Maui chef and restauranteur, Mark Ellman remembered for his culinary legacy
March 2, 2023, 8:58 AM HST
* Updated March 2, 9:22 AM
The recent passing of Maui restaurateur, Mark Ellman, has left a void in the culinary community and a legacy of life and love that he poured into his creations.
“I met Mark and Judy in 1988 at Avalon, his first restaurant on Maui and Maui’s first great meal using local ingredients… unheard of in 1988. I knew on first meeting I had met a kindred soul, and that got stronger and stronger until this weekend,” said Shep Gordon, who partnered with Ellman in opening Maui Tacos, Penne Pasta Café, and Māla Wailea. “He was the perfect partner and friend. He loved Maui only second to his family.”
Ellman’s daughter Michelle Julianne Ellman said her father always gave back to the community, donated to the police and firefighters and the Hawaiian language community, “But,” she said, “I think nothing really tracks in comparison to the Hawaiʻi Regional Cuisine. There wasn’t anything else that he was immersed in the way he was about the culinary aspects of life,” she said.
Ellman was one of 12 Hawaiʻi Chefs who are credited with pioneering the Hawaiʻi Regional Cuisine Movement in 1991. The team of 12 created the concept as a premise to elevate the culinary experience in Hawaiʻi by featuring food from the land and sea utilizing each of their own distinctive styles of cooking.
“Both collaboratively and individually, they put Hawaiʻi on the international culinary map and inspired—and mentored—generations of talented chefs,” according to press material from the movement.
Fellow chef, Peter Merriman, who was among the dozen founders of the movement, reflected on his friends passing. “Maui lost a really great citizen when Mark passed. He was a great restauranteur and a fabulous cook. He was from the old school of being an honorable man, and always operated at the highest and best morals and ethical decisions. He was a really good member of the Maui community, and I’ll miss him.”
“Those chefs played an important part in where the culinary scene is here in Hawaiʻi. They gave us a base for popularity of our cuisine,” said fellow chef Sheldon Simeon in a phone interview with Maui Now. “Todayʻs generation is definitely different from how they operated, but nonetheless, they were the forefathers that started it all for us. Chef Mark had a way of putting flavors together. He was just a natural cook. Sometimes it’s just crazy the way he put stuff together, and you’re like ‘What is this,’ and then you taste it and it was amazing.”
Simeon partnered with Mark Ellman and Shep Gordon to run the Māla Wailea location–which was split in half with Māla on one side and Simeon’s Migrant Maui on the other.
Simeon said he was crushed when he learned of Ellman’s passing. “I’m still trying to grasp it all. Chef gave me an amazing opportunity to run his restaurants in Wailea, and has always mentored me, and has always been the hugest supporter of everything that I do. He was one of the chefs that I could relate to the most. He was like the cooks–he got in there and grinded it with us. He came up, embedded himself, and owned his places. I’m still at a loss for words that he’s gone.”
In 1987 and into the 90s, Mark Ellman, along with his wife Judy opened the Avalon Restaurant & Bar off of Front Street in Lahaina at the space below Dirty Monkey in the spot now occupied by Lahaina Sushi Ko and a couple of art galleries. The restaurant featured Hawaiʻi Regional Cuisine–a mixture of Pacific, Asian and traditional recipes from wok fried fish to clams in a black bean sauce.
“It was just a combination of the techniques you learn in cooking with all of the great flavors in the melting pot of Hawaiʻi,” said his daughter, Michelle.
The couple ran Avalon for 10-12 years before selling it and moving on to other culinary adventures.
“I was 13 when they sold it, so I was a little bit on the younger side, but it was my whole childhood,” said Michelle.
The couple then opened Maui Tacos and then Penne Pasta on Dickenson Street in Lahaina. Then came Māla Ocean Tavern in Lahaina, Honu Oceanside and Frida’s Mexican Beach House–all next to each other on Front Street.
“We sold all of the businesses throughout the years. The only one we still own is Frida’s, and we were actually in the process of selling, so this is literally our last month of being open,” said Michelle as she held back tears. Ellman had shared the news of the sale with employees just 10 days before his passing.
Having turned 67, Ellman was looking forward to living life together with his wife in retirement, according to his family. Family members were also planning a trip to Japan in May. “That was the first location on the list. My dad was fascinated by food and would just want to go anywhere to try the food, see the techniques, and immerse himself in the culture,” Michelle said.
“I think the strife of the restaurant business since the pandemic had really worn on our family. We were a family run restaurant with me and my sister doing the day to day stuff, and my parents overseeing everything else… My dad was the back of house; my mom was the front of the house,” said Michelle, who worked alongside her sister Ariana Danielle Guarnier. Mark Ellman also has another daughter, Tina who lives in Idaho.
Family described Mark Ellman’s style as self-taught. “His dad died when he was in school, and he had to drop out his first year of going to culinary school because he had to take care of his younger sisters and he just worked in the restaurant, and just knew that he could do it, so he just kept going,” said Michelle.
According to his family, Mark Ellman started ‘Can’t Rock & Roll, But Sure Can Cook’ catering service, with his wife, Judy, in Los Angeles. The business catered to musicians and big bands. “They weren’t making it where they were, and figured why not be warm if they were going to be poor,” said Michelle, noting her mom lived in Hawaiʻi in the 70s and convinced Mark to move and live a better life together.
Over the years, Mark and Judy Ellman built dozens of restaurants in Hawaiʻi with Frida’s being their 18th. According to the restaurant website, the couple also purchased a 5-acre property in Lahaina where they planted fruit trees, and cared for goats and chickens with the intent to provide organic produce for their restaurants.
“Just go in and do your best everyday,” said Michelle of her dad’s perspective on life. “He was an amazing father, an upstanding mentor to many. He always taught me about compassion for other people and helping out your community.”
He also shared the Practice Aloha concept at his restaurants. “We as a company, are going to try to keep that legacy alive… My dad was really proud of what he had built with that, and the aspect behind it. It’s a life motto. Treat others how you would want to be treated, sharing love and compassion,” said Michelle.
“With Mark, what really comes through is his humanity,” said Peter Merriman. “He was a friend to those who had no friends. He was kind to everyone. I think one of the reasons that made him a great restauranteur–not only the fact that he was a great cook–but that he was such a great human being.”
“When my son was broke, he lived off of Maui Tacos for a month,” said Merriman, noting that Mark Ellman gifted the young man with $500 in restaurant coupons to help him get by. “Mark was a real angel of a person.”
Friend Shep Gordon said, “He cooked at my house dozens of times with chefs from around the world and his dish always tasted the best–no matter what he made or who else was cooking–I’m sure because of all the aloha and love he put in every dish he made.”
“I dreamed last night he was making Mark’s Famous Paella in my house, as he did so many times. Thank you Mark for always reminding me to be thankful for all the blessings we have. You will be missed my brother. Save me a seat at the table. I’m sure wherever you are you’re feeding people!”
Memorial services are pending.