Meet the New Leaders of Four Hale ‘Aina Award-Winning Restaurants
Get to know the talented chefs behind some of your favorite dishes.
The Pig & The Lady
KEAKA LEE, chef de cuisine, The Pig & The Lady
Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino
At Chinatown’s The Pig & The Lady, the Hale ‘Aina Best O‘ahu Restaurant winner known for bold, Vietnamese-inspired global cooking and the outsized personality of founding chef Andrew Le, the most striking thing about Keaka Lee is his quietness. Lee is so self-effacing that people don’t realize that he’s worked in five Michelin-starred kitchens—San Francisco’s Benu (three stars), New York’s Le Bernardin (three stars), Eleven Madison Park (three stars), Café Boulud (one star) and Gramercy Tavern (one star). Or that he started his cooking career at Chuck E. Cheese. Or that he’s been running the kitchen as The Pig & The Lady’s chef de cuisine for the past year and a half.
photo: elyse butler mallams
“Keaka brings a quiet competence to the kitchen,” Le says. “He has a professionalism that is really, really good in a kitchen like this because my team is a bunch of kids, very young, lots of potential. But we don’t have the same experience as Keaka—myself included. All the special events that happen upstairs, operating [the restaurant], he’s got it down. It allows me to always be in a state of inspiration and in a creative mode. I feel pretty lucky.”
Lee came home from New York in the summer of 2016 and was immediately scouted by several top restaurants. He clicked with Le, he says, because “he’s a great guy. I could see that we could definitely work together and help push Hawai‘i’s cuisine. We have different palates, but for the most part that’s not a bad thing because we can create different dishes that people have never tasted before.”
The menu at The Pig & The Lady—which also won silver awards for Best Business Lunch and Best Cocktail—is apt to include such dishes as sausages of pork and octopus stuffed in wild betel leaves, or Kurobuta pork chops in a fig char siu sauce with pickled strawberries. The menu changes all the time, but it’s reliably meaty. With Lee in the kitchen, vegetables get more play in softer, subtler ways. That was one of the takeaways from Gramercy Tavern’s elevated-rustic New American style—how to play up the delicacy of overlooked ingredients. “There’s this one dish that really stands out,” Lee says. “It’s a smoked trout. It had three variations on cipollini onions: pickles, a marmalade and a purée. It just blew me out of the water, seeing how three simple treatments of the same ingredient could elevate a smoked trout dish.”
Pastrami Cured Ora King Salmon, pickled mustard seeds, daikon kraut, wasabi crème fraîche, lavender crumble
Probably nothing illustrates better the yin-yang complementarity he brings to Pig than the first dish Lee made there: a salad. It rimmed the platter like an edible haku lei—tufts of baby greens, soft herbs and sugar snap peas dotted with pickled strawberries and cauliflower-seaweed foam and sprinkled with Kona coffee crumble.
One more thing about Lee: He sees cooking as a competition—against himself. This drive landed him on the first team of Hawai‘i students to win the nationwide American Culinary Federation competition. It drove him to seek a job with Gavin Kaysen, who competed for the U.S. in the Bocuse d’Or cooking contest. And it spurred him to move on after he felt he’d plateaued at Red Lobster, 3660 on the Rise, Alan Wong’s and Benu. At Pig, Lee, only 32, is in his first chef de cuisine role. He’s worth watching.
The Pig & The Lady, 83 N. King St., thepigandthelady.com
The languid ceiling fans sweep the air above Mariposa’s popovers and consommé, king crab salads and lobster club sandwiches—perennial favorites at Neiman Marcus’ third floor fine-dining restaurant. But look closer. Green tea smoked salmon? Pork belly banh mi with a hot tonkotsu dip? Loco moco?
Welcome to the palate of Lawrence Nakamoto. Mariposa’s executive chef since last summer, he switched up the menu in the fall and promises more seasonal updates. About half of the lunch dishes at the Hale ‘Aina Best Business Lunch winner are new; Matsumoto estimates up to 80 percent of the dinner menu, while not completely swapped out, reflects new touches. “I wanted to bring local flavors back to Mariposa—what local clientele like to eat,” he says. “Because I’m from here, I know what people like.”
Nakamoto’s culinary résumé is heavily Italian—he was executive chef at Il Lupino and before that a fixture at Uraku Tower as its restaurant transitioned from ‘Elua to Sapori Enoteca to Padovani’s Grill, all jointly or separately owned by Philippe Padovani and Donato Loperfido. Nakamoto, 29, might have continued in that direction if not for a plate of pasta in Tokyo. It was a Japanese take on spaghetti carbonara, with spicy mentaiko cod roe and a poached egg sprinkled with slivers of shiso and nori. The light bulb went on. “That’s what really got me going,” he says. “Before then I was just cooking with Donato and Padovani. I didn’t ever think of the fusion of Asian and Italian.”
Hence Mariposa’s new direction. Standards remain, such as the tagliatelle with slowly simmered bolognese, and American influences are evident in new dishes that include an apple and mustard-brined pork chop with a pomegranate port reduction. And then there are the new pan-seared scallops atop a cheeseless risotto of grilled anago saltwater eel in a soy caramel glaze with furikake and shiso.
Braised pork belly sandwich with Maui onion-tonkotsu broth
And the banh mi? Nakamoto’s nod to The Pig & The Lady’s pho French dip brisket banh mi is stuffed with pork belly braised in soy, sake and star anise and smeared with a pickled red ginger aioli. The dip was inspired by Menchanko-Tei’s Hakata tonkotsu ramen with its garnish of pickled red ginger. It’s as rich and buttery as a tsukemen dip.
And that loco moco—there’s a black truffle-beef patty under the Hāmākua mushroom gravy. That’s haute.
Mariposa, Ala Moana Center, #2101, neimanmarcushawaii.com
Eric Oto, the new chef de cuisine at Hōkū’s at the Kāhala Resort, made a splash when he opened his first tasting menu with crispy-fried treatments of ‘upapalu and mamo. Coming after his predecessor’s elaborately presented raw vegetables with bagna cauda garlic-anchovy-olive oil dip—almost de rigeur on high-end Japanese-oriented menus—Oto’s bite-size trash fish, caught that morning by his stepdad and uncle, were a huge statement. “The menu is who I am,” he says, “my background, the food I grew up eating, my personality.”
Hōkū’s new chef is a product of Kalihi, Waipahu and a stepdad who loves food. An avid fisherman and gardener, Milton Sato cured Oto of an aversion to vegetables by not letting him leave the table until he’d eaten everything on his plate. That gave Oto a quality essential to a chef: the ability to eat almost anything. It broadened his palate beyond his mom’s spaghetti and other American staples to include his stepdad’s beloved chicken hekka and local favorites. “He has a really, really good palate—the kind of palate where he can just start naming ingredients,” Oto says. “Growing up, he was always like, taste this, what do you think? I always felt like him always being like that definitely sparked the interest in me.”
From the culinary program at Leeward Community College, Oto was steered into the world of hotel banquets. It may seem an odd start to a career in fine dining, but it’s where he learned to temper the free-flowing creativity of chefs in independent kitchens with the demands of precise ordering, execution and timing for course menus serving hundreds of diners at the same time. Before The Kāhala, he cooked at Fish House at the Four Seasons at Ko Olina; before that he was at the Halekūlani for 10 years.
Hamachi Crudo with chia, sea asparagus, radish, pomegranate and citrus
Now Oto, 35, runs a kitchen that serves Hōkū’s nightly dinners and Sunday brunch, plus the afternoon tea sandwiches, wagyu beef sliders and salads of The Kāhala’s Veranda lounge (the restaurant won a bronze award for Best Brunch). Next on his list is creating new dishes highlighting winter ingredients. But those trash fish—which were deliciously crispy-light and served with Oto’s pipi kaula—will be a tough act to follow.
Hōkū’s, 5000 Kāhala Ave., kahalaresort.com/dining/hokus
Paul Matsumoto’s résumé reads like a culinary timeline of Honolulu: Diner’s Drive-In, Spencecliff, TGI Fridays, Byron II, Marukai, The Colony, Kincaid’s, Mai Tai Bar, Stage, Hawai‘i Convention Center, The Pineapple Room. That’s not even the full list: It doesn’t include the three years that Matsumoto, who became Alan Wong’s chef de cuisine in September, ran the front of the restaurant.
For Matsumoto, 48, it’s more than a homecoming. He runs the kitchen of a Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine icon whose founding chef helped put the Islands on the world culinary map. There’s a lot of legacy in the dishes at the Mō‘ili‘ili restaurant. “One of the main things we’re looking at is going back to our roots, to those flavors that people fell in love with in the past 20 years, not to necessarily reinvent them, but refresh them. Like katsuo soy. Negi oil. They’re building blocks of flavors,” Matsumoto says.
SEAFOOD BOWL with lobster, clams, mussels, shrimp, truffle garlic black pepper broth
“We used to have a butter poached lobster dish where we had a katsuo soy with the negi oil. The katsuo soy would bring out the sweetness of the lobster. Now we use it in the dipping sauce of the frito misto and in a seafood bowl—it has clams, mussels, shrimp and local vegetables in a truffle garlic black pepper broth finished with the katsuo soy. It’s reminiscent of a crab pot where you take your bread and scoop up all the sauce that’s left over.”
Drool-worthy creations like these help explain why Alan Wong’s won Hale ‘Aina awards for not only Best Tasting Menu, but Best Farm-to-Table as well—both solid additions to the legacy.
Alan Wong’s, 1857 S. King St., #208, alanwongs.com