Ko restaurant executive chef Tylun Pang gives plantation-era fare a modern twist.

At Ko Restaurant, tradition and locality are reflected down to the salt. For executive chef Tylun Pang, there’s no higher homage to Hawaiian cuisine than sharing one’s treasure trove of family recipes.

“Most of our food triggers a memory for me and reminds me of how I grew up,” explains the 18-year veteran at south Maui’s incredibly chic Fairmont Kea Lani resort. With executive sous chef Richard Ramirez, they are at the helm of this 178-seat restaurant.

Ko celebrates the confluence of cultures during HawaiÊ»i’s Plantation Era when sugar was king. Th e mid-1800s drew waves of immigrants to Hawaiian shores to toil on its sugarcane fields—among them, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Portuguese and Filipinos. Though they lived in separate ethnic camps, cultures collided in speech with the evolution of pidgin, and on “mixed plates” when workers cooked and brought their traditional foods to share with each other.

Our epicurean adventure begins with an elaborate bread service where kochujang might be off-kilter anywhere else, but feels right at home here with the arch of condiments, which include edamame hummus and Ali’i Kula Lavender honey butter. Slather these on nine-grain furikake bread, sweet Portuguese roll made from taro dough and Jasmine rice cracker.

Bamboo-skewered cubes of ‘ahi— brushed with macadamia nut oil, and then sprinkled with shichimi pepper and Molokai artisanal salt by Nancy Gove—come with a mega hot ishiyaki stone (for a little DIY fun) and orange ginger miso for dipping.

“It’s playful,” Pang says of the dish. “I want food that make people feel relaxed. We have fun with the concepts, and we try to be inviting to the kamaÊ»aina.”

Tangled tiger prawns are spools of shredded crunchy phyllo that stand tail up on a bed of pineapple next to a huddle of Upcountry greens. It comes with a pineapple chili sauce with candied macadamia nuts strewn for good measure—a harmonious balance of textures with a sweet finish.

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“Ko” is Hawaiian for sugarcane, which graces many elements of the restaurant design. Pops of greens liven up its earthy palette, and linear patterns are reminiscent of sugarcane stalks. Th e curved white ceiling suggests a labyrinth of clouds from where stainless steel beaded curtains hang. It is meant to evoke glistening rain, but instead gives a retro lounge feel, especially with the circular bar and crescent-shaped banquette seating. During dinner, smaller tables at the edge are dimly lit and well-suited for romantic couples, while larger banquettes remain bright and family friendly.

And family is the main inspiration for the esteemed chef. The ginger-steamed snapper, tonight’s fresh catch, is a classic Chinese recipe that was passed on to Pang from his father.

“My dad used to cook it a lot as a whole fish during special occasions,” Pang says.

When snapper is in season, it is offered as such. This evening, the delicate filet is sizzled with peanut oil and rests on a bed of shiitake mushroom and lup cheong, topped with bok choy and cilantro.

When the order of zarzuela, split for two, lands on the table, the rush of herbal aromas invites us to lean closer. As the tumble of shrimp, mussels, clam, lobster tail and rosemary stew (in slowly simmered tomatoes and saffron), my friend Heidi and I proceed to alternate dunking the focaccia and scooping up jasmine rice to join the piquant broth. Paired with the bright acidity of Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc, this divinely soulful dish leaves us deeply satisfied. But the excitement doesn’t end there.

The tempura lobster wins me over with its golden, crisp and succulent chunks of Tristan lobster. It’s served with small bundles of sautéed asparagus, fresh yellow pea shoots and fried vermicelli. A trio of grapefruit ponzu, spicy sesame aioli and Maui Gold pineapple Thai sweet chili complements this savory, mixed indulgence.

Local touches grace everything on the menu. The lamb, marinated in soy sauce, coconut milk and curry powder, is grilled and served with Molokai sweet potato and salsa made with mangoes from a local orchard. Every Sunday, the restaurant offers a popular seafood laulau with a variety of shellfish and lobster put in a bed of baby spinach and coconut milk, and then wrapped in ti leaf. The pouch is cut tableside, and delights guests as its wonderful broth gushes out.

Alas, time to hit the sweet spot with some standout confections. The Chantilly cake is reimagined from a pastry that Pang grew up eating in Honolulu—thin layers of chocolate chiffon cake and sugar cream with a mini chocolate cream puff. The pao doce frito is a malasada, or fried Portuguese sweet bread, fried crisp and rolled in vanilla bean sugar, filled with coconut gelato from Ono Gelato, served with a dollop of Kula black raspberry jam. If your blood sugar doesn’t allow for full-sized indulgence, opt for the miniature samplers. Up the ante with the luscious Violetta dessert wine from Napa Valley’s Grgich Hills Estate.

Choosing a wine is less perplexing, courtesy a tablet that gives the lowdown on bottles and glasses available. The cocktails straddle a dazzling list of traditional tropical libations and modern mixology, and highlight local flavors of calamansi, fresh sugarcane and lemon-grass. My weakness for light, fresh, citrusy drinks leads me to Noel’s Little Lemongrass Shack: Hendrick’s Gin with lemongrass simple syrup, lime juice and muddled mint. Or take a swig of their newest concoction, Earl of Persimmon. Ripe Hashimoto Farms persimmons are pulped and cooked down, combined with brandy and Earl Gray tea, then chilled.

Perhaps just as enduring as Pang’s commitment to local comfort cuisine is his dedication to Maui’s future culinarians. He sits on the advisory board of the Maui Culinary Academy, and the resort has hosted the school’s annual fundraiser, “Noble Chef,” for the past 18 years.

“At one time, I had as many as 11 graduates working for me, and they have become leaders of our operation,” says the proud mentor.

The chef and his team have secured a $15K grant, which enables them to offer scholarships to deserving students through an eight-week internship for the next three years. Interns get to create a dish for the menu. A portion of the proceeds from the dish funds future scholarships. Even royalties from Pang’s cookbook, What Maui Likes to Eat, are donated back to the school.

“Our job is to perpetuate our own culinarians and grow our own talents,” Pang says. “I want them to know we support them. We want them to be proud of where they come from.”

In honoring the Hawaiian heritage from which Pang and his team take inspiration, they’ve transcended a concept and truly enriched the local food movement.

Ko is located at The Fairmont Kea Lani, 4100 Wailea Alanui Drive, Maui, (808) 875-4100 ext. 290.

Photos courtesy Ko Restaurant