Kula Bistro: The Upcountry Q&A

"We are bringing the community together."
- Luciano Zanon, Kula Bistro, Maui

Side-by-Side with Luciano Zanon

A Food Journey that includes Venice, Hong Kong, Presidents and Sultans . . . and the perfect meal at home   

When I asked owner/chef of Kula Bistro, Luciano Zanon, why he decided to open his restaurant in upcountry Maui in 2012, he simply laughed and said, "Everyone said I was crazy. But I looked up and saw the mountain (Haleakala), and thought to myself, something was missing there."

Chef Luciano's so-called "craziness" is Upcountry Kula's big win. Mention Kula Bistro and it seems like everyone (including me) will rave about something they enjoyed there, whether it's the "amazing" scallop bruschetta at dinner; the meaty breakfast bacon and sausage; the freshness and done-just-right opakapaka or monchong, or the consistency of their flavorful pizza. An extensive menu and a 7-day schedule makes Upcountry Maui's Kula Bistro both a destination and a neighborhood mainstay.

In fact, while Chef Luciano was being interviewed for this article at a center table mid-day, a couple from Arizona tip-toed closer to us graciously and somewhat hesitantly - for fear of interrupting our conversation - when they finally approached Chef and shared their delight about their lunch.  Now get this - - - with only a couple days left on Maui, the couple wanted to re-arrange their schedule to visit Kula Bistro for one more meal even though they were staying in Wailea. 

It doesn't get much better than that.

Let's meet the love, story and vision behind Kula Bistro, with our interview with Luciano Zanon:

Q. You began your culinary career in Venice, Italy, working for a family-owned trattoria. What main ideas did you bring back to Maui?

A: I loved the environment - as a 14-year old, cooking and tasting food was real. Yet when I was 17, even though I was the oldest in the family and should have been the one to continue, I knew I had to see the world, and did that. It was not easy but what I learned during the next few years was that those early years were a big advantage for me because it was easy to cook; it came naturally for me. I traveled extensively through Asia, Hong Kong, Bangkok, eventually going back to Italy. Yet I ended up in Florida at a culinary program, winning the top chef award. I worked my way up . . . starting out as a dishwasher. 

Photo Below: Chef/owner Luciano Zanon, standing; Chef Hugh (left); Chef Pascal (right)

Q. How did you cross the globe from Florida to Maui?

A: John Applegate spotted me and asked me to come to Hawaii for six months. I stayed longer by a lot (!) and opened Tiffany Luigi's Pasta & Pizzeria at the Maui Mall in 1993. I also started a private jet catering service that became so successful, I eventually sold it with an offer that was so attractive yet difficult because I enjoyed it so much.

Q. Private jet catering is unique. What kind of customers?

A: Presidents (not just one), the Sultan of Brunei, the Princess of Japan, John Travolta, Mariah Carey, Bill Gates. This is not a secret.

Q. What were some of the craziest requests?

A: I would get an enormous request at 11 PM and tried to fulfill it by 7 AM the next morning. Full Chinese menus. Crazy expensive bottles of wine. I had to be connected and resourceful. I love that kind of challenge. I do catering again today and love challenging clients. It keeps me young and on my toes.

I don't think of the money because I know the money comes - like it was my first job. When you see the food or getting mail back, when I do something that seems impossible and see the smiling faces, it's all worth it. It's adrenaline to me.


Q. Let's talk food. What are some of your basic beliefs?

1)  As a chef, you must stay humble.
2)  You've got to taste the food.
3)  The taste should stay in the mouth a bit.
4)  Food should be simple.
5)  Nothing should be frozen. It has to be fresh. We don't have a freezer.
6)  Herbs.
7)  It shouldn't be about imposing my personal likes and but respecting my customers' cultural and personal enjoyment.
8)  Simplicity in food is what my mother taught me.
9)  Parsley, garlic, basil and tomato are my food ingredients that I could not live without.
10) I wanted a restaurant that people would come two or three times a week; not just for special occasions, and that is what Kula Bistro is all about.

Q. Kula Bistro has a crazy schedule - 7 days a week with a group that seems like family. What drives you all?

A: We love so many different types of people sitting side-by-side in our restaurant. Kula Bistro is casual; look at our space! It is so simple!               

What we love is a family sharing a pizza - side-by-side - next to a young couple sharing a romantic dinner (ed. Note: Kula Bistro is BYOB with no corking fee); next to locals after a long day, or a couple coming from a Wailea hotel, all wanting a relaxed upcountry experience. 
We are bringing the community together. We make everything and everything is fresh; we have 35 people as a part of this.

Q. Chantal is your great life partner in all this. Can you share a few words about her role with you personally and professionally ?

A: We met at Luigi's in 1987. Long story how we ended up together, but I believe it was "meant to be". Being from another part of the globe half way around the world, who would have known I'd marry a local girl of Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Hawaiian & Italian ethnicities. My wife has been the backbone in all of our companies. She actually worked for Jon Applegate as a Human Resources Manager before I stepped in. She's not a big fan of being in the spotlight and requests to remain behind the scene--handling the finances and human resources part of the business. I credit her for the root of our successes.

Q . What is your idea of a perfect meal if there are no Kula Bistro left-overs when you are home?

A: Something very simple, like a baloney sandwich!

Q. What's on it?

A: Nothing. If I can taste the baloney and taste the bread, I'm a happy camper.

Kula Bistro
4566 Lower Kula Road
Kula Maui Hawaii 96790

Open Daily:
Breakfast 7:30am-10:30am
Lunch & Dinner 11am - 8:15pm
Mondays: Closed for Breakfast; open for Lunch & Dinner
Maui Coffee Gal