Maui Food and Dining

Chef Geno Sarmiento Talks Passion, Patience

October 23, 2012, 5:01 PM HST
* Updated October 23, 5:07 PM
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Vanessa Wolf is a former head chef, previously working in Portland, Oregon.

By Vanessa Wolf

Senior Executive Chef Geno Sarmiento. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

Senior Executive Chef Geno Sarmiento of Sarento’s on the Beach, Nick’s Fishmarket, and Son’z didn’t start out knowing he’d be a chef.

Sarmiento was born in the Philippines and moved to Honolulu in 1988.

“I was 16 and the culinary industry was just starting to get recognized. I figured I knew how to cook – I’d learned from my grandmother – so I’d give it a shot.”

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Sarmiento’s first kitchen job was as a dishwasher. “They put me in that role so I could learn what a salad dish was versus a dinner plate.” He paused and reconsidered, “Or maybe they just said that to make it sound better. Either way, they suckered me in!”

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After a couple months cementing his knowledge in soup versus rice bowls, they let him start cooking. A few years later, “I realized I could make a great living doing this. It’s what I like, and I’m pretty good at it…I think.”

He is.

Sarmiento attended culinary school to learn proper techniques and sharpen his talents. He relocated to Maui in 1998 to help open Nick’s Fishmarket Maui, then under the leadership of Chef George Gomes Jr., Sarmiento’s former boss and mentor.

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Gomes Jr. gave him some early advice Sarmiento follows to this day: “don’t get overexcited or overly down about something. If the problem arises, think of a solution right away instead of pointing fingers. I always keep that with me.”

Gomes Jr., now executive chef at the Mauna Kea on the Big Island, was influential in Sarmiento’s career. “He was the one who pushed my buttons as far as getting better. It was like a competition in a way. He’s one of the best chefs in Hawaii. I wanted to be just as good…or even better.”

What keeps Sarmiento going – even thriving – in such a tough business?

“Cooking is not easy…and once you become the one in charge, there is another level of stress. However, I have a passion for cooking. Yes, it can be difficult when you run into problems.  However, I have this pilot light – this passion – that never goes out. That’s what keeps me going.”

How has Maui influenced him as a chef?

“Here on Maui we’re very lucky. There are so many things that can be obtained here. We went to a few states on the mainland and it wasn’t comparable to what we have on Maui. One time we did a cooking demo in Texas and we ordered ahi. When it arrived, it was gray.  We had to change the menu.”

Sarmiento is here to stay. “To me, Maui is one of the best producers of produce and even beef. The fish is the freshest. I would never go cook anywhere else but here. We have the best ingredients you can ask for.”

Sarmiento wishes there were more people raising local cattle, but understands the hardship. “I know Hawaii is trying. Maui Cattle is trying, but it’s not easy.”

It’s not all bad news. While discussing the lack of oysters, he suspects that could happen soon. “You can get abalone from the Big Island now. I’ve ordered some and am going to use it at Nick’s.”

What else does he like to prepare? “I like braising food whether it’s pork belly or what have you because it builds character in a way. It takes time. First you sear it first; then you put it in your oven or on a stove top. Then it slowly comes together. At the end you have the amazing flavor concentration of your protein, wine and aromatics.”

Braising is a bit of a metaphor for Sarmiento’s best advice. When asked what he would share with an aspiring chef, he answers immediately. “I would tell them if you don’t have patience, you may as well get out of it right away. Patience is very important to what we do. Being a chef is one of the hardest jobs out there. You’re not only a chef; you’re a psychiatrist;  you’re a part time doctor or nurse; you’re a teacher and a manager. A lot of people say ‘I can flip a burger, I can be a chef.’ It has to be in your blood. Cooking takes a lot of patience, just like braising takes patience. Everything has its right moment.”

What does he think about the new Maui axis deer harvesting-co-op? “I’m all for it, but there are definitely some hurdles to the USDA inspection process. Not to mention, people come from the mainland wanting fresh fish…but not necessarily looking for deer.”

You never know.

Alaska has become a destinantion for salmon and reindeer sausage. Maybe we can make our mark as the home of ahi and deer carpaccio?

We welcome your feedback. Please let us know if you hear of any new restaurants opening or reopening, total menu overhauls, or simply know of a hidden treasure you want to share. Have a restaurant you want reviewed (or re-reviewed)? Drop us a line.

Dying to know how a certain dish is made so you can recreate it at home? Send in a request, and we will try to pry the secret out of the chef…and even take a run at cooking it up ourselves. Mahalo. -vanessa(@mauinow.com)

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