Lānaʻi City is not a city at all but a tiny village on the least populated of Hawai‘i’s publicly accessible islands. Home to nearly all of Lānaʻi’s 3,200 inhabitants, it’s centered around Dole Park, a town square lined with low-slung, plantation-style buildings that date to the early 1900s, when the island was transformed into the pineapple capital of the world.
There are no stoplights and just a handful of businesses, which include a market that sells great poke, a Korean café with a good burger, an art gallery, and a movie theater that was recently modernized by Larry Ellison, the tech billionaire who bought 97 percent of the island in 2012 for a reported $300 million. Ellison also owns roughly a third of the buildings in Lānaʻi City, including the Hotel Lānaʻi, a two-story white clapboard structure. The 11-room hotel, which has Wi-Fi but no TVs, also houses the Lānaʻi City Bar & Grille.
The restaurant, which takes up most of the first floor, was remodeled last year in a cool, contemporary color palette with modernist black booths — a radical change from the old-timey charm of its original decor. In November, Jimi Lasquete, a chef who trained with Alice Waters early in his career and under Michael Mina at San Francisco’s Aqua, took over; the word around town is that he has transformed a restaurant serving passably good fare, which had consisted of simple dishes like roasted chicken, to one serving top-flight cuisine.
On a summer evening, I settle in and order the pohole fern namasu, a twist on the traditional cucumber and carrot salad that uses local fiddleheads and is dressed with a sesame vinaigrette. The next dish, blistered green beans from a farm on Maui, is served with an equally memorable Hong Kong-style black bean sauce. By the time I sample the vibrant gojuchang dipping sauce for the popcorn shrimp and house-made chicharrones, I’m gobsmacked — how often does one experience such artful cooking in a relatively remote setting?
In the course of the meal, Lasquete emerges from the kitchen for his nightly round of chatting up the diners, a practice he took up while cooking at the 12-table Evans American Gourmet Café, a fine-dining restaurant in Lake Tahoe. He points to the sauces I’m oohing over and credits his Filipino father, a former Navy chef, for helping develop his palate; he goes on to praise the Korean home cooks in his hometown of Newark, California, from whom he learned the painstaking process of making kimchi, an essential element in the pan-Asian cuisine he’s undertaking here.
The day that Lasquete first set foot on Lānaʻi, during a visit with his girlfriend in the summer of 2016, he instantly fell in love with the place. “Here was this amazing peace and quiet,” he says. “And the people I met on the ferry, who were coming home after shopping on Maui, they were so gracious, so reflective of the small-town atmosphere. It reminded me of my upbringing, of my cousins and my family.”
Three years earlier, Lasquete had moved from California to Hawai‘i to cook at Bev Gannon’s acclaimed Hali‘imaile General Store on Maui, then took a break from restaurant life. He worked next as a produce broker, learning firsthand about the fruits, vegetables, and meats from Maui’s many farms and ranches. But he started to miss cooking, and the trip to Lānaʻi was a revelation. He approached a friend who worked for Ellison and asked if there were any positions open on the island. “You stopped cooking?” she said in disbelief. As it turned out, Ellison’s management company, Pūlama Lānaʻi, was looking for someone to run the Lānaʻi City restaurant. “You’re going to have to earn this,” his friend said, and so Lasquete embarked on a series of interviews that culminated in an intense day of cooking — six courses — against several other candidates.
Lasquete won, obviously, and he was given a goal “to make high-quality food at prices that are appropriate for the locals,” he says. I look around the room. It’s filled with working-class locals, along with a few former mainlanders with homes on the island.
In documents filed with the state concerning the sale to Ellison — the executive chairman of Oracle and currently the world’s seventh-richest man, according to Forbes — it was declared that Ellison wanted to partner “with the people of Lānaʻi to chart the island’s future.” Along with the theater upgrade, he installed an Olympic-size public swimming pool and created an office for historic preservation within Pūlama Lānaʻi. And while Ellison’s two resorts are the island’s primary employers, their restaurants aren’t exactly affordable for locals, a gap that Lasquete has been trying to fill with Lānaʻi City Bar & Grille.
Lānaʻi, like the island of Ni‘ihau, has a long history of private ownership. For centuries, Hawaiians, including those on Lānaʻi, had divided their land into tracts that could be used by an individual but not owned. In 1862, Walter Murray Gibson, an erstwhile entrepreneur and newly anointed Mormon leader, arrived on Lānaʻi and began buying plots of land with church money. (He was eventually excommunicated for embezzling church funds, among other crimes.) By the time he died in 1888, Gibson had purchased most of the island, which he passed on to his heirs.
After attempts at sugarcane cultivation and sheep ranching, Lānaʻi was sold in 1922 to James Drummond Dole, who was two decades into building his fruit empire. He covered the island with pineapples and built Lānaʻi City for his employees, along with the two-story building as a guesthouse for his friends. The island was owned by the Doles until 1985, when billionaire David Murdock acquired Dole parent company Castle & Cooke and, with it, the island of Lānaʻi. Out went the pineapples, which still irks some islanders, and in went two resorts, one near Lānaʻi City at Kō‘ele and the other at Mānele Bay.
At a public meeting a year after Ellison purchased the island, the billionaire’s representatives explained that his vision was for Lānaʻi to be the world’s “first economically viable, 100 percent green community.” There are plans for a desalination plant, still on the drawing board, and for restoration of the ancient fishponds, which is in the works. The Four Seasons Resort Lānaʻi at Manele Bay recently underwent a $450 million upgrade, and the Four Seasons Resort, The Lodge at Koele has been in the midst of a massive remodel for the last two years. Pūlama Lānaʻi also purchased a state-of-the-art, USDA-approved butchering trailer so that meat from the roughly 30,000 axis deer living on the island — an invasive species that first arrived in the 1920s — could be used in the restaurants. Each week, Pūlama Lānaʻi’s game management division delivers a pair of deer to Lasquete, and he uses every part of the animal, including in his bolognese sauce, while venison loin with a black cherry cabernet demi-glace has become one of his signature entrees.
In the months since his hiring, Lasquete has been happily training the staff he inherited. Already proficient cooks, they were quick studies in learning some of the more time-consuming techniques he was presenting, says Lasquete, like the demi-glace that takes three days to prepare. And once The Lodge at Koele reopens, its guests will be close to the Lānaʻi City Bar & Grille, and likely to get word of a chef of uncommon skill in an unlikely setting.
Ann Herold, a James Beard Award-winning journalist, is based in Los Angeles and a frequent visitor to Hawai‘i with her Honolulu-born husband.