Alan Wong University: Where are his alumni now?
After 24 years of mentoring and developing Honolulu’s culinary talent, Alan Wong has an influence on Hawaii’s dining scene that reaches beyond the plate.
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Few chefs have influenced food in Hawaii as much as Alan Wong. If you’ve dined out and tasted an upscale riff on a local favorite, perhaps a kalua pig and foie gras sandwich, a ginger-scallion, panko-crusted fish, or li hing vinaigrette—you can probably thank Wong. Certainly, chefs before Wong fused East and West flavors, but Wong has a unique knack for elevating Hawaii’s local soul food.
While his style has been emulated by those who have never worked with him, he has also directly influenced more than 150 cooks and chefs who have passed through his restaurants, including the CanoeHouse on the Big Island, Alan Wong’s and The Pineapple Room. Some have gone on to helm their own kitchens, mostly here in Hawaii, some on the Mainland. Most offer their own twists on Pacific Rim, and it’s through their restaurants that Wong’s influence is most tangible.
And yet, for many of his alumni, the first lesson they’ll cite is a philosophy, not a cooking style: knowing where ingredients come from—not just which farm, but also that ingredient’s place in culture and history. And chef after chef will say the business sense he instilled in them has been invaluable in their own ventures.
“A lot of us are where we are because we worked with him,” says Neil Nakasone, now chef/owner of Home Bar and Grill.
Wong himself says he teaches his cooks “first and foremost to be a good person, to be a good citizen in the community, to give back always when you possibly can. To make the right decisions. Whatever you learn from me, go teach it to the next generation. And, hopefully along the way, you learn a few cooking things.”
1991 → 1993
Before Alan Wong had Alan Wong’s, he had the CanoeHouse at Mauna Lani Resort. Guzman worked with Wong there, “when he was young and vibrant and crazy,” Guzman says. And yet, that young and “coming up the ranks” chef was still a shrewd businessman. His first piece of advice wasn’t about food or cooking at all, but instead: “get a good accountant,” Guzman laughs.
“I want to follow your footsteps,” Guzman told Wong. So he did: He apprenticed at the Greenbrier as Wong had, collected experiences from three big-name chefs in Hawaii and the Mainland (again, like Wong), and ultimately opened his own place, The Poke Stop. It’s more than a poke counter at its Waipahu and Mililani locations, though—Guzman tops burgers with ‘ahi poke, combines a crab cake with pastrami and stuffs tempura shrimp into a po’ boy.
But the first thing he did when he started The Poke Stop? Hired a kick-ass accountant.
1992 → 2005
SOUS CHEF → CHEF DE CUISINE
“Alan entrusted his restaurants to me; I ran his restaurants when he was away,” Ariel says. “His style became my style. At one point in time, if there was anybody who could cook like him, I was referred to as that person ... It wasn’t until I left the organization that my eyes were open to different styles, techniques.”
Ariel had followed Wong from the CanoeHouse to open Alan Wong’s on King Street (or simply “King Street” as the staff calls it) as the sous chef. In 1999, Ariel opened The Pineapple Room, an opportunity for Wong to expand his brand while giving Ariel a new challenge. After 10 years there, Ariel moved to the Seattle institution Canlis.
Today, he’s the chef de cuisine at Trace in the W Hotel Seattle, where only a few dishes carry a hint of Asian influences—a dab of ko chu jang sauce here and furikake aioli there; the rest of the menu hews to a Mediterranean-Pacific Northwest flavor profile.