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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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.”