here; and that’s 18-year-old balsamic. It’s all we use,” he says proudly.
Another salad: “Beets from Haiku; heart of palm from the Big Island... cherry tomatoes from Haiku. All in a papaya-seed vinaigrette.”
Mama’s unrelenting volume means local farmers can, for the first time ever, have a predictable market for their produce. Couple that with larger hotels and restaurant chains committing to the local ecosystem, and farming is a legit entrepreneurial play. And Chef Perry is only too happy to set up his fellow islanders to succeed while closing the gap for local ingredients. “Our fish guy always wanted to start something,” he says. “So I said: ‘Plant lime trees.’ We don’t have a supplier here.”
Today, the fish guy is also known as the lime guy and has a lucrative boutique farm in addition to his day job.