Lahaina Grill Owner & Chef Opens Up

Jurg Münch Speaks on the Return of Comfort Food, Hana and Solar Power

Lahaina Grill Owner & Chef Opens Up

For those in the food or wine business on Maui, Lahaina Grill is a meeting place, of sorts. Well-researched tourists who make the jaunt to this historic whaling town may find themselves enjoying one of the best meals of their trip. For this writer, whenever I touch down on the isle, I can already taste the foie gras and ahi tuna as my rental car rounds the Pali Highway towards Lahaina...

If there's one thing that can be said about a dining experience at Lahaina Grill, it's that all the components-unlike so many other restaurants-are in place. Top-notch service, impeccably consistent fare and a wine list brimming with selections that will make the most seasoned palate dizzy are just the tip of the iceberg.

The man behind the curtain is Jurg Münch; a Swiss-born (and trained), Asia-raised master chef who arrived on Maui's shores 11 years ago,after running the kitchen at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong. He's owned Lahaina Grill (formerly David Paul's Lahaina Grill) for ten of those years, and has spent the better part of most days honing every aspect of the eatery to a dining experience unparalleled on Maui.

We caught up with Münch, and grilled him (pun intended) on rising energy costs, farm fresh produce from one of the most remote farms on the islands, and osso bucco. Read on to hear his take on Maui dining—and how only B on Hawaii readers can get 50% off every bottle of wine on the Lahaina Grill menu. (Admission: Half of that last statement wasn't true.)

B on Hawaii: It seems that there is so much happening within the food and growing scene on Maui these days. Farmers and chefs are practically working hand in hand, cutting out middle men; all the stuff dreams are made of. What do you think about it?

Jurg Münch: I'm definitely enjoying the food scene here on Maui. We work really closely with a number of farms. The most prominent one being Hana Fresh, a pretty small—yet completely organic—operation in Hana on less than 7 acres. We rely on multiple deliveries to cover our high turnover rate, and they really come through. They've been giving us really unique varieties of carrots, beets, fennel, leeks, artichoke and so on. We've reached the point where they'll find and grow specific varieties of lettuce for salads for us.

B on Hawaii: Are you finding the current economic times rather taxing on your business as of late? I know you own the Lahaina Inn, upstairs from the restaurant. It must all be very costly to you, energy wise?

Jurg Münch:
We've seen a little softening in the market, but a few less visitors hasn't affected us much. M philosophy is to not freak out: But keep our heads down and focus on what we do best. Good and consistent food. And customers have come to expect that. We are holding strong, and in these times, I think both regulars and new visitors appreciate that we do so. People like some familiarity when outside aspects become unsettling. Food is the tie that binds that together.

B on Hawaii: Wow, pretty deep. Tell me then, does this affect the type of items you've introduced on to the menu as of late?

Jurg Münch: Actually, it does. While we have a lot of things on the menu that people might riot against if we removed them, I've recently begun adding more comfort-type food. Like braised short ribs, osso bucco and meatballs. Both with a twist, and both have been very successful. You don't see a lot of places where you can get those things in Hawaii. We have a lot of regulars who eat the freshest mahi sandwich for lunch; they don't need to be beat over the head with it at dinner too—although it's ideal for a new visitor to Maui to have that. So by getting extremely high quality meats, the best cuts, we can create bigger and bolder dishes. They're totally making a comeback.

B on Hawaii: I see. Kinda like how you drew me in to the foie gras and ahi appetizer. A little of the Hawaii standby with a classic mainland standby.

Jurg Münch: You really love that dish, don't you? You know, we've grown our menu by 60 percent over the last few years, so we've really been able to make a variety of combinations. There's also something to be said for better access to foods we couldn't find 7 or even 3 years ago. It's why we've started bringing in natural, pesticide free and organic farmed meat. It's better product that shows on the plate, and palate. It's the same reason we make every single thing here from scratch. Ever stock, sauce and so on is reduced with wine over days—sometimes just to produce a drizzle on the plate that puts it over the edge. Customers seem to be noticing.

B on Hawaii: What challenges have you felt as of late?

Jurg Münch: The rising costs of energy are making a dent. So we just finished a photovoltaic system to aide in our electricity consumption. We converted all our appliances and systems to energy efficient ones. Everyone should be as self sufficient as they can be right now.

B on Hawaii: Your background is interesting. Switzerland to Hong Kong. Quite the cultural shift. What were some of the benefits?

Jurg Münch: My father was in the textiles business, so we moved from Zurich to the Philippines, then Taiwan and finally Hong Kong. I moved back to Switzerland for schooling, then settled in Hong Kong for 17 years before coming to Maui. Hong Kong functions at all hours, with all different types of people. We had such a broad spectrum of ethnic cuisines there, I really learned how to meld aspects of many cultures on a plate.

B on Hawaii: Sounds like perfect training for Hawaii. How diverse is your kitchen at Lahaina Grill?

Jurg Münch: My head chef is from Mexico, actually. Arnulfo Gonzales has been here for 18 years. We have a team of loyal employees who have been with us since I took over the restaurant. I think the average worker here has been around for 5 years or longer. It says a lot.

B on Hawaii: What I love about the Grill is your dedication to an impressive wine list, and a staff that can recommend a variety of things from within it.

Jurg Münch: I have a terrific crew, including Richard Olson, our sommelier, who I send out at least twice a year to meet the wine makers. It insures that we get our share of unique wines, which no one else can get. I always encourage other staff members to go out and
research, make new finds of their own, and bring me the ideas. It keeps things fresh.

B on Hawaii: Let's leave readers with a few reasons to head over to the Grill sooner than later.

Jurg Münch: Well, the timing couldn't be better for locals. Kama'aina Tuesdays run all through September [and December], which means 50 percent off all entrees to local residents. It brings about a lot of faces, which is great. It's our way of saying thank you, and people really seem to appreciate it. On Sundays and Mondays, we have a promotion on different wines from various regions. We'll pick a locale, and then taste a spectrum of wines from that producing region. The wines are 50% off those two days.

B on Hawaii: Half off wines, can't beat it. Thanks Jurg.

Jurg Münch: Thank you, aloha.