2012 Hawaii Rising Star Chef Elizabeth Mcdonald of Honu Seafood & Pizza

2012 Hawaii Rising Star Chef Elizabeth Mcdonald of Honu Seafood & Pizza
November 2012

Pastry Chef Elizabeth McDonald’s mother was a mediocre cook but a great baker. And from an early age, she instilled an important baking work ethic in her daughter: always work with her hands, and always work from scratch. The lesson took. McDonald’s first job was in a greenhouse, and she still says if she weren’t a chef she’d want to “work in the dirt.” As it happens, she instead works with chocolate.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and staging at Spago Beverly Hills, McDonald spent a couple years traveling to seasonal restaurants in Rhode Island, Key West, and Alaska. Her fascination with vegan pastries began while she was running a catering business in Key West. A friend of hers worked at a nearby vegetarian restaurant and wanted to expand the dessert section there. McDonald spent her nights researching how to substitute bananas and flax seeds for eggs.

That proved more than useful knowledge, especially when the course of constant seasonal travel took her to Hawaii in 2009 and to Honu Seafood & Pizza. There, she was tasked by Chef-owner Mark Ellman with creating a pastry menu from top to bottom without an existing savory menu. Today, McDonald uses her vegan arsenal to craft gluten-free and vegan pastries and pizza that never skimp on flavor or sophistication.

Interview with 2012 Hawaii Rising Star Chef Elizabeth Mcdonald

Nicholas Rummell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?

Elizabeth McDonald: I kind of wanted to do it from high school. I baked a lot with my mom when I was younger. Home Economics was my favorite class. My mom talked me out of it, and I went to regular college for a while. Didn't like it, though. I wanted to be a home economics teacher, but it was too rigid, too uniform. Once I wasn't going to school anymore, my parents were excited that I wanted to do something else. So I went to culinary school when I was 20 and worked at a restaurant and at a farm.

NR: What drew you to the farm? 

EM: It is a farm in Rhode Island. I worked in the greenhouse, planting all the perennials. And for harvest everybody would harvest the pumpkins and potatoes. It was physical and got to do lots of different things all the time. Out here we have a local farmer that helps us out a lot, so sometimes I help him harvest. I've always said if I wasn't a chef I would work on a farm.

NR: Why the interest in vegan and gluten-free pastries?

EM: I am not personally vegan or gluten free. I worked at a hip restaurant in Key West that was, though. It was vegetarian, and had a lot of special-needs customers that came in. I started experimenting and it was fun. You kind of have to learn everything all over again. At Honu, there is not a lot of that around here. We wanted there to be at least one place to have that as an option, so it makes it another option for them.

NR: What culinary trends do you see in Maui now?

EM: Food trucks are blowing up right now, especially on the west side. People are always waiting for them. It does seem that there are more now. Now there are three or four that have really exploded.

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

EM: It is tourist-based, so sometimes we try to do things that are a little out of the box. But a lot of times people are doing activities that are out of the box on vacation, so they want to eat comfort food. So it's a difficulty to strike that balance. Our area is very heavily tourist.

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

EM: Probably working in Alaska. It was just grueling hours, away from home. It was also very hard to get items. We were working in remote camps, so you have to know weeks out what you need for the whole summer. It was fly fishing camps. We'd be hours away by boat from the nearest town. We'd be in essentially tent camps. There would be 15 employees, and then the customers. The camp workers made breakfast, lunch, dinner, cleaned camp. I made dessert. I got set up with that through my husband, who was fishing in Rhode Island. He decided he wanted to do it professionally, so he learned how to be a guide. The first year he went without me, then we moved to Key West.

NR: What drew you to Hawaii?

EM: There's not a whole hell of a lot to do in Key West unless you have your own boat. It's also extremely seasonal. You make your money in four months and are nervous the rest of the year. So we looked into Maui, and by our fourth year of moving back and forth between Alaska and Key West we decided to do something permanent. We didn't know anybody here, but we just came out. My husband still does fishing, off-shore.

NR: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?

EM: I wish I had performed better in L.A. My heart wasn't in it when I was at Spago. It was a great environment, everybody was on top of their game. It was a great learning experience, working under Sherry [Yard]. But it was tough, and a little overwhelming for me, especially just coming from Rhode Island. I felt a little in over my head. And I really didn't like LA as a city.  

NR: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?

EM: Try to focus on whatever area interests you the most. Just go for it, even if it's just showing up and they don't need somebody to work right now. Just learn.

NR: Where do you see yourself in five years?

EM: I miss going to Alaska. Sometimes I feel like I have another summer or two in me. But I've tried to settle down here. It's really laid back here. But being from the East Coast it took a while to get into the swing of things. My husband and I really love it here. We're here for at least the next five years. I go really back and forth on whether I'll own my own place or work for Mark [Ellman]. If it were my place it would be a traditional-style bakery, but we would offer the vegan and gluten-free because I don't want to get away from that.