2020 Hale ‘Aina Award Winners: Michelle Karr-Ueoka and Wade Ueoka of MW Restaurant Win Hawai‘i’s Restaurateurs of the Year
This couple lends a helping hand not just because times are tough, but because it’s what they’ve always done.
Five days before Labor Day, Michelle Karr-Ueoka is talking about story. She does that a lot, about things like ‘alaea and the people who collect the red salt and the flavors it imparts to food. Ingredients, farmers, family businesses: All have stories to tell—and in the age of conglomerates, when Hawai‘i imports an estimated 85% of its food, they are vital to our collective soul and belly. Today’s story is about mom and pop eateries. “There’s so much soul in these places,” says Karr-Ueoka, owner of posh MW Restaurant with her husband, Wade Ueoka. In June, staffers at MW chose dishes from their favorite mom and pops, improvised upscale versions for MW’s takeout menu and featured the dishes and their inspirations on MW’s Instagram account. Then they hid $25 gift cards to Ethel’s Grill, Helena’s Hawaiian Food, O’Kims, Sekiya Restaurant & Deli, Waiola Shave Ice and other places in random takeout orders—$1,200 worth of gift cards in all. “The thinking was we bought something from them, so that’s cash flow. Then hopefully whoever won the gift card would go to that place, spend money, like it and keep going back. It’s kind of like paying it forward,” Karr-Ueoka says. “It was nice. Those places, you want the legacy to live on and you hope they never have to close.”
In a dining scene dominated by stories about struggle, MW hasn’t been immune. A press release earlier in the day brings word of the permanent closure of its downtown café, Artizen, whose lease was set to expire. But just as COVID-19 draws sharp delineations between restaurants that find ways to pivot and those that don’t, it brings into focus a remarkable feature of MW: its propensity to help others. It’s not just the mom and pops—none of which asked for help. Through its seven years, MW has invited unemployed chefs to stage events and sell their food at the restaurant, organized 300-person charity benefits, and buoyed farmers trying to spark demand for crops like moringa and Buddha’s hand. Since March, its takeout menus have offered locally grown tomatoes and onions by the pound, eggs from Waimānalo and tofu from Kalihi—touchpoints linking MW’s customers with family-owned businesses that have lost giant swaths of hotel and restaurant orders. “You hear about chefs doing things once in a while, but Michelle and Wade are always out there. What sets them apart is they are consistent in always thinking about others and how they can help others,” says Denise Hayashi Yamaguchi, Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival CEO and executive director of the Hawai‘i Agricultural Foundation. “In this pandemic I’m sure they’re doing OK because they can still think about others.”
In other years, HONOLULU Magazine’s top Hale ‘Aina prize—this year the only one selected not by its readers but by its editors—has gone to foundational restaurateurs and those who push the envelope of the dining scene. In a time of tremendous upheaval, the Hale ‘Aina Restaurateurs of the Year are Karr-Ueoka and Ueoka, who reach out with a helping hand not just because times are hard, but because it’s what they do. In good times and bad.
“It’s their ability to adapt, try things, not be pigeonholed. They’re bold. And they’re not afraid to work.”
MW’s takeout bento doesn’t just hint at the restaurant’s origins, it’s a neon sign. A pre-pandemic lunch staple, the array of twice-cooked tonkatsu, house-made pork-and-arabiki Spam, kalbi ribs and Kukui Portuguese sausages atop furikake- sprinkled rice was a Zip Pac for foodies, with a price tag 50 cents cheaper. The bento idea stemmed from Ueoka’s first job in high school, washing dishes at Zippy’s. That was the start of the arc that led him to the kitchen of Alan Wong’s, where he met his future wife and where their trajectories began to parallel. Ueoka’s dreams of haute cuisine were born amid the chili pots and deep fryers of Zippy’s, Karr-Ueoka’s during an externship at Alan Wong’s that lured her from her focus on travel industry management. At Wong’s urging, both went off to train in Michelin-starred kitchens—including ThomasKeller’s French Laundry, Alex in Las Vegas and Boulud in New York City—and came home to apply what they’d learned. Eventually Ueoka would run the King Street kitchen as chef de cuisine, and Karr-Ueoka would establish herself as one of Hawai‘i’s most gifted pastry chefs. When they left Alan Wong’s (which permanently closed in November) in 2013, Karr-Ueoka after 16 years and Ueoka after 17, both publicly credited Wong as their mentor.
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MW, the couple’s first restaurant, “wouldn’t be total fine dining, it would be approachable too,” Karr-Ueoka says. “Wade was always telling me it couldn’t be too expensive because his family wouldn’t be able to afford it except on really, really special occasions. We wanted to make a wide range of people happy.” MW opened in late 2013 with an ‘ahi poke of precisely arranged ruby cubes flecked with ikura and draped with uni. A dinner entrée called “stew and rice” was an oxtail roulade atop risotto. Servers in black aprons and ties delivered Ueoka’s upscaled Korean fried chicken and Portuguese bean soup at lunch, a “musubi” of the house-made Spam fried in crunchy mochi shavings at happy hour, and seared foie gras appetizers and $60 Brandt beef rib-eye steaks at dinner. Karr-Ueoka’s desserts amplified the dichot my. Her Tropicle Fruit Creamsicle topped a base of creamy haupia tapioca pearls studded with fresh dragon fruit and pineapple with layers of liliko‘i kanten, liliko‘i sorbet and liliko‘i custard under a crunchy brûléed crust. The MW Candy Bar was a similar play on nostalgia rendered elegant: a peanut butter chocolate bar with layers of peanut butter shortbread, macadamia nuts in a Hawaiian salt caramel, and Valrhona chocolate ganache rising from a crispy feuilletine crust. Dinner guests got freshly baked cookies as a parting gift.
Its first year, MW was a rare Hawai‘i semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Karr-Ueoka, nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef, would get a second nod in 2019. In between, the couple opened Artizen, an upmarket café where customers were handed a number and picked up their own food, just like at a Zippy’s takeout counter; Burger Hale, which sold sukiyaki burgers, karaage chicken sandwiches and shave ice milkshakes at International Market Place in Waikīkī (now closed); and Trailblazer Tavern, a modern Hawai‘i-themed 200-plus seat eatery in San Francisco. The latter two are the couple’s places in partnership with chef and restaurateur Michael Mina, who became a customer, then a fan, and finally folded the couple into his culinary empire. “I think they’re pretty brave. Like International Market Place, it was like, oh, you guys are here. Oh, you guys are in San Fran,” says Lance Kosaka of 53 By the Sea, who at the time was executive chef at Top of Waikīkī and Sky Waikīkī. Himself a 19-year veteran of Alan Wong’s and The Pineapple Room, Kosaka mentored both chefs. “It’s their ability to adapt, try things, not be pigeonholed. They’re bold. And they’re not afraid to work.”
When COVID-19 hit, the adaptations came fast. Unlike fast-food counters and plate lunch stands, where takeout is a mainstay, higher-end restaurants rely on dine-in customers who run up larger checks. Almost overnight, MW’s affordable takeout lunch menu became its new model. Experience had taught them that when the menu stayed the same, orders declined by the day. So the kitchen devised new dishes to add to the midweek staples and a constant rotation of themed weekend menus. You could still find $180 tomahawk steaks and bottles of 2007 Chateau Mouton Rothschild cabernet discounted to $850. But nothing demonstrated the pivot, or tested it, more than Mother’s Day. The theme that weekend was okazuyas, Hawai‘i’s old-school Japanese delis. Two months earlier, MW’s identity was show-cased by its dinner service, where the cadence was measured in leisurely progressions from drinks and appetizers to entrées and dessert. On Mother’s Day, a skeleton crew formed two buffet-style assembly lines across the dining room. Miso honey-glazed butterfish, truffle soy short-ribs, chicken nishime, rice—orders came in for almost 1,400 bentos, each accompanied by a slice of MW’s mirror-glazed chocolate cake. In the kitchen, chefs cooked rib-eye steaks and other non-okazuya takeout dishes. The pastry side, where Karr-Ueoka hoped for 100 orders of a Mother’s Day cake made up of eight separate slices of chocolate, carrot, lemon crunch and five more cakes put together to make a whole round, got orders for nearly 500—which meant assembling nearly 4,000 pieces on top of 1,400 slices of chocolate cake for the bentos. Fine-dining chefs look at numbers and speeds like this with awe. Ueoka’s years at Zippy’s got plenty of credit; for Karr-Ueoka it was that plus large events and catering and a readiness for constant change. “You always want to keep learning and evolving and making yourself better,” she says.“It’s like when you play a sport. You practice every day to play in the game. Then you practice for the next game and the next game.”
“It’s like when you play a sport. You practice every day to play in the game. Then you practice for the next game and the next game.”
For a good part of the restaurant industry, helping each other is second nature. Cooks who start in their teens or 20s grow up in kitchens, and the camaraderie forged in these tight-knit, high-volume or high-end environments can transcend rivalries even after they leave. In this vein, MW’s efforts to showcase chefs who find themselves between permanent gigs (such as Jonathan Mizukami, now at The Kāhala Resort) don’t necessarily stand out. Nor does Reunited, a $295-a-head benefit dinner for the Hawai‘i Culinary Education Foundation that MW organized in its parking lot every year; it brought together a galaxy of former Alan Wong’s luminaries to cook. “I think Wade just wants to get us together and drink beer and have fun,” Kosaka says. But “it’s a lot of work. Who goes to all that work just to do that? Them. Helping out. Going to the schools. It’s something we all learned, but no matter how busy they got, they never forgot that.”
What does stand out are the breadth and circularity of MW’s actions. Karr-Ueoka’s stories about supporting a sustainable local food movement aren’t just stories. Like many others, the couple take their turn in classrooms, teaching the next generation of chefs the basics of crème brûlée and fish cookery. Yamaguchi, of the Hawai‘i Agricultural Foundation, marvels at their willingness to incorporate into dishes unsexy crops such as starfruit and moringa, over and over, to help farmers trying to diversify their offerings. The point of featuring longtime local eateries and farmers on MW’s Instagram, where their stories appear among images of tarts sprinkled with flower petals and coils of uni pasta, is to teach people, particularly young people, about a vulnerable part of the Islands’ food culture. Whether from Ho Farms, MA‘O Organic Farms, Twin Bridge Farms, Mountain View Farm, OK Poultry, Mrs. Cheng’s tofu factory, J. Ludovico Farm or Tea Chest Hawai‘i, MW isn’t the only eatery to feature local ingredients in its dishes or items for sale from local businesses. Other restaurants have been doing the same with their Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, boxes. But MW is the only one that has done both through the entirety of the pandemic. The restaurant’s takeout menu lets customers order raw cucumbers and avocados, tea and coffee, and even Ueoka’s 100% locally sourced dog food made with Ludovico Farm chicken or Mountain View Farm pork.
The totality of this view, looking back generations and into the future to protect what we have, is not unlike the cycle of farmers tending crops, harvesting them and enriching the soil for the next crop. “You can’t only look at what’s current. You have to look a week out, a month, five years, 10 years. What’s your vision and how are you going to accomplish it?” Karr-Ueoka says. “With COVID … you have to be able to be like, OK, it happened. We’re going to overcome it, we have to help other people overcome it. That’s the only way we’re going to get through it, is together.”