Taste of chocolate

Decadent desserts at the annual Maui event

There are few places better designed to induce a semipermanent state of bliss than the Four Seasons Resort at Wailea. On the southeast shore of Maui, with views across the vast Pacific Ocean, the resort is a haven for celebrities, the rich and famous, and those seeking the particular kind of solace that’s found floating in an infinity pool or dining at Spago. Even Wolfgang Puck counts the Four Seasons among his favorite places to cook, taking every opportunity he can to come to Maui for his own “Hawaiian California” cuisine.

Go there any week of the year and you’ll find yourself immersed in the kind of luxury that creates a sense of paradise.

In June, during the Maui Film Festival, you might just head into hedonistic overdrive. A Taste of Chocolate, with humble beginnings as a large dessert station at the film festival more than eight years ago, has turned into one of the most exclusive – and possibly the most addictive – food festivals in the Hawaiian Islands.

As night falls and volcanic chocolate lava begins to flow, celebrities and others with chocolate cravings head to the grassy lawn above the upper pool for dishes with dreamy names. Velvety chocolate domes filled with banana cream and caramelized bananas sit alongside assorted handmade truffles displayed by the hundreds. Grand Marnier soufflés are served hot, with melted chocolate oozing onto chocolate trays. Hazelnut-crusted molten chocolate cakes, with their chunky strawberry ice cream pairings, are made to order.

“Everybody loves the chocolate cake,” says executive pastry chef Rhonda Ashton. “We bake it to order, and every year I’m surprised by how much people can eat.”

Not much else surprises Ashton when it comes to making chocolate. She’s been in charge of A Taste of Chocolate since her first year at the Four Seasons.

“We brought the ‘Taste’ in house and made it our signature event in 2005,” says Ashton. “That’s coincidently the year I arrived.”

If A Taste of Chocolate appears to be something of a daunting prospect for the chefs involved, A couple of years ago, Ashton designed a chocolate bikini, which was modeled for a press release. She cut the pieces from sheets of chocolate, just as a designer would cut fabric. “It started to melt as soon as it warmed on the model’s skin,” says Ashton, who was able to expertly touch-up the melting parts for the photo. “But it did look good.”

Each festival, as chefs and pastry chefs gather in anticipation of the exclusive event, the emphasis is on how to keep things exciting.

“Liquid nitrogen ice cream, for example, creates a fun visual experience, and made-to-order desserts – like the mini soufflés – are things that people love,” Ashton says. She also experiments with pairing herbs and savory items with chocolate.

And then there are the drinks. Iced white chocolate milkshakes with homemade chocolate ice cream, milk chocolate whipped cream and chocolate martinis that are pre-poured by the dozen all sit at a chocolate bar alongside premium spirits such as Cruzan Rum, Grand Marnier and Grande Cuvee champagnes.

And while chocolate is the reason most guests go overboard with excitement at the festival, there also are those who enjoy spending their night celebrity-watching. At last year’s event, Eddie Murphy was rumored to be there, as were Kristen Bell, Anna Faris, Tori Spelling, Dean McDermott and Virginia Madsen. Pierce Brosnan, Felicity Huffman and Dennis Quaid also have been spotted in recent years.

Whether you’re an A-list celebrity or an impassioned chocoholic, Ashton is planning new surprises this year.

“I’m going to be using liquid nitrogen to make treats appear right in front of our guests,” she says with a smile, “along with some other surprises.”

For more information on A Taste of Chocolate 2010, visit www.mauifilmfestival.com or www.fourseasons.com/maui.

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