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.
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.
1995 → 1999
PREP COOK → LINE COOK
Siu followed up eight-hour shifts as a server at the Halekulani with night shifts at Alan Wong’s, just to build his culinary foundation. But after two post-work incidents—dozing off at the wheel and falling asleep in the parking lot of McDonald’s—Siu’s wife said, “Raymond, do you want me or Alan Wong? If you want Alan Wong, you better move out.”
He chose her, leaving behind a mentorship he calls the most valuable in his entire cooking career. “I had never had people personally care and explain what you should do right and the ‘Wong way’—as we called it—every night,” Siu says. “Every night, after 10 o’clock, after the last ticket went out, he’d teach us. It was like going to classes … I felt energized because of his education; it put more passion into my cooking.”
Siu’s first day/interview/test (as he tells it) at King Street was actually as a server. But when the kitchen fell behind, he jumped on the line. That night, after service, Wong hired him as a cook. Now, Siu and his family run PahKe’s Chinese Restaurant in Kaneohe, where Siu classifies his cuisine as Hawaiian-Chinese.
1995 → 2007
Hired on the opening team, Okumura was Wong’s pastry man. A Halekulani pastry chef for 12 years prior, Okumura handled all things baked and sweet.
Okumura’s chocolate crunch bars are still on the King Street menu today; knock-offs exist in other restaurants throughout Honolulu. He also used to serve a dessert with five tastes of creme brulee in individual Chinese soup spoons.
“Then, everybody started using the Chinese spoons for serving everything,” he says.
Since leaving, Okumura has opened Stage (along with two other Alan Wong alums, Jon Matsubara and Ron de Guzman) and Whole Foods Market, and worked for Edsung Food Service Co., supplying restaurants and hotels with baked goods. He is now a chef-instructor at Kapiolani Community College.
1995 → 2012
DISHWASHER → CHEF DE CUISINE
Even though the King Street restaurant was new, Wong’s fame at the CanoeHouse had more cooks wanting to work with him than he had positions open. So he told Kosaka and others they’d have to be dishwashers until something opened up. Eventually, three of the four dishwashers came on the hot line. One of them was Kosaka, who put in a few months washing dishes before he was given a chance to cook. Eight years later, he’d become King Street’s executive chef.
Along the way, “I learned the discipline of being a cook,” says Kosaka. “We should be craftsmen—never take shortcuts, learn about the quality of ingredients, know your ingredients, know your technique. He was always pushing us to learn, to develop relationships with farmers, to ask where it comes from, who’s growing it, to think about what you’re really using.”
Kosaka still remembers the opening days, when the restaurant was busy and the kitchen slammed, yet Wong was always organized. “And he could cook. He’d pull out a lamb rack and it’d be a perfect rosiness; he could cook a scallop perfectly.”
In 2007, Kosaka became executive chef of The Pineapple Room. When he left Alan Wong’s restaurants, he opened Cafe Julia in the YWCA downtown. He brought some of his Pineapple Room signature items, such as the garlic chicken and mac salad stuffed in a sandwich and refried taro seven-layer dip, while introducing more Mediterranean flavors, such as a breakfast yogurt panna cotta and putannesca.
Kosaka left Cafe Julia after a year and will be the executive chef of Skybar Waikiki, to open in 2014. He’s also collaborating with Okumura to overhaul the Top of Waikiki’s menu.
1996 → 2013
DISHWASHER → CHEF DE CUISINE
Ueoka was another Wong alum who started as a dishwasher and left as a chef de cuisine. His only prior cooking experience was at Zippy’s, flipping burgers, making saimin, “opening bags,” he says.
His time with Wong “is the base of everything I do today,” says Ueoka. “He strove to make us better people, well-rounded, not only on the culinary side, but as a professional, how we should act as a person outside of work.”
Ueoka may have spent more years at Wong’s than Zippy’s, but there’s still an undercurrent of that local, homestyle food in Ueoka’s cooking—a roast duck sandwich that’s like a gravy-doused roast turkey dinner plate; twice-cooked pork tonkatsu; even a ZipPac of sorts, a bento box with kalbi, spicy miso pork and mochi-crusted ono. In the fall, Ueoka will open MW Restaurant with his wife, whom he met at Alan Wong’s, former King Street pastry chef Michelle Karr Ueoka.
Michelle Karr Ueoka
1997 → 2013
PREP COOK → PASTRY CHEF
Karr-Ueoka read an article, “A Day in the Life of Alan Wong’s” and knew she wanted to work there. Except, her first day in the restaurant, she blew her first cooking test—boiling broccoli—because she didn’t know how to turn on the stove. Two years in the kitchen later, upon Wong’s advice, she went to the Culinary Institute of America, spent some time at The French Laundry, and returned to King Street, where she eventually became its second pastry chef.
She gives classic desserts a cerebral, upscale spin—everything from shave ice to a Snickers bar to strawberries Romanoff. She’s adopted Wong’s obsession with ingredient histories—a chocolate dessert traces the chocolate-making process, from cacao pulp sorbet to a roasted bean mousse to the finished product in fudgesicle form.
Her takeaway Wong-ism: “Your success is my success.” She says, “We always tell people, ‘if I can do anything to help you achieve your dreams, let me help you if I can.’”
1997 → 2000
DISHWASHER → LINE COOK
Matsubara likens Wong to Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots coach. “He builds champions, but he’s tough to work for,” he says. When Matsubara ditched his law-school track to become a cook, he washed dishes for both Roy Yamaguchi and Wong. At Roy’s, he was promoted to a cook after two weeks. At King Street, it took him a year to make it on the hot line. Even as a dishwasher, though, Matsubara says it was a “pretty exciting time, to watch Alan working the line, how he conducted the brigade,” the off-the-cuff dishes he would prepare when celebrities came in. “It was mind-blowing.” And even at the bottom of the totem pole, he was allowed to order whatever ingredients he wanted and come up with his own dishes. “He’d take the time to analyze and critique it,” Matsubara says. “If we didn’t know how to use an ingredient, he would hold a class to teach us.”
“He’s one of the top three mentors in my career … He would challenge me to get ready to do something great.”
Matsubara says he tries to emulate Wong’s culture in every restaurant he’s been a part of since then. After returning from New York, he took over the CanoeHouse, the very place where Wong made his name, then returned to Honolulu to open Stage at the Design Center, and then Azure at The Royal Hawaiian. He’s now the executive chef at Japengo at the Hyatt RegencyWaikiki.
1998 → 2010
STAGIARE → MANAGER
Matsumoto, a dental student prior to entering Wong’s kitchen, started as a stagiare (unpaid intern) at King Street, moved up to sous chef and then became general manager for The Pineapple Room.
Currently, he’s the executive chef at the Hawaii Convention Center, where he still executes Wong’s lessons in “slotting things in and out of a concept … understanding the foundation that makes a dish work and substituting ingredients and flavor profiles to create something new.” For example, taking a galantine, a French dish similar to a fish or chicken sausage, and swapping in Japanese or local flavors and ingredients to make kamaboko.
Matsumoto says, “No other restaurant here in Hawaii could have afforded me the training (rookie classes, monthly employee meetings, menu development, management self-improvement sessions) nor the exposure (travel, dining in great restaurants, visiting the White House) that I received at Alan Wong’s.”
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.