Interview with 2012 Hawaii Rising Star Chef Nick Mastrascusca

November 2012

Nicholas Rummell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?

Nick Mastrascusca: My family is half Sicilian and half Spanish, so there was always a great focus on food. Big lunches, big dinners. I grew up with lots of respect for food. My mom always made gnocchi. There were occasions were there were parties with 20 or 30 people. By the time the pasta course came along, they were feeling good and happy; they would sit down and there would be no food. I appreciated that. My dad sold Prosciutto and ham and cheese in Uruguay. He was in the food business from the purveyor end, so I got that side of it, too.

NR: What were your early professional experiences?

NM: I worked in a small Italian restaurant while I was in school in Miami. It was a 30-seat restaurant, traditional Italian. In Uruguay, our house had a separate entrance on side, so I had people over and did a mini-restaurant. Tuscan-style grilled meats over an open fire, family-style food. There would be 15 to 20 people. It was for friends but we would have a small cover charge to cover the food costs.

NR: What is your philosophy on food and dining?

NM: I think it's very much what bringing people together. Nowadays some chefs do too much to the food, too many ingredients, too many different combinations of sauces, spices. My feeling is that you should use as many ingredients as you have close to you so you don't have to do much to them. The way we approach each dish on the menu [at Beach Tree] is three things: star, theme, and hook. For example, with the gnocchi, the theme is that it's the pasta course. The star is for sure the gnocchi; everybody always says the sauce makes the gnocchi, but it's the gnocchi itself. The hook is the oxtail ragout. It's Big Island oxtail. They don't import oxtail here, and the on-island variety has very distinctive, deeper flavor.

NR: What culinary trends do you see in the market now? 

NM:  The Big Island is the most self-sustainable. All islands share the riches of the ocean, but the Big Island has dairy, cows and goats. The advantage that the island has is that it has 11 different climates throughout different elevations. It gives you an opportunity to grow different things. The temperature here and the climate is very consistent. You have sun when you want to do, and if you want colder climate you can go up the mountain.

NR: What about restaurants on the island?

NM: The Big Island is lacking in contemporary concepts, especially a lot of things that bigger cities have a lot more of. There are not a lot of people here on the Big Island, so restaurants have to be busy to be successful here. There is a much bigger scene in Maui, and also in Honolulu. Here there is space for very few great restaurants. The population here can't support it. We average about 80 percent occupancy at the Four Seasons during the year, and have homeowners next door that range from 1500 to 2000, so we're very busy. That allows us to do things that other restaurants and properties [on the Big Island] cannot do. We're in a different reality.

NR: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?

NM:  Making our guests happy, because theses are guests who can go and have gotten food all over the world. They don't have to come to this particular Four Seasons. The expectations are beyond normal. The ice to water ratio in their table water has to be perfect, that sort of thing. But we want to make them happy the way we want to do it. Working with the farmers is not easy, either. You can call them up and say you need three cases of arugula, and they say they have one, and it will take two weeks to grow more. We work with about 165 farms just to be able to meet the demands of our guests. It would be so much easier for me to buy from California, but with us the longest a piece of lettuce has been out the ground is about three days.

NR: Is there a strong farming community on the island?

NM: On Maui and Oahu 50 percent of produce is island grown. As far as the organic movement, it is very difficult for small, boutique farms here to get certified. One of the requirements is that you can't grow anything on that land for two years [before the first seed]. So what are you going to do with that land? It is organically grown, but it is not certified organic. You'll see farmers here using chicken feathers and pork blood and other things. They'll put green garlic or strong basil around their greenhouses to protect against pests that attack the roots of plants.

NR: What's the toughest thing you've had to do in your job?

NM:  One of the biggest things for me has been to prepare for is that I just had a daughter 17 months ago. My wife came from restaurants (she worked at Bouchon in New York), so when we moved here we had the baby and she stopped working. Then I went to overseeing one restaurant to overseeing two and reopening this one. Trying to do those things at the same time was difficult. You learn as you go. It was hard to balance, especially being here with no family around to help with the baby.

NR: Do you think travel is something you'll prioritize in the future?

NM: We haven't really planned too much on travel. Last year we were in Tuscany and Apulia, and we are planning on going back beginning of this year and looking to spend some time over there for a couple of years. We just started producing our own olive oil at the restaurant.

NR: How did that get set up?

NM: While we were in Tuscany last year we went to Antinori. We tasted a bunch of wines and then visited a restaurant nearby, where we heard the manager was working on olive oil butter. Just playing with different temperatures of the olive oil and spinning it while it is semi-frozen so it has the consistency of butter and melts on bread. I knew I wanted to do something with olive oil. So now back in Hawaii I work with Frantoio Frandi, a big olive oil producer in Italy. We agreed on the blend of the olives and launched a few months ago. We serve the oil with our bread, and also sell it commercially. The logo on the bottle is the Beach Tree.

NR: Where do you see yourself in five years?

NM:  Tough to say. I'll be in a restaurant somewhere. Hopefully just one restaurant. We used to own our own place in Uruguay in Montevideo, but we sold it years go. I am kind of blessed in that if I want to open a Uruguayan restaurant, I can. If I wanted to open an Italian restaurant, I can. Or a Spanish restaurant.