Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Pig & The Lady: From Farmers Market Pop-Up to the City’s Hottest Restaurant

Chef Andrew Le’s innovative cuisine has won acclaim both locally and nationally. And he’s just getting started.


Published:

Le family

Pigs who fly: (bottom row, from left) Teri Fukuhara-Le, Oliver and Loan Le; (top row) chef Andrew Le, Lawrence Ho, Alex Le.
Photo: Elyse Butler Mallams

 

Andrew Le
Andrew Le.
​PHOTO: ELYSE BUTLER MALLAMS

Andrew Le was late. His car had broken down on the way to the Hale ‘Aina Awards, where his Pig & The Lady restaurant had been nominated in five categories; now, with the awards ceremony almost over, Le had made it to the Royal Hawaiian and was running through the crowds celebrating the gala in the hotel’s courtyards. Outside the packed Monarch Room, he panted to a stop at the precise moment the emcee boomed into the mic, “… Restaurateur of the Year, Andrew Le!”

 

Mouth hanging open, a stunned Le had to be pushed inside to accept the top honor. The moment pretty much summed up his 33 years: false starts, dogged determination and not a little luck. But that only partly explains how The Pig & The Lady went from pop-up dinners to a farmers market booth to one of the city’s most popular restaurants and, now, a new second eatery. Or how in those five years Pig grew from eight employees to nearly 120. Or the awards for Best O‘ahu Restaurant, Best Business Lunch, Best Cocktail, Best Dessert, Best Vietnamese—Pig won in all five Hale ‘Aina categories it was nominated for and took home the one prize determined not by HONOLULU readers, but by its editors, Restaurateur of the Year.

 

Here’s the rest of the story: about the coming of age of a millennial, and how his quest for independence brought him home to his family.

 

Haku Lei Salad

THE HAKU LEI SALAD FROM THE PIG & THE LADY.
Photo: STEVE CZERNIAK

 

Luck was on Le’s side even before he was born. The family ended up in Hawai‘i because a heavily pregnant Loan Le, fleeing her native country in the final days of the Vietnam War, went into labor on a refugee flight to Arkansas. Pulled off the plane at Hickam, Le and her husband, Raymond, named their firstborn Anderson after the obstetrician who delivered him. Alex, Andrew and Allison followed, and the Les grew a swap meet stall into Toys ’n’ Joys, a Kaimukī toy and video-game shop that expanded to four locations. 

 

The background of Andrew Le’s childhood was filled with the smells and tastes of his mother’s Vietnamese cooking. After St. Louis High School he bounced between fine arts studies, culinary classes and unpaid stints in local kitchens, where he chopped onions and stuffed squid, before his parents forced him to make a choice. He was “in that phase,” he says. “Skip school, go smoking, whatever.” 

 

Fried fish

A real catch: The Pig & The Lady’s Balinese fried fish is a nod to the Le family’s Southeast Asian roots.
PHOTO: STEVE CZERNIAK

 

But in his first glimpses into the culture of professional cooking, the loose directions of impulse were coming together. He was finding role models. At Ninniku-Ya, “the chef was kind of rough,” Le says, “like a pirate. But he worked the wok like nobody else. When he got a break he would say, ‘Everybody kneel down,’ and he’d light cigarettes. Kool Filter Kings. My first cigarette.” 

 

Green is good cocktail
The P&G Green is Good cocktail.
PHOTO: STEVE CZERNIAK

At Duc’s Bistro, a chef he describes as another pirate taught him to never again confuse salt for sugar by throwing Le’s first attempt at crème brûlée against the wall and making him lick the salty drips. When Le winced at touching hot pans, the same chef rubbed a pot of boiling water across his hands to toughen them.

 

There was something heady about this—from the rigid order of the kitchen hierarchy to the way the basics led to technique, and how the totality could produce something delicious. Le did well at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, then at Chef Mavro, where he rose from assistant pastry chef to sous chef. If George Mavrothalassitis was exacting, it was chef de cuisine Kevin Chong, who trained Le in the tiny kitchen for six years, whom he still credits as his mentor.

 

When Le left Mavro’s, he had the basics, the French techniques, the discipline. With former HONOLULU dining editor Martha Cheng, he started The Pig & The Lady as a series of haute-cuisine pop-up dinners. They all sold out. But he felt like he was cooking Kevin Chong’s food. And Chong had taught him that, in order to create his own style, he had to understand tradition. So he started a farmers market booth selling Vietnamese street food, and his mother replaced Cheng as the Lady. “It’s totally my mom’s recipes,” he said at the time, “the way she made these dishes when we were growing up, but to my taste. My taste.” 

 

Hu tieu my tho

A bowl of farmers market hu tieu my tho. 
PHOTO: STEVE CZERNIAK

 

Behind the scenes, there were screaming fights between mother and son over the authenticity of recipes and whose right it was to decide. Le had come out of a five-diamond kitchen. If he seemed out of place stirring vats of pho broth, it’s because he was. But his pho, pork-stuffed tofu and grilled betel leaves stuffed with garlicky minced beef were drawing crowds.

 

The irony of striking out on his own while surrounded by family wasn’t lost on him. His mom oversaw the soup. Alex, who’d been managing Toys ’n’ Joys, managed the operation. Allison helped cook and Le’s girlfriend, Teri Fukuhara, took care of admin. Even his dad showed up to make the Vietnamese coffee. “Even if I said, I don’t need you, they would come. Seriously,” Le says. “At that point I was a little resistant to working together as a family. We’re all chiefs, so I would fight my mom about this, my brother about that. I was like, this is too much.”

 

“In many ways, the stroke was a tragedy. But it saved us as a family.”—Andrew Le

 

They took a break from each other. Le wanted to resume his personal quest. He would be like Caine in Kung Fu, journeying to culinary hotspots and seeing if he was good enough to cook at big-city level. He set off for Portland, San Francisco, Chicago. He was in New York when a call came. Loan Le, visiting her homeland in search of new ideas for the farmers market, had suffered a stroke. The family immediately flew to Ho Chi Minh City. It took two months to get her home. She could barely walk or speak. Le stopped talking about his journey.

 

Alex Le farmers market
Alex Le serves up farmers market pho.
PHOTO: ELYSE BUTLER MALLAMS

When it became clear that Loan Le insisted on presiding over the soup at the farmers markets, hobbling to the boiling vats and murmuring orders for seasonings, the family coalesced. “In many ways the stroke was a tragedy. But it saved us as a family,” Le says. “We were starting to hate each other. Then that happened. We all had one focus: to get mom better.”

 

They treated the markets like her therapy: more noodle soups, more banh mi sandwiches, more herb-laced salads and curries. Whatever they made, crowds lined up for. But there were still three chiefs in the tent. When a friend called with a job offer at San Francisco’s Rich Table, Le took off and gave himself seven months to study the restaurant’s rustic-upscale style. 

 

He was cooking in a big city. Not only that, chefs there had heard of The Pig & The Lady. It was a tremendous confidence boost. After the seven months, he flew home and put bruschetta with pâté and quince jam on the farmers market menu, and tofu with kim chee, dates and pickled grapes. The pop-ups started again, with crazy spaghettis cooked with chicken fat and Douglas fir, or ikura and ogo. With him now were Brandon Lee, Kristene Moon and Chris Kimoto, younger chefs who were hungry to learn. But Le could only teach them so much with portable coolers and grills. 

 

“A Vietnamese flavor compass rooted in French technique. Yin and yang, soft and crunchy, sweet and sour, spicy and salty, hot and cold.—Andrew Le

 

They opened the restaurant in late 2013 on a Chinatown block that was deserted after dark, and life got real. The place had 88 seats—huge from their perspective. But it meant Le could properly teach his cooks, let them loose to experiment and help find Pig’s culinary identity. Pig already had a loyal fan base, farmers market regulars as open to trying charred tako spaghetti with oxtail Bolognese and liliko‘i as they were pho French dip banh mi sandwiches. Le put both on the menu and left the farmers markets, with their more Vietnamese dishes, to his brother and mother. The move brought peace.

 

“I’m global and my mom and Alex love traditional Vietnamese food. I had to marry this together and build trust with my mom and brother in the type of cuisine that we were shooting for,” he says. “If I was able to build trust in our food with our customers and our team, then The Pig & The Lady could be totally free. It could be whatever—but with a Vietnamese flavor compass rooted in French technique. Yin and yang, soft and crunchy, sweet and sour, spicy and salty, hot and cold.”

 

pho-strami bahn mi

Piggy Smalls’ pho-strami banh mi.
PHOTO: STEVE CZERNIAK

 

The food inspired lines out the door at lunch and dinner, write-ups in U.S. and Japanese media, visits by celebrities including Jessica Alba, Samuel L. Jackson and Nick Jonas—and a James Beard nomination. Le credits years of intense work by his team: his mother and Alex, Teri—now his wife—and his St. Louis classmate Lawrence Ho, who left a job as an IPO specialist with Price Waterhouse in Hong Kong to put Pig’s financial house in order and lay the groundwork for its future. The day-to-day crews in the kitchen, front-of-the-house, farmers markets and catering, Le says, have put in years of work to support the family business.

 

Piggy Smalls
Piggy Smalls.
PHOTO: ELYSE BUTLER MALLAMS

In his mind, opening Piggy Smalls at Ward Village in October was akin to expanding the house to accommodate grown kids. He made Brandon Lee the chef de cuisine at Piggy Smalls, with Kimoto as sous, and hired Gramercy Tavern veteran Keaka Lee to run the kitchen at Pig and promoted Moon to sous chef. Smalls’ exuberant, indulgent dishes have not just Vietnamese touches, but hints of the Middle East and Eastern Europe as well. “The menu reflects Brandon’s interests,” Le says. “Brandon worked his ass off and this restaurant is pretty much for him. He gave us everything and we have the opportunity to give back.”

 

When he took the stage at the Hale ‘Ainas, Le felt the presence of Loan and Alex Le next to him, and the cluster of Pig employees watching from outside the ballroom. It wasn’t a burden to run from any more, it was liberating. Everyone was happy. “I was looking at my mom’s face and Alex’s face and they had ear-to-ear grins. And I could see the staff looking, and I was thinking, I’m so proud of you guys. It was the biggest and best validation they could ever get.”

 

Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Subscribe to Honolulu

Honolulu Magazine June 2017
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Trending

 

U.S. Attorney General Disses Federal Judge “Sitting on an Island in the Pacific”

Jeff Sessions

Twitter users from Congress to Kaka‘ako react with #islandinthepacific.

 

33 Real Problems (No, Seriously) Only Hawai‘i Locals Can Handle

Carmageddon.

It’s paradise. So why are we so stressed?

 


21 Hilarious Hawai‘i Memes That are Too Real for Locals

Hawaii Apartments

Hawai‘i nō ka ʻoi when it comes to the beaches, the food and even our memes.

 

Ben Cayetano Runs a Full Page Ad Asking Donald Trump to Yank Funding for Rail

Ben Cayetano Rail

In The Washington Post ad, the former Hawai‘i governor recalls meeting Trump at a Miss Universe pageant in Honolulu.

 


20 Great O‘ahu Hikes

Explore 20 great adventures that offer beautiful vistas, waterfalls and more.

 

 

Edit ModuleShow Tags