George Mavrothalassitis has melded techniques from his native French Riviera with Hawaiian ingredients to produce refined, sometimes playful results at Chef Mavro in Honolulu. The chef got his start for legendary French chef Gerard Vie at Les Trois Marches in Versailles and eventually opened two restaurants of his own in Cassis. He relocated to Oahu and worked at the Halekulani and Four Seasons Maui before opening his eponymous restaurant in 1988. Chef Mavro recently shared several culinary insights prior to service.
What’s it like running a restaurant in Hawaii?
We are not only physically and geographically in the middle of the Pacific, but sometimes I think the mainland has forgotten we exist, which is okay. We say this is paradise found, and it’s okay if we’re mysterious to the public, because it is fantastic. I’ve been here for 24 years, and I enjoy every minute of it.
Can you imagine living anywhere else?
No, no. I thought at some point I might go back to France, because my businesses in France are still running. I had two restaurants. They don’t belong to me anymore. They belong to my first wife and to my family, my son and daughter. My son just took over [La Presqu’ile], which made me very happy, so some time I have to go back.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a restaurant in Hawaii?
Especially in my category, because I’m not doing molecular, sometimes people say, “You should come to Chicago or you should come to New York.” It’s true, but when I was on the French Riviera, I used to hear the same thing. “Come to Paris. You’re wasting your time here.” I never want to live in Paris. I don’t want to live in New York. I never want to live in Chicago. Of course it’s more challenging. It’s bizarre, but it’s where I want to live and do what I do best. It’s very simple.
What’s your favorite part about owning a restaurant?
You know, I always so 24, but I came here 25 years ago, at the Halekulani. I was the chef of La Mer. Basically I think I created the concept for La Mer, and they had the idea to do fine dining, but I think what I like the most, being here now, is control. La Mer was good because I had control, but after that, I went from Halekulani to the Four Seasons and at the Four Seasons I had to deal with the corporation. I spent three years there…After the Four Seasons, I decided to go by myself and open my own restaurant. I have no partners and I have 100% control. Of course sometimes you wish you could call an investor to say, “Send me $10,000 because I’m a little short,” but that’s the price of freedom.
What do you remember about your very first night in a professional restaurant kitchen? Where was that?
Oh my god. Yes, I remember very well. I was doing an internship during the winter at Les Trois Marches in Versailles. At this time, Gerard Vie was a legend. He created this restaurant. At first he opened a very fancy bistro by himself, and after that he found a partner, and he opened a beautiful restaurant, Les Trois Marches, at the gate of the Versailles palace. It was a beautiful, historic mansion from the 17th Century, 18th Century. He transformed it into a beautiful restaurant. He has the kind of place to express himself. You know about molecular cuisine? We were doing molecular 34 years ago. He was doing molecular. He was totally amazing, and it was the time of nouvelle cuisine, so it was kind of revolutionary…At the same time, it was a discovery, a revelation, and an inspiration. This was maybe my best time in the kitchen, my best year.
Even including Chef Mavro?
Yeah, because I was learning and discovering a world that I didn’t know about. I was young. It’s very important because I still remember he gave me direction. At this time, it was just the beginning of nouvelle cuisine, and of course I knew about this, which is why I wanted to do my internship with Gerard Vie. I had no idea, so he inspired me, and even for my age, I’m still a very contemporary chef. Also, I worked with Alain Senderens, and Alain was at L’Archestrate at this time, in Paris. Troisgros was more classic. Since this time, I always say, “You know why I’m still cooking, why I’m still in the kitchen?” I’m still not up to my expectation. I’m still pursuing a dream. And of course I realize this is true for not only my profession. It’s true for everything. I realize the more you know, the less you know, and the more you want to do. That’s also why I change the menu all the time. I change the menu all the time because I always have new ideas, and there are always new techniques, and when you travel, you’re exposed to new techniques and new ideas…There is no end. I hope there is no end.
Is it harder to learn once you have your own restaurant, and you’re in your kitchen more often?
Here, I’m inside a bubble. This is a bubble. It’s a small island inside an island. This is my world. This is my kingdom. And I don’t really know what’s going on outside. This is sad. This is terrible. I should not talk like that. Well, it’s not my problem. I don’t have TV, I don’t watch the Cooking Channel. All my kids in the kitchen always talk about, “Did you see?” I never watch. I work a lot, and when I go home I don’t feel like watching TV, especially watching cooking. So finally, you know what, I’m here. I’m totally detached from the time, and of course, I travel. I go to France, I go to Spain. I go to Chile. And I discover the rest of the world exists. It’s very interesting, because it’s like a flash. I had a dinner when I was on vacation in Paris in June, at Pierre Gagnaire. I know Pierre Gagnaire. I’ve known him for years. We are the same age. Son of a bitch, oh my god, the food was so incredible, so creative, and he found the name for what we’ve been doing since Gerard Vie, declination. Do you know declination?
Declination in English doesn’t exactly mean the same thing. In France, you take a product, caviar, whatever, and you can do – Pierre Gagnaire goes up to 10 – different recipes from the caviar. Let’s take something easy, carrots, and you do a carrot soup, carrot Vichy, carrot with ginger, carrot with cumin. And you do different interpretations. What I’m doing on my next menu, I’m doing an appetizer with Hamakua mushrooms from the Big Island, and the mushroom is the center of the plate, but around the mushroom, I have a declination of carrot from coconut carrot soup to carrot orange, etc. So I’ll have three or four or five – I don’t know yet, because this is the next menu – and I’m going to do a declination of carrot, around a Hamakua mushroom in the center of the plate. I’ve been doing that for a long time, and Pierre Gagnaire calls that a declination.
So it’s like a study of a certain ingredient?
Exactly. Finally, he found a name for what we’ve been doing for a long time. I go on vacation, I have no expectations, I go to eat at Pierre Gagnaire because Pierre Gagnaire has the best restaurant in France and bingo. So I come back and everybody thinks I’m crazy, in my kitchen, because suddenly I only want to do declination.
A lot of work.
Yeah, and it’s non-stop, like that, all the time.
What does a dish have to be for you to serve it at this restaurant? What are the common threads?