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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1999 → 2006
SOUS CHEF → CHEF DE CUISINE
When Nakasone left The Pineapple Room to run the kitchen at Slammers, there was hardly a trace of his fine-dining background in the menu. The only hint of his pedigree on the menu of burgers, saimin, kalbi noodles, kimchee fried rice and sizzling steak was the quality of food that had Honolulu chefs posting up here after their own shifts.
Nakasone and his partners, also two Alan Wong alums—John Estrella and Brandon Hamada—moved from Slammers to Kanpai and back to Slammers, now named Home Bar and Grill. Most of the menu is still casual, but a few items and specials exercise King Street-worthy techniques and flavors, such as bouillabaisse, roasted bone marrow and “negitoro,” cubes of ahi in a green onion oil.
Nakasone says of his current crew, “A lot of us still stay together because of our Alan Wong days, because of all the bonds we made through the years. It’s almost like a frat because of everything we went through together, the service nights that we survived together … It’s really hard to find that many good people in one place. It’s hard to find good cooks. And it’s really hard to find people who love what they do. Everyone was on the same page in those days. Those were good times. Those were hard times.”
1999 → 2001
DISHWASHER → LINE COOK
In high school, Hazama started as a dishwasher and prep cook at King Street, the youngest cook in the kitchen. He learned everything there: “the fundamentals, technique and cooking, and especially commitment and dedication. You gotta work from the bottom up … Like others invest in stocks, [Wong] invested in people.”
After King Street, Hazama spent a few years working in San Francisco and New York before returning to the Islands with Starwood Hotels—first the St. Regis in Kauai, and now the Sheraton Waikiki, where he’s the senior executive sous chef, in charge of banquet and special-event menus. (Two other Alan Wong alums are also with Sheraton Waikiki: Darren Demaya, executive chef of Kai Market, which has a very Alan Wong-inspired, throwback-to-plantation days spread, and Brett Villarmia, sous chef at Rumfire.)
1989 → Current
COOK → RESTAURANT MANAGER
“I’m the last woman standing,” says Stange, the last of the King Street opening team who’s still with Wong. She stays because she’s always doing “something new and different for the company,” whether it was rising in the ranks from a cook at CanoeHouse to sous chef at King Street, opening The Pineapple Room, working at Alan Wong’s in Tokyo (now closed) or consulting with Aloha Airlines’ menus.
And, she says, “you’re always learning something from somebody here. It’s like my second family.”
While chefs with Alan Wong have a loyalty that’s almost unheard of in restaurant kitchens—some staying with him for almost two decades—all the chefs from the opening years, except for Stange, have recently struck out on their own. What that means: changes in Hawaii’s culinary landscape, both within Alan Wong’s and beyond.
Author’s note: Martha Cheng has worked for Alan Wong herself—she was a line cook at The Pineapple Room from 2006–2008.