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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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.