Maui’s quintessential Italian restaurant introduces a new take on dinner theater

ALTHOUGH THE DAYS of Saturday evening “couple’s night” at the local dinner theater seem to have gone the way of braided terry cloth headbands and jazzercize, the idea that food can be entertainment is still very much thriving.

Be it farm-to-table dinners, themed potlucks or menus that feature extravagant ingredients, our nation has gone Top Chef-crazy. Whether it’s a good thing or not, professional chefs are still debating. Brian Ethridge, the chef and part owner of Capische? (yes, the question mark is part of the name) in Wail-ea, Maui, is not one of those chefs.

“The educated consumer is my best client,” Ethridge is quick to respond. “They keep us engaged, which is the most important thing as a chef to the overall experience. We’re constantly reading books and researching new techniques for executing dishes.”

This philosophy led Ethridge to debut the aptly named Il Teatro dining experience: A veritable “performance,” where ingredients are the major players, the chefs are the directors, and you – the knowledgeable and ambitious diner – are both executive producer and audience.

It works like this: You and 19 of your friends (the Teatro experience can accommodate any number up to 20) call Capische? a few days in advance of the date you wish to dine. While on the phone, Ethridge gauges your dining bravado: Are there ingredients you’d like to see used (or likewise, avoided)? Is there a particular region in Italy you’d like to experience? A particular highlight to a recent trip you took to Italy?

After the consultation, Ethridge sets to work on your menu, which can range from five to 20 courses (your choice). At the same time, he and his team begin honing in on wines to pair with your custom menu. It should be noted: Ethridge, his sous chef, Christopher Kulis (a California transplant who trained under the famed Thomas Keller), master mixologist Charles Seibert and general manager Elizabeth Judd all are going to take the national sommelier certification test this fall. Ethridge already has one sommelier, Brett Sherwood, on staff.

The gist of Il Teatro, according to Ethridge, is not only for customers to try the myriad of regional cuisines found throughout Italy, but to expand the knowledge of his team of chefs. Is it working, you ponder? Il Teatro already has a cult following that enjoys the experience three to four times per year.

“We save all the menus,” adds Ethridge, who has been training as a chef since he was 13 years old. “We literally have hundreds of menus in the database, which we only use as a reference. While we’ll never use the same dish twice, we refer to them to make sure we’re adding a degree of difficulty to our repertoire.”

We’ve yet to mention a key aspect to the Il Teatro experience at Capische?: The stage is a pair of teppan-yaki tables at the rear of the restaurant (facing the eloquently manicured gardens), behind which the chefs prepare everything tableside for patrons. Not only do you get to see how everything is made, but the chefs keep the experience interactive. They’ll articulate why they used certain ingredients, what makes them specific to the region of Italy they are cooking for and how you can adjust the recipes to execute them at home.

Some of the dishes that Ethridge and his team have plated as of late include a smoked duck breast, which is marinated and smoked for two days before being seared on the table in front of diners. Another that has Ethridge excited is his take on the local favorite, loco moco. His version boasts a braised ox tail, served over a Kabocha pumpkin and uni risotto, which is then topped with a sous vide quail egg.

“It’s Hawaiian in composition and theme, but it utilizes the heavy flavors of Tuscany with the ox tail, along with the uni that is used in the south,” says Ethridge.

A third dish that recently had diners raving was a Kobe beef roulade with sous vide rosemary and garlic over crispy gnocchi, pureed arugula and topped with fried garlic gremolata. Ethridge calls this his version of Bisteca Fiorentina.

Ethridge is pushing the envelope with dishes that invoke molecular gastronomy techniques, as well as the use of as much local product as he can get.

“I’m fairly tired of all these restaurants using the local product ‘thing’ as a marketing tool,” he says. “To me, it’s just a given. You use what you can find here, and bring in whatever you have to. I’ve always cooked that way.”

He’s also an active member of Maui’s Slow Food chapter, which promotes the art of eating. That is, slowing down to appreciate fine food that’s grown closer to the source and enjoying the company of good friends. He’s even inked a slogan for Il Teatro: “Epicureans Unite.”

Whether he’s out bow-hunting axis deer, conceptualizing the next featured dish for Il Teatro (a deconstructed caponata that uses Kurobuta pork chop, pistachio pesto and apricot puree, in case you were wondering) or plotting his next sojourn to Sicily, Ethridge and his team “have the pleasure of visiting Italy every day, in our heads.”

For $125 per person (plus $75 for wine pairings), you can come along.

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