You’ve got to be quick to keep up with Hawai`i regional cuisine co-founder Chef Beverly Gannon. Though she’s Maui-based and still running the now 20-year-old Hali’imaile General Store and Joe’s in Wailea, Gannon’s always looking ahead, whether expanding upgradeable meal service as Hawaiian Airlines’ executive consulting chef, overseeing the Lana`i City Grille menu, eating differently and yes, opening another Maui restaurant. Because if Gannon’s not challenged, she’s just not herself. I interviewed Gannon again for Modern Luxury Hawai’i’s summer issue, but cut it down substantially for space. So I decided to include our entire interview here for those who want a more in-depth look at the woman and the chef–from politics to back stage parties to eating at home.
Q. 2008 was a big year, for the country and Hali`imaile, which turned 20. Did the presidential election make your year brighter or do you keep politics out of your kitchen?
A. I pretty much keep politics at an arms length. I’m very happy for the change because I think we needed change. You know, it took my business a while to get settled in and get it the way I wanted it to be, and I’ve yet to have a business from the get go out of the box be perfect and work correctly. You take three steps forward and three steps back and get a momentum going. You get a level of excellence and then maintain that. I’m hopeful that’s how our political system will be working. But in the business I’m in, I pretty much keep my political opinions to myself.
I did make a stand on one thing—on how Maui County was handling the bed and breakfast problem here. I think any time you take a huge amount of money out of the economy without really having a good reason, I don’t agree with that. What was coupled with that was the economy went down, so we tell people don’t come we don’t want you here and then the economy tanked and people are losing jobs right and left. I think that could have been handled differently, and that was the first time I came out publicly on an issue. And one guy was irate, but most people gave me pats on the back for standing up for something I could really believe in. You need to have a solution to a problem, have it all ironed out and then change it—you don’t stop it before you have an answer.
Q. After 10 years in November as consulting executive chef Hawaiian airlines, where do you think the airline and travel industry is headed?
A. Quite honestly, and this isn’t because I work for them, but Hawaiian airlines and other airlines are trying to make money. I don’t know if I would want to be in that business, where A + B does not equal C, but negative C or something. I think there will always be airlines and we’ll be able to fly, but unfortunately we’ve all gotten used to inexpensive fares to get places. When I was younger it was expensive to fly. The airfares 30 or 40 years ago were more expensive than it now.
Hawaiian is on its way to expanding, but what people don’t understand is, take inter-island fares—in order for them to break even they have to have every seat filled, and when you look at that there’s no other way to make money. If you were in any other business you’d ask why am I doing this, perpetually losing money? So that’s why you have to buy amenities now. If they were all raking in a big profit we could complain, but that’s not the case.
Q. So how did you feel about the cut backs in food service?
A. Now hold on—Hawaiian airlines has not cut back on food service. First class meals are still first class and they’re great. In economy you still get a hot meal or sandwich package for no cost. Hawaiian is hoping that they will always be able to provide that service. What they are doing is expanding on that so you’ll have a choice of a free hot meal or sandwich but also be able to upgrade the meal to buy sushi, bentos, or Caesar salad with chicken and more—so you will be given something free but can also upgrade.
We’re bucking the trend. There are very few airlines out there you can get on an eight-hour flight now in economy and don’t have to buy the meal. If you fly from Dallas to Honolulu you have to buy a sandwich on board and bring your own food. I’m of the thought that whether a hotel or car rental give me one price and tell me what it is and put the hidden things in it.
Q. You never planned on being a chef, right?
A. I worked in the entertainment business in early ‘70s and my lifelong dream was not to be a chef. It was definitely not in my world of what I was going to be when I grew up. I wasn’t sure, I didn’t know, but there were a lot of signs that pointed to me being in the business I am now
When my parents entertained I was the only kid who hung out in the kitchen with the caterer. When I traveled, especially in Europe, I found myself in the food shops and farmer’s markets and was open to tasting all kinds of food. My mother was a simple cook; we didn’t have a lot of fancy foods. But when I worked for entertainers all of a sudden the world of food opened up and we were eating best foods and drinking the best wine and I liked it.
Did I think this would be my career path, no. But 25 years later it’s what I do. I’ve always approached my business as what do the customers want, not what I want. Whatever the customer wants I’m going to figure out ways to give it to them, even if it may not be the way I would do it.
Q. You have a reputation as a great party hostess—how did that develop?
A. I always gave the parties. I started in high school because I grew up in a house that was a great entertaining house and my parents entertained a lot. My parents said they’d rather have me home than out on the road, my Dad especially was worried we’d get hurt. He raised three chickens because we were afraid of being hurt.
In summer, everyone hung out at my house around the pool. When I was 19 I would have a sit-down dinner party for 14 people just because it was something fun to do. I used to throw New Year’s Eve parties for 300 people, and Halloween parties—I just liked throwing parties. And my parents loved it because I wasn’t out on New Year’s or Halloween—I was home.
Q. What did you study in college?
A. I studied a lot of different things. The thing I really zeroed in on toward the end was criminology and sociology, which has been a really big help in the restaurant business, in some of the situations you get into. Sociology was really helpful with customers, and criminology in part with other situations. Like when you realize you told everyone they could have time off to vote in the election but most of them couldn’t because they’d been in jail at one point in the past.
Q. You were a road manager for artists like Liza Minnelli and Ben Vereen in the ‘70s—what was that like?
A. Even that job was kind of thrown in my lap and I just went and did it. I did it for about five years and the thing that finally got to me is you’re constantly at that entertainer’s beck and call, 24 -7. So I was missing events, friends’ weddings, and I wasn’t living my own life, just was locked into doing whatever I had to do to keep that entertainer on the road and happening. Five years of it was enough—I wanted to stay in one place for a while. I’d live in New York City and moved back to Dallas for a year and worked for an entertainment company a for nine months and was going stir crazy in an office every day.
That’s when I friend of mine thought, let’s live in London and let’s go to cooking school. I can only believe in pre-destiny because of what’s happened to me. There’s no way I should be doing what I’m doing but maybe there is. I remember growing up, I was a candy-striper for years and worked at the children’s hospital in Dallas and loved it. My only A in high school was in biology and looking back I should have been a doctor or a nurse. Even today I love watching those hospital shows and for years they used to call me Flo at the restaurant after Florence Nightingale, because if anyone got hurt I was there taking care of them.
Q. Did your marriage to Joe change when you opened Hali`imaile?
A. Oh yes. I like telling people who wants to open a restaurant you have to make sure you have another income in the family. The first 5 years we were open we put every dime we made back into the company—I didn’t take a paycheck for five years. Joe was still working, but what changed was when he came home and decided to stop doing his work. Then he had his two cents to put into the business, which I was already running the way I wanted it to run.
We have different business styles, so there’s was a real adjustment period, first because he was home all the time when I was used him being home a few months a year. But we got through that part, too. It’s such a tough business—it’s 24-7 so if one person is doing it and the other isn’t, the other doesn’t get enough together time. If you work together then you have different ways of doing things. You’re always on the edge in the business no matter how successful you are.
Q. How is do your relationship and business work now?
A. We’ve been together 29 years and about 4 years go we finally figured it out. Sometimes it just takes a while. We actually decided that one of us has to be the one in charge. Since I was doing it anyway, working 24-7, he took a big step back and he became my biggest supporter. Instead of making it his way he helped make sure it happened my way. Now he plays golf and poker, he’s my sounding board and his key part in all this is he knows exactly where every penny goes.
Q. After almost thirty years of marriage do you find it runs like a kitchen does or different—maybe like a show?
A. It runs like a kitchen show! You know what it is, it’s really great when you get to a point in the relationship…Women are women and men are men. We think and act differently and when you can work on it enough where you can figure out the communication part where I realize when he gets upset with me it may not really be about me and I don’t egg it on. Or I come in and yell and scream about something and I just want him to listen and not fix it. When you learn how to have that communication the fights and yelling stop and you sit down and say let’s talk.
I have a really, really great husband who married someone who was there for him 100 percent of the time and 10 years after we were married I became a completely different person—I became a business person. Where I had an adjustment when he came home, he had a big adjustment because I was no longer giving him my full attention. We could have easily given up a lot of times but we both made a commitment to each other. Sometimes you go through bad times and come out at a higher level, and go through another bad time and get to an even higher level. It’s nice when you get off the roller coaster and get on the merry go round.
Q. In your new cookbook, you follow your mother’s meal schedule. What else of your mother’s do you hold on to, in addition to meal planning. Is there a touchstone?
A. My mother lived an emotionally abused life. My father was a very strong person. What she taught me was how not to be hurt. She was a worrier, and she was the sweetest, most giving, wonderful person. She taught me humility, and she taught me not to worry because it didn’t do her any good. I don’t worry about something happening, though I do have concerns. She totally taught me the value of the dollar and that a good day’s work is a good day’s work, and you wake up the next day and do another good day’s work. So when you get in bed you can say I did the best I could do today and I’ll get up and do it tomorrow.
The eyeglasses she wore the last years of her life sit on my kitchen counter so she’s there. I have all her doilies from the ‘50s—I’m a hoarder so I save it all. I have all her aprons. She passed away 10 years ago, so we talk about her and remember. She’s totally around me. I pass by a mirror sometimes and I go, now wait a minute, why’s my mother in that mirror instead of me?
Q. With so many duties—Hali`imaile, Joe’s, two cookbooks, ten years as executive chef of Hawaiian Airlines, the Lanai Hotel—how do you keep a life balance?
A. I have people say to me all the time how do you do it and I sit back and you know it’s just what I do—I don’t know a different way of life. I quadruple book myself and then think how can I do this, but when I do it it’s very satisfying. I do get my breaks and time off which a lot of people don’t see. Sometimes I can stay in bed all day long on Sunday and read newspapers and magazines and watch movies I tape and I’m as happy as a clam, but then I’m raring to go the next day. I don’t know how to stop.
I’m driven and that comes from my dad. I like what I do and I like pushing the envelope. There will probably be another restaurant by the end of the year. When things get to a certain place I’m ready for the next challenge. Not that the restaurant business isn’t challenging every day, but I’m not a ledge anymore and I need to be on the ledge.
Q. After a long day of work, what do you cook at home, especially now that you’ve remodeled your dream kitchen?
A. Well on a good day—not a lot. One of my favorite meals is roasted root vegetables and a perfectly cooked organic chicken that has flavor. What I do a lot is, I think if I’m going to cook to for two I can cook for six, and if I can cook for six I can cook for twelve. Once a month I have people over for dinner now, and one of my favorite dishes that I put on the menu at Joe’s is julienne short rib and wild mushroom pasta. We also do a lot of breakfast in our house and Joe makes the best fried egg, avocado, tomato, cheese, whole grain bread sandwich with bacon.
It’s interesting, I’m very good at taking care of business and other people, and for a lot of years I put me to the side. During the last eight months I’ve totally changed my lifestyle, and I work out every day and I’ve lost 50 pounds. I eat differently and so what I cook now when I cook for me is I do a lot with fresh vegetable stir fries with extra virgin olive oil and lots of seasonings, fresh herbs like lemongrass where the flavor doesn’t’ come from anything creamy or saucy. I’ve been making really good soups—make a stock and then a chunky or puree soup. I eat a lot of that now.
So for the first time in 15 years I’ve been eating a lot cleaner. Because of the business I’m in I love fois gras and I’ve had it since I’ve been on this program but I don’t have 4 ounces of it in one sitting. I’ve learned this whole new way of eating which will start showing up on my menus because you can eat very good, flavorful food that’s healthy. I want to be able to get the healthy choice on my menu. Customers don’t have to take it but it’s there.
Q. What do you think the reception will be to these new dishes?
A. Some people will be thankful that they’re there. I’ve become my own worst customer, asking for this without this and this on the side, steamed not sautéed. It doesn’t have to be more than 5 or 6 items to be able to say if you want to eat healthy you can. I think people will like it. If I saw it on the menu I would order it. I’m still going to eat other food, just not every time.
Q. Is your approach to cooking usually about life experiences?
A. My approach is what I like to eat. If you look at my menus at both restaurants it’s pretty eclectic. I like this dish with a Japanese Mexican influence, and this one with Italian flavor. It then allows my customer to come in three or four nights a week and eat a completely different kind of food and flavor profile.
Q. So does eating your food give diners a sense of you?
A. Absolutely. They totally can get it. If you read the menu you know where I’m coming from which is all over the place and it’s okay!
Q. Has the Hali`imaile become part of residents’ life experience?
A. We are part of people’s lives and there are people who come to Maui year after year and they’re the ones who walk in the door if they don’t have the thing on the menu that they had before until I say try this and it become they’re new favorite. People say don’t ever change it. It’s a unique place that’s works. Who would’ve thought it would last 20 years? In that time we’ve maintained or raised the quality and level of what we’re offering.
You can’t be perfect all 20 years but we’ve come close to being way above average the entire time—closer to excellent. And that’s not just me, hundreds of people who have worked for my companies over the years that put their footprint on it have made it what it is today—the customers, staff, I just drive the bus, but we’re all still going in the same direction.
Q. What sparked the idea for your new restaurant?
A. Part of it is the new challenge and seeing a need for something in an area that it doesn’t have. I’m looking at creating a place where locals and tourists alike can feel comfortable, which happens at Hali`imaile but not in the Wailea area. It’s going to be casual fine dining but will also allow me to do what I do best—off premise catering that’s not too far off premise. There are times when I want to change the style and how I serve the food, but Joe’s and Hali`imaile have their personalities and I can’t change that. So now I have a certain design of food I want to do that’s different, so I want that creative outlet. After thirty years of living on Maui and looking around at what’s here, I’m looking at what I can offer that’s different.
I don’t want to go anywhere else. I get offers to open places everywhere. But I love living on Maui and this is where I want to be. Even in this particular economy I don’t have a second thought about opening a new place because I truly believe things are going to turn around and be better than they were, and so I’m moving ahead.
You can only be optimistic. Human beings need to always remember the glass if half full not half empty. The minute you think it’s half empty that’s where your life is going to be. Even when things are going pretty badly, you have to keep a positive attitude and it’s going to turn around quicker with a positive attitude than not.
–Interview by CHRISTINE THOMAS
(Shorter version published in Modern Luxury Hawaii, Summer ’09)