Alan Wong Talks About the Difficult Decision to Close His Restaurant
In November, Hawai‘i’s legendary chef decided to close his signature restaurant on King Street, one that earned dozens of awards, served a president, and trained and inspired a whole new generation of chefs. Wong spoke about the difficult decision, his memories and what he’s most proud of with one of his former line cooks, HONOLULU’s Martha Cheng.
The thought of closing the restaurant was absolutely horrible. I could see the writing on the wall. So I had to make the call. I went through every range of emotion you can imagine. The pandemic made the shit hit the fan in a way no one could have imagined. One of the saddest things was we had to clean out all of our offices and storage rooms. It all sat in the middle of the dining room. It was a sight to see with metro shelving filled with china, glass, silverware, kitchen equipment, dry goods and everything we had accumulated. There was also so much memorabilia: articles written, awards, recognitions, pictures, gifts and special mementos. I realized how much I was going to miss this place that I went to almost every day in my life for the past 25 years-plus.
When the majority of it ended, all the things gone and auctioned off and we left the premises, I felt strange. I was wired to do what I did, in the place that I did it, and all of a sudden it stopped. It’s not like a water faucet where you can just turn it off. I knew I had to detach, or it would get too emotional. Healing from this would become a personal thing that I did in my own quiet time, in my own way, and in my own mind. I am thankful for the dear friends I have.
I am most proud of the fact that we became more than just a restaurant. We touched many parts of our community.
One of the most important things to me was making sure we closed the right way. That meant that every member of the staff received their last paychecks to the end and all of our vendors got paid in full. Most of our vendors whom we bought things from were relationships for us. I couldn’t destroy that, and everyone needed to be kept whole.
My favorite memories are all related to people. The guests, the friends of the restaurant, the vendors, the farmers, the ranchers, the producers, the senior citizens of Mō‘ili‘ili, the Easter Seals kids, and last but not least, the staff.
I am most proud of the fact that we became more than just a restaurant. We touched many parts of our community. We championed things like tilapia, something locals don’t like to eat. I put it on the menu, served it at the White House. We were one of the first to buy Ka‘ū coffee and goat cheese from Dick and Heather Threlfall [of Hawai‘i Island Goat Dairy]. Hawai‘i wasn’t a great cheese-eating culture, but that cheese made Hawai‘i eat a little more, and now we have more cheese makers and varieties. I remember buying grass-fed beef from Rick Habein on the Big Island, and later from Doc Lum from the North Shore Cattle Co. Every year we took a farm trip to the Big Island with some staff. The goals were to forage and meet people, but also have our staff see and feel firsthand the products we brought into our restaurant. They were able to tell that story of their time on the farms and what they experienced.
Sustainability is a big word. What I wanted to do was, before I am done, to leave Hawai‘i a little better than when I first started doing this by investing in the future generation and supporting the farmers and local products. I always taught the staff that for every ending, there usually is a beginning, or in reverse, for every beginning, usually something has to end. This chapter, sadly, had ended for me. But, like I said in the ending of the Blue Tomato book, in a way, I hope I never find the blue tomato, because it is in that pursuit of the blue tomato, and what’s possible out there, that is where all the significant and meaningful things happen. Jokingly, I say, yes I am getting older, the restaurant closed, but I not dead yet.