A True Sense of Taste


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Recently appointed sous chef of St. Regis Princeville Noelani Planas

Mount Makana finishes out the curve of hanalei bay, its majestic peak the signature statement at the end of the North Shore’s mountain range. Along the horizon, a small sailboat rides a southbound drift. In the distance, a cruise ship creeps across a Pacific Ocean that looks like blue silk flow ing on a lazy breeze. It’s hard to pull my eyes from the panoramic view, which is one of 20 listed on Food & Wine magazine’s “World’s Best Restaurant Views.”

Inside Kauai Grill, St. Regis Princeville’s premier restaurant, lovers cuddle in the curve of plush booths. As they gaze from floor-to-ceiling windows, they laugh softly and bring champagne flutes to their lips. Faces glow in the glory of a sunset that turns the sky into an inferno of red and orange. Contemporary music plays just under party level. We don’t have to yell to be heard, but it’s loud enough to filter out neighboring conversation during the bustling dinner service. Meanwhile, Noelani Planas, its newly appointed award-winning chef, executes orders for the new summer menu from a spacious, stainless steel kitchen.

“I first met Noelani during the interview process,” says Franck Desplechin, executive chef for St. Regis Princeville. “It was obvious that she’s very passionate about the culinary arts. She told me, ‘I’ve worked for Michael Mina, Wolfgang Puck, Jean-Marie Josselin and the great Joel Robuchon … It’s time to make a name for myself !’ I said, ‘I can help you with that!’”

Planas, who was born and raised on Kaua‘i, is used to home-cooked meals. Growing up, her father was a butcher and chef at Kauai Lagoons. At home, family meals were combinations of her father’s Filipino background and her mother’s Puerto Rican heritage. In 1995, while Planas was a freshman at Kapa‘a High School, she got her first job at A Pacific Cafe and learned how to cook under regional legend Jean-Marie Josselin. Planas was transferred to Las Vegas in 2000, so she could be on the opening team of Josselin’s new enterprise: 808 Restaurant at Caesar’s Palace.

“Leaving made me a better person, and when I came home, I was able to appreciate living here,” says Planas, who returned to Kaua‘i in 2014. “Working at the St. Regis has been the rollercoaster ride of my life! Chef Franck has kept me busy, and I’ve been assisting to push the culinary department at The St. Regis Princeville forward.”

In February, Planas, along with more than 3,000 chefs across North America, entered the 2015 Starwood Hot Chef competition. After submitting a photo and a recipe for seared blackened ‘ahi with pineapple relish, jalapeno creme fraiche and a wasabi nori cracker, she was one of five finalists selected to compete at the Culinary Cook-off in Chicago during Starwood’s annual sales convention.

On stage, surrounded by thousands of people, 36-year-old Planas—the only sous chef cooking against executive chefs—opened her mystery basket. She had one hour to convert whole red snapper, oysters and artichokes into a plated dish for four judges.

“The most difficult part of the completion was maintaining focus, while loud music played and thousands of people screamed,” recalls Planas, who is a slight woman with a quiet disposition. “There were bright lights, and the crowd was 5 feet in front of the stage, next to four judges with a time clock.”

Planas’ finished dish was pan-seared red snapper with cucumber yogurt, basil-spinach chlorophyll, a deep-fried oyster, crispy artichoke chips and a Port wine reduction. When the intense and nerve-racking challenge was over, the anticipation extended as chefs waited until morning for the champion to be declared.

“When they announced me as the winner, I was completely shocked, and my heart stopped,” Planas recalls. “This is truly one of the greatest feelings I have ever felt in my personal and professional life. I won a trip to the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and received recognition from Starwood North America. Hard work, focus and passion have finally begun to pay off. ”

Fresh from victory, Planas started work at Kauai Grill, which is inspired by internationally acclaimed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Adapting the menu to include summer’s bounty— and hours of studying Vongerichten’s cooking style—inspired Planas to create Pan Seared Scallops ($22).

There’s a luscious pool of Champagne and thyme butter sauce at the base of the appetizer, which includes nubs of roasted corn and crisply rendered Portuguese sausage. Soft-cooked Kaua‘i quail eggs are placed on top of two plump scallops, and popcorn tossed in a spicy blend adds a playful crunch. If there was a dish that represented the opulence and whimsy of St. Regis Princeville, this would be it.

“I give my chefs creative freedom when designing new menu items,” says Desplechin in a thick French accent. “Chefs need to own what they cook, and it’s hard to stay passionate when the menu is not yours.”

Grilled Makaweli Tenderloin ($44) comes from grass-fed cattle that were raised and processed on Kaua‘i’s west side. Seared on the outside, there’s a bit of crisp crust that encloses the interior’s juicy flesh. The deeply flavorful filet is topped with Hamakua mushrooms and a soy-caramel emulsion. When combined, all three turn the umami factor up to 10. It’s a powerful sonnet to meat lovers—and what I think of when I imagine the taste of beef.

“This is an expensive property, and it’s an expensive menu,” Desplechin says. “I’m making sure our diners are happy with how the food looks and tastes, while offering dishes that they can’t find anywhere else on Kaua‘i.”

Some dishes make you slow down to savor the moment, and the Poached Kona Lobster ($64) is one of them. A dainty curl of butter-poached Kona lobster sits in a pool of fennel-basil broth. One fat ravioli, stuffed with chorizo and lobster, is rounded out by tomato chutney. If you layer your fork with a little of each, you’ll get a sweet and smoky tribute to Hawai‘i.

“This is my first addition to the wonderful and unique menu of Kauai Grill,” Planas says. “I am looking forward to the fall and winter menu changes, where I’ll have more control and be able to showcase my classical French training while highlighting many of the exceptional ingredients I get to play with.”

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