KAILUA-KONA — Aaron Sanchez and Sam Choy have a few things in common. They both hold the title of celebrity chef and they both have an appreciation for a famous tropical drink: the mai tai.
Where they differ is on what makes a great mai tai. A prominent figure in Hawaiian food culture himself, Choy’s preferences lean toward the classic, sweeter side of the things.
“To me, the perfect mai tai is a basic mai tai,” Choy said. “The real, pure mai tai is starting off with good products, like Bacardi rum, and from there, just layering it up right to where it should be, and then topping if off with more rum and that’s it. That’s the perfect mai tai. And I personally like sweet mai tais. I love things sweet.”
Sanchez, a newcomer to the annual Mai Tai Festival in Kailua-Kona, disagrees on how sweet a mai tai should be.
“There are a lot of parallels between food and cocktails,” Sanchez said. “Balance is obviously essential. I look for a cocktail to first be able to taste the spirit that’s expressed. But then have enough ingredients that support and lift that spirit up. And really keep it in check and balance the sweetness. I think because we’re in this beautiful setting of Kona, the tendency is to make a cocktail too sweet. And that’s always a bit of a pitfall. I always appreciate a cocktail that’s not too sweet.”
Differences aside, as judges for the Mai Tai Mix-off at the 10th annual Mai Tai Festival held the Royal Kona Resort, both chefs had plenty of opportunities this weekend to find that perfect drink. As a part of the show “MasterChef,” Sanchez is used to judging food, but his first time at the Mai Tai Festival gave him the chance to try something new and more potent.
“The mai tai is revered. It is as Hawaiian as the luau is, or a ukulele,” Sanchez said. “I want to take the idea of reinterpreting a classic staple, and having fun with it, but not sacrificing its core idea. And I do that with Mexican food. I’ll take classic dishes, tweak them with modern technique, but not sacrifice the identity.”
Like a good wine pairing, a mai tai also needs the perfect food to go with it. Sanchez offered up his expertise in that department.
“I think the idea of having a bunch of pupus, some fresh tuna and some pineapple with it is good,” Sanchez said. “I always love to reintroduce ingredients that are in a cocktail, so give me some pineapple and some chipotle-rubbed chicken breast, and I would make a salad out of that to go with it.”
The idea for the festival and competition to find the “World’s Best Mai Tai” came to Gary Hogan, property owner of Royal Kona Resort, about 15 years ago while on a Hawaiian Airlines flight that was advertising a similar contest.
“I saw they had a mai tai contest, and the first place was a trip to Las Vegas, and I thought it was a great idea,” Hogan said. “And we had the name for Don the Beachcomber, the original trademark, and I thought first place should be something that really attracts people. So I turned to my team and said let’s do first place for $10,000.”
The festival is now a yearly staple for Kailua-Kona and its inhabitants who love a good party and a good cocktail.
“It’s really for the people, the Mai Tai festival,” Choy said. “The bartenders are probably the celebrities of the event, but the people that come here and enjoy it, it’s good for them. They’ve got the barbecue, they’ve got the pool party with Henry Kapono, and then the mai tai competition is like the halftime show at the Super Bowl.”
Only a special drink can drum up that much enthusiasm to celebrate it, and Hogan believes the festival is about more than just the mai tai. It’s to celebrate the Hawaiian islands as well.
“Hawaii is about a couple things. It’s about the music, the culture, the apparel — the aloha shirt — and it’s about the mai tai, I think,” Hogan said. “It’s just that whole combination of you’re in a beautiful place like Hawaii, you’re wearing an aloha shirt, you’re listening to Hawaiian music and what are you drinking — you’re drinking a mai tai.”
When the last shaker was put down and the last drink sipped, the first place winner was Justin Park of Bar Leather Apron in downtown Honolulu. Kevin Beary of Three Dots &A Dash in Chicago took second, and third place went to Cory Starr, also of Three Dots &A Dash.