The search for the right fish to serve in Lakeside at Wynn results in an unshakable bond between a chef and a fishing family in Maui— and a journey to the unspoiled paradise that yields its bounty.
The search for the right fish to serve in Lakeside at Wynn results in an unshakable bond between a chef and a fishing family in Maui—and a journey to the unspoiled paradise that yields its bounty.
Gina Lind stands in front of the house that she and her family are renovating in Hana, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Statuesque and strikingly beautiful in shorts and a tank top, her long, curly hair casually tied up and tucked with a plumeria flower while the youngest of her five children— 3-year-old Kaihawanawana (“Kai Kai”) and 10-month-old Adrianna—cling to her limbs, she’s calmly directing a snarl of family traffic. Eight-year-old Talia and 6-year-old Wai’oli are trying to corral the litter of puppies that was a surprise feature of the new property. Her oldest, 13-year-old Ekolu, is helping his father, Greggie, unearth the 70-pound pig that’s been steaming in the imu in the front yard. The compact earth oven is meticulously layered with wood and basalt stones to hold in the heat, and the pig is wrapped in ti leaves and chicken wire to keep the tender meat from falling apart. It’s a fragrant, smoky, labor-intensive once-a-year treat—an indication of just how excited the family is that Uncle David has come to visit. The “uncle” designation is honorary, but David Walzog, Executive Chef of Lakeside and SW Steakhouse in Wynn Las Vegas, and Greggie Lind greet each other like long-lost brothers. They’ve been texting all morning, planning the logistics of the next few days of fishing, cooking, and entertaining. Greggie has recently switched mobile phones, since the last wasn’t consistently picking up Walzog’s texts. “Forget about his wife,” Gina says in her characteristically gentle, teasing way. “He needs to make sure he can be in constant contact with David.” Yet what Gina laughingly calls the “bromance” between the fisherman and the chef has become crucial to Walzog’s deceptively simple menu of Hawaiian fish at Lakeside—2,700 miles away from this scene of celebratory chaos. Walzog is well aware that restaurants will go to great lengths to engineer a narrative in the name of attracting diners who, now more than ever, care about the origin of their food. Certainly any restaurant with sufficient resources could create the Epcot version of Mama’s Fish House, the famous beachside restaurant on Maui’s north shore. But Walzog wanted to dig deeper. The story behind Lakeside’s now-renowned Hawaiian fish program, which brings snapper, mahimahi, and ono, among other species, directly from their clean Pacific waters to Wynn—sometimes within a day—involves this friendship, naturally. But at its core, it is about supporting the traditions and practices of family fishermen for whom conservation has been an unspoken principle for hundreds of years. And of course, it’s about the purity and the freshness of the fish that Walzog can deliver to diners in less time than many Maui restaurants can. A longtime Maui vacationer, Walzog had always been drawn to the idea of living off what is abundant and available. “You’ve got to love the freshness right out of the water,” he says on the first day of our fishing trip, his slim boning knife zipping through a snapper. “So the question has always been how we take this experience to the next level and really tell the right story about it.”
“You’ve got to love the freshness right out of the water. The question has always been how we take this experience to the next level and tell the right story about it.”— DAVID WALZOG
At its core, the story is about supporting the traditions and practices of family fishermen for whom conservation has been an unspoken principle for hundreds of years.
When he was beginning to plan Lakeside’s Hawaiian fish menu, he knew he didn’t want to employ an ordinary commercial fishing operation. “Typically, those boats are out on the water for 12 to 14 days, and they keep their haul on ice until they sell it at auction,” he explains. “That length of time is still considered fresh by the standards of most restaurants.” So he called his friend Eric Kingma, the environmental policy coordinator for the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, for ideas. “He recommended the Linds based on what honest, responsible, and good people they are,” Walzog says. After a flurry of phone calls, he was on a plane to meet them in Hana. A typical day for Greggie and Ekolu starts before dawn, when Gina helps them launch their fishing boat and then drives back home to get the children ready and go to her teaching job at the local elementary school. She’ll come back when their day is done in the late afternoon. The boat is Kaihawanawana, or Whispering Ocean, the name given to the Linds by Greggie’s paternal grandmother following age-old custom. “She had offered us a second name, Ehukai, but that reminded us of rough oceans,” Gina says. “The area of Maka’alae is known for its ehukai [salted breezes] when the ocean is rough.” Because their livelihood is entirely dependent on good seas and the fair treatment of their contents, for the Linds, tradition and protocol—even a bit of ancient supersti- tion—are everything. When a member of the crew grabs a banana to take on the boat, Greggie stops him. “No bananas,” he warns. “It’s bad luck.” We ask why, expecting some romantic Hawaiian origin story, and Greggie is flummoxed. It’s just not done, he responds. A single banana can be a scourge to a whole day’s fishing. The reason doesn’t matter. On board, Ekolu and Greggie reel in fish with the intricate choreography that only a father and son born to this life can achieve. Ekolu can’t imagine another way; in fact, he has negotiated a homeschooling arrangement with his mother, his days of fishing contingent on his grades. The waters are choppy, but Ekolu scans the sea for the flocks of birds that signify there are fish below. He looks far older than a newly minted teen as he reels in fish after fish, the densely green hills fronting Haleakala Crater as his backdrop. He and Greggie won’t catch more than they can sell, and nearly all of their haul will go to Walzog. In fact, for Walzog, the fish shopping happens while Greggie is still at sea: “He’ll call me and say, ‘I’m at 200 pounds of mahimahi. Stop or keep fishing?’” Once they’ve reached Walzog’s target, the Linds will return to shore, pack the haul into coolers, drive for two hours down the winding road to Kahului, and ship their fish to Wynn. If they time things right, the shipment will be served at Lakeside the next night.
That afternoon, it’s Walzog’s turn to go to work, and he takes his cues for the evening menu from the mountain of local ingredients sitting in the tiny kitchen of the house our crew is renting in Maka’alae. A 40-pound tuna is cubed for ahi poke, and tuna loins are seasoned and tossed on a grill in the backyard. Little Lind children scatter to find ti and banana leaves to hold the food; the lemongrass they’ve picked is stuffed inside whole snappers, with fat ginger slices in slits in their flesh. The shredded pork from the imu is seasoned and warmed; native fiddlehead fern shoots, pohole, become a salad spiked with sweet Maui onions; and the island’s famous tomatoes are simply dressed and tossed with basil and spring onions and studded with goat cheese from Surfing Goat Dairy in Kula, in Maui’s upcountry. In Las Vegas, Walzog serves dishes he has refined for a fine-dining audience, but the idea remains the same: Coax the flavor from the fish with the simplest ingredients possible. (His favorite at Lakeside: the onaga, or long-tail red snapper, whose slight sweetness he offsets with an Asian set of pickled Japanese vegetables and ponzu broth.) The beers come out and trucks show up, bringing friends from all over Hana. All this food is a good excuse for a party, which becomes almost too perfectly photogenic when Gina’s father, Hank Eharis, Jr., appears with his ukulele. To say that fishing is in the Linds’ DNA is something of an understatement: Both Greggie and Gina have fishing roots that go deeper than recorded history. On our final morning, we drive to the coastal area of Kanewai in Mu’olea, the family’s ancestral land, where Ekolu sometimes goes fishing at dawn, gath- ering up his net and tossing it in one smooth motion from the jagged black volcanic rocks into the sea. There is a distinctly sacred feeling to this area, which was owned by 13 families, seized as “crown lands” during the Great Mahele—the Hawaiian land redistribution carried out in the mid-19th century by King Kamehameha Iii—and temporarily used as a royal summer palace by King David Kalakaua. The matriarch of the House of Kalakaua, Analea Keohokalole, returned it to the families, from which both Gina and Greggie are descended, in the late 1800s. “But people needed money in the mid-1900s,” Gina explains, “and the only thing they had of value was their land, so they traded it.” After the land was nearly developed, the county and private donors interceded to make the area a kapu, or preservation district. We walk down toward the water, through tangles of yellow liliko’i (passion fruit) vines, mango trees, and coconut palms, and past a horse that ambles through a grassy clearing. The place, announces a sign, is an opihi resting area, referring to the small cone-shaped mollusk that the nonprofit group Na Mamo o Mu’olea, which oversees the district, is trying to protect from professional opihi pickers (consuming a few on-site is allowed). Greggie cooks two over the fire; they’re rubbery and salty and bathed in their own liquid. He splits open purple ha’uke’uke, the helmet urchins that cling to the rocks, so we can taste the buttery yellow roe. Gina’s father, who heads Na Mamo o Mu’olea, considers it a sacred duty to preserve the lands all the way up Haleakala and down to the sea: Every change in the landscape has a cascading impact, eventually affecting the waters that hold the key not only to their livelihood, but also to their culture and their history. “We were married down here, and our families have had their ashes spread here,” Gina says. “It is a ‘piko place’ [literally a ‘navel cord’] for us, lineal descendants who have a close spiritual tie to Kanewai. It is as much a part of us as fishing is.” Greggie and Walzog watch the kids scramble over rocks and through dense trees as the men talk a little shop, discuss Greggie’s next visit to Las Vegas, and, most important, plan what they’ll make for lunch (as it turns out, the world’s most precious tuna sandwiches, from yesterday’s ahi). It is through this friendship, and this family of stewards of the land and sea, that David Walzog has found a story to tell every night in his kitchen.
The backyard in Maka’alae before the party arrives.
below: Fresh ahi poke is garnished with ogo seaweed, sesame seeds, and spring onions and served from a coconut. right: Greggie Lind serves daughter Kai Kai a plate at the party, while Wai’oli awaits his turn from a tree. opposite: Grilled ahi loin anchors a guest’s plate.