A new chef in the Mavro kitchen: Paul Feng

From left to right: Paul Feng, Chef Mavro line cook Kevin Carvalho, and pastry chef Perry Ho fishing at Bamboo Ridge.

A native New Yorker, Paul Feng made the move to Honolulu for the same reason lots of people do—he married someone from Oahu.

“All I really wanted to do was a stage,” says Feng, sitting in the Chef Mavro dining room on Sunday to speak with me on his day off. “Take a look around and take it kind of slow.” Within weeks he was chef de cuisine at Hawaii’s highest-rated restaurant.

As a former sous chef at Floyd Cardoz’s groundbreaking Tabla in New York (the restaurant sadly closed in December 2010 and Cardoz is on Top Chef Masters 3), chef de cuisine at Wolfgang Puck’s San Francisco landmark Postrio (also closed), and opening executive chef of San Francisco’s Swell, it’s not surprising that Feng got snapped up.

In an extreme case of it’s-a-small-world syndrome, Feng has a childhood friend who lives here. And that friend, psychiatrist Michael Chang, just happens to be a neighbor of George Mavrothalassitis and his wife Donna Jung. Chang passed Feng’s resume to Jung. A little while later Feng met with chef de cuisine Kevin Chong. “He said to come in any time,” says Feng.

In the meantime, Chong accepted a position as executive sous chef of Disney Aulani, after a fruitful six-year run as Mavro’s chef de cuisine, garnering two James Beard Award nominations along the way. Shortly thereafter, Feng got hired.

For the last two months, Feng has been learning the Mavro way, and even held down the fort while Mavrothalassitis and Jung journeyed to the chef’s ancestral home of Symi, a Greek island. He and Mavro are just starting to collaborate in the kitchen, and you’ll get to taste the results with the unveiling of the summer menu on June 21.

I for one can’t wait to try the creations of what sounds like a harmonious relationship. “We have a lot of things in common,” Feng says of Mavrothalassitis. “We both feel less is more. Simplicity and flavor is the way to go. Chef doesn’t feel his food needs the ‘bs’ and that’s exactly the way I feel.”

Right now, Feng’s priority is setting up the kitchen staff. “I have to make sure we have the same focus.” And in turn the tightknit crew is helping the new arrival in his crash course on local food and culture.

Pastry chef Perry Ho took Feng fishing at Bamboo Ridge recently. “I didn’t know how to cast, so the weight went right into the water,” laughs Feng as he describes the day. “I really didn’t do any outdoorsy stuff coming from New York, so this is all new to me … wearing slippers.”

But being married to McKinley graduate Ivy Leung, he’s learning fast. Young’s father owns the Pearl City staple Wah Kung restaurant, where Feng got his first taste of cake noodle. “I liked it a lot,” he says. “I love pretty much everything. Aside from my cooking I totally enjoy simple street food … Zippy’s is awesome.”

Mavrothalassitis believes change is always good, and Feng doesn’t take his mantle as chef de cuisine at Chef Mavro lightly. “I’m definitely lucky by all accounts. I’m very, very happy. Especially in this economic climate. I knew it would be a challenge to find work, but I just concentrated on everything there is to learn about local cuisine and food culture. In my wildest dreams I didn’t expect to be in this situation of, pow you’re working.”