Westin Princeville's Executive Chef
“My grandma was a health freak,” says Melanie Von Sell, executive sous chef at Nanea, The Westin Princeville’s premiere restaurant. “There was no salt. No sugar. You ate the rainbow. Grandpa taught me that food could be fun and a privilege. After we finished all of our vegetables, he would take us on a walk and we would end up at the ice cream store. It was our little secret. Grandma never knew.
Von Sell tells me this while she and I sit in Nanea’s outside dining area, on a long couch in the “grotto.” The couch follows the contours of the back wall and ends near a waterfall with a koi pond. Across a soft grassy lawn, resort guests linger poolside.
“I started cooking because all of the females in my family are horrible cooks,” Von Sell says before quickly adding, “and my mom will tell you that! We always had dinner at the table, but mom overcooked everything. We ate dried pork and mushy broccoli and I remember thinking, ‘There has to be better than this!’
“I was with my dad the first time I had a medium-rare filet. It was just the two of us and he asked, ‘Do you like filet?’ I said ‘No.’ He asked, ‘Is it because of your mom?’ I said ‘Yea. Why? What else is there?’ He ordered me a filet and after I took my first bite, I was like ‘What is this?’ He says, ‘That’s filet mignon.’ That meal taught me that there was more than what mom was doing at home.’”
At age 14, Von Sell made her first Thanksgiving dinner for the family. Afterwards, her mother watched in disbelief as everyone took the leftovers. After that, holiday meals became her job and that’s when she knew she had a special talent. At age 15, she got her first job at Carolyn’s Personalized Catering in Millbury, Ohio. She learned how to cook fresh food from scratch while cooking luncheons for 20 guests, or corporate picnics for up to 2000 people.
“There was no store-bought pasta,” she recalls. “They made their own kielbasa and sweet and sour cabbage. They smoked and baked their own brisket. Baked beans were a 10 hour process that started with dry beans. In Ohio, produce is isn’t always seasonal or local, like it is here, but it taught me that fresh ingredients taste better. If you buy from local farmers, you know the corn came out of the ground three days ago, or the strawberries were harvested two days ago. I was surprised to find that a big resort like the Westin focused on sustainable and organic products, and we get a lot of fresh products from local farmers. We use Kailani Farm, Hanalei Taro, Kauai Fresh Farms, Moloaa Organicaa and Kauai Kunana Dairy.”
In 2003, Von Sell graduated from the Culinary Arts Program at Hocking Technical College in Ohio, and in 2005, she moved to Maui and got a job as pantry chef at Roy’s Kahana Bar & Grill.
“I was going to be in Hawaii for one year, and then I was going to go back home and get a real job and be an adult. But I loved it here. Everything was so new. I just graduated and I thought I knew a lot but I didn’t know what daikon was. I didn’t know what togarashi was. I remember one of the cooks asked me to grab mahi from the cooler. There was a pan filled with different types of fish, so I brought the whole thing and said ‘I have no idea what that looks like.’”
Von Sell quickly learned and by 2012, she worked her way up to executive chef at Roy’s Poipu. In July 2014 she became Nanea’s executive sous chef and one of two female executive chefs at a posh Kauai resort.
“We don’t have an executive chef position at Nanea. Jason Sessions is the food and beverage manager and he takes care of everything,” explains the young chef who married David Von Sell on April 13. “It’s awesome because I can just focus on the food. At home, I cook when I’m happy, I cook when I’m sad and I cook when I think about David.”
In Nanea’s kitchen, an abundance of love springs from many avenues. Besides dinner every night in a tropical setting, diners can enjoy private dinners in the grotto. The most romantic suitors rent a papai, which is a private poolside oasis.
“I show love through my food,” says Von Sell, “and I love being a part of someone’s wedding, anniversary or birthday. Whether they meet me or not, I am part of their day. I imagine they look back 10 years from now, and the wife says ‘Remember our anniversary?’ and the husband says, ‘Oh! That was the best fish we’ve ever had!’ I love to create a memorable experience for our guests. If there’s a small group of people having dinner, we’ll send out a dessert that has ‘Happy Birthday’ written on the plate. It’s simple. That’s how I show love and that gets me.”
Besides dinner at Nanea, guests can enjoy a Hawaiian Paina (party) every Monday and Friday night with live music and a three-course menu. There’s live jazz every Saturday night; prime rib every Thursday and Saturday; and brunch every Sunday. On Saturday, Sept. 19, the Westin Princeville will host their 6th Annual Jazz & Wine Festival. For more information, or to make reservations, call 808-827-8700.
“I cook from my heart,” Von Sell concludes, with a small hitch in her throat. “That’s the type of chef I am. I’m not into molecular gastronomy, although I respect it. I’m not into super intricate, micro-dice. I’m into how you feel after you’ve eaten what I cook. If you walk away and you feel like you’ve had a good meal and a good experience, than I feel like I’ve done my job.”