Meet the Creative Genius Behind Some of the Best Desserts in Honolulu
How does Michelle Karr-Ueoka whip up some of the best desserts in town? Technique, talent and a lot of hard work.
Coffee heaven: The affogato features chocolate cake, coffee ice cream, and dehydrated chocolate.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
It’s 7 a.m. and Michelle Karr-Ueoka pulls up to MW Restaurant in the company minivan, the first to arrive.
She flips on the lights and opens up the kitchen, where she’ll remain for the next 16 hours. Along with another baker, she starts prepping dozens of mini cakes, meringues and tarts for delivery to Artizen by MW, the second—and much more casual—eatery she and husband Wade Ueoka opened in Downtown Honolulu last year. Then it’s on to what she’s best known for, what has earned MW Restaurant the 2017 Hale ‘Aina Gold Award for Best Dessert: her visually stunning, often whimsical, always delicious plated desserts.
The simple names on the dessert menu don’t always reflect her creativity and skill. The Hawaiian crown banana cream pie, for example, isn’t a gooey slice of vanilla pudding dotted with banana slices. Her version is a layered dessert, artfully displayed in a glass jar, with pieces of graham crackers, chocolate pudding and house-made kinako-banana ice cream topped with a generous layer of rich whipped cream and bits of salted butterscotch shortbread. And the Kula strawberry shave ice isn’t a simple cone of chiseled ice and too-sweet strawberry syrup. It’s a stemless wine glass filled with an airy granita (scraped with a fork) flavored with hibiscus and compressed local strawberries, accompanied by haupia tapioca, strawberry kanten—a nod to her affinity for gummy candy—strawberry-yuzu sorbet and mochi ice cream.
Karr-Ueoka transforms desserts into something beyond visual works of art. They’re playful and memorable and delicious. Her desserts make you smile.
“I love how her desserts taste and look beautiful but are comforting at the same time. They make me happy to eat them,” says Carolyn Tada Portuondo, executive pastry chef at The Royal Hawaiian, A Luxury Collection Resort, who worked with Karr-Ueoka at Alan Wong’s Honolulu in 2003 and credits her unparalleled work ethic, humility and kindness as reasons for her success. “Her desserts are typically bright in flavor and color and create a happy feeling when you see them. It really is a reflection of her personality. She’s extremely creative and takes a lighthearted angle on making desserts, which makes everything she creates so appealing to dessert lovers.”
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At about 8 a.m., one of her bakers, Beverly Luk, starts working on the hoagie rolls and slider buns for lunch service. All of the breads—from the hamburger buns for the local beef burger at MW to the Hawaiian cacao bread for the ‘ahi basil pesto sandwich at Artizen—are baked in house. Karr-Ueoka doesn’t believe in shortcuts or skimping on quality.
Besides, all the extra work, the long hours? She loves it.
“Honestly, if I had to work in an office and sit at a computer all day, I would be bored,” Karr-Ueoka says. “But this, it’s fun.”
“What stands out about her is that she always asked me, ‘How do I make it better?’” says chef Alan Wong, in whose kitchen she both interned and worked as a cook. “She will tell you she’s like the Energizer Bunny. She has a motor like no other, and she just keeps going. This perseverance and determination has gotten her to where she is today.”
Karr-Ueoka got her start in the restaurant industry volunteering in Wong’s kitchen, then spent six months doing an externship at Thomas Keller’s renowned French Laundry in Napa Valley. She then returned to Hawai‘i to work as a cook at Alan Wong’s Honolulu, where she met Wade, whom she married in 2012 after being together for 11 years. The two opened MW a year later—a week after adopting a Pomeranian-Chihuahua they named Echigo. (After the Japanese beer, of course.) The restaurant, and her reputation as a pastry master, flourished.
But Karr-Ueoka didn’t start out as a pastry chef. As a cook at Alan Wong’s, she often wandered into the pastry department to watch the chefs plate desserts, create sorbets and bake breads. This, she decided, was what she really wanted to do. But, instead of going back to culinary school—for $40,000 a year—she opted for a two-week stage (unpaid internship) in the pastry department at Keller’s Per Se in New York, which catapulted her into a desserts career. In 2012, back in Hawai‘i, she received the Rising Star Chef Award from starchefs.com. Two years later, she was nominated for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
So tropical: The brûlée with liliko‘i sorbet, tapioca and guava chiffon.
It’s almost 10 a.m. and Karr-Ueoka pulls a container of house-made coffee ice cream from one of the freezers in the 750-square-foot kitchen at MW. This will be part of a new dessert she’s crafted that’s a combination of two classic Italian desserts, tiramisu and affogato, that, one day, she just happened to be craving. (Cravings are a common source of inspiration for her.) She makes the ice cream using local coffee, then aerates and freezes it. The result resembles a sea sponge, and is combined with exquisite buttermilk chocolate cake and bits of dehydrated chocolate crowned with whipped Kahlua coffee cream dusted with cocoa powder.
She deftly moves around the well-organized kitchen, pulls out a cutting board and halves some cherries that have been soaking in wine and li hing syrup for two weeks. These are part of a new dessert inspired by the classic Black Forest cake that incorporates panna cotta made with fromage blanc by Naked Cow Dairy Farm & Creamery in Wai‘anae, chocolate cake crumbles and chocolate rice pearls to add an unexpected crunch.
“I like surprises,” she says. “I love different textures.”
People start trickling into the quiet dining room for lunch, poring over the menu. This is the part Karr-Ueoka loves the most, what makes her 16-hour-long days, seven days a week, worthwhile.
“I love making people happy,” she says. “It’s not about the money. My dad always says I’m his poor child, but I’m his happy child. What I do, it doesn’t feel like work.”
GETTING TO KNOW MICHELLE KARR-UEOKA
Her vice is gummy candy, particularly Haribo gummy bears and soda gummies.
She and her husband, Wade, don’t cook much at home, opting to grab food at Zippy’s and Chiba-Ken, a Japanese restaurant near their apartment in Waikīkī. “If you look in our refrigerator, you’ll see beer, wine and dog food,” she says. “That’s it.”
A unique dish she grew up on: canned pineapple rings topped with mayonnaise and grated cheddar.
When she has a day off, she’ll go golfing.