Maui chef Tylun Pang mentored cooking students

Chef Tylun Pang, a key figure in Maui’s food and hospitality industry who inspired a legion of chefs and cooks in Hawaii, died May 6. He was 65 years old.

Pang was Executive Chef at The Fairmont Kea Lani, Maui in Wailea, where he oversaw the restaurants, bars, bakeries and deli. He created the concept for the resort’s signature restaurant, Ko, the Hawaiian word for sugar cane. His menu reflects the diversity of Hawaiian cuisine, but his experience also covered a wide range of international tastes. He has also authored a cookbook called What Maui Likes to Eat.

Born in Honolulu in 1956, Tylun Wah Pang grew up watching his own father prepare traditional Chinese banquet meals for friends and family, said Pang’s nephew Kealoha Domingo, one of many in the island’s food industry who saw him as a mentor.

“He joked that (his father) gave us a disease that we always have this need to feed people,” said Domingo, founder of catering company NuiKealoha. He noted that one of Pang’s four sisters, Tami Orozco, co-owns the Tango Contemporary Cafe near the Ala Moana Center.

“Food was so important to our family,” Domingo said. “We can’t get through a family reunion without plenty of food. We’re talking about food to feed the neighborhood. We just had food coming out of our ears.”

Pang’s formal entry into the business was modest. His first job was at Kenny’s Burgerhouse in the Kamehameha Shopping Center in the early 1970s. “That’s how he started flipping burgers, but I know he was once the youngest chef in Hawaii,” Domingo said.

Pang formally trained with the Westin Hotels Culinary Apprenticeship Program, which gave him the opportunity to work in Asia, Latin America and the Mainland. After more than 20 years abroad, he returned to Hawaii and eventually moved to Maui, where he became a fixture through his work at The Fairmont and the Maui Culinary Academy at the University of Hawaii Maui College.

“He helped realize the partnership potential between the hospitality industry and an academic program and institution,” Clyde Sakamoto, retired chancellor of UH Maui, said in an email. “Tylun mentored generations of culinary students and professionals who became the foundation of Maui County’s hospitality and foodservice industry.”

Kyle Kawakami of Maui Fresh Steatery, a gourmet food truck, called Pang “the consummate champion of the local kid” and encouraged them, telling them they were as successful as mainland competitors seeking top jobs at local restaurants.

Kawakami first met Pang after volunteering for a charity at The Fairmont and receiving a job offer after the event ended. “As a brand new culinary student in my freshman year, it was quite an honor,” he said.

Working with Pang was “a very positive experience,” said Kawakami. “A lot of people tune in to these ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ shows where people are screaming and throwing things. That was never his kitchen.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the islands and tourism virtually ground to a halt, some Maui chefs organized grocery deliveries to remote Kupuna. The Fairmont was one of the first hotels under Pang’s leadership to donate its inventory to the effort, donating “truckloads of groceries,” Kawakami said. “He helped us charge up and was happy to bring it to us so the food wasn’t wasted.”

The Fairmont, which set up a Maui Culinary Academy scholarship on his behalf, expressed “heartbreak” at Pang’s death.

“In his 25 years at the forefront of the Fairmont Kea Lani’s culinary program, Executive Chef Pang has created a legacy as ‘chef,'” General Manager Michael Pye said in an email. “He was always thinking of others and how his work could help raise the next generation. This was a big part of the inspiration behind his eponymous grant, as well as his commitment to the local farming community on Maui and beyond.”

Pang has received multiple awards for his contributions to Maui’s culinary scene, including being asked to deliver this year’s commencement address at UH Maui College. Maui’s June 4th Grand Taste Food Event has renamed its favorite award the Chef Tylun Pang Fan-Favorite Award.

Pang’s favorite meal was a simple, traditional tribute to the family. “My dad used to make steamed fish with ginger and sizzling oil,” he told food writer Kim Sunee in 2013. “I do this at my house on special occasions.”

Pang is survived by his wife MaryJo, son Timothy, and stepdaughters Malia, Moani, and Mikiala. Services for Pang are pending.

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