Lee Anne Wong – Chef Owner, Koko Head Cafe

Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up, and how you got interested in food and cooking?

I grew up near Troy, New York, in a small suburb Wynantskill, New York. The “kill” means creek, essentially, so I literally lived next to a creek, which was awesome growing up. But in my youth, I was not interested in food. My mother, who immigrated from the Philippines is a wonderful self-taught cook.  When she came to America she became obsessed with cooking, learning about food… I would come home from school and Julia Child, or Martin Yan, or Jacques Pépin would be on the TV.

Interestingly enough, I later went on to work at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and I ended up working with Martin Yan, and Jacques Pépin, and all of these culinary legends that I had literally grown up watching on TV with my mom.

Your mom’s family’s from the Philippines? And what about your dad?

I’m Chinese in heritage, but my mom was born and raised in the Philippines and she immigrated here when she was in her early 20s. She was a registered nurse for over 30 years. My dad is 4th generation in America, Chinese American. I call him Chinese John Wayne.

My dad doesn’t know how to cook for himself, so when they got married, basically the first year all my mom cooked for him was spam and eggs. Which is ironic now that I live in Hawaii. The doctor eventually told her she would have to start learning to cook some other things because his cholesterol was through the roof. So that’s how my mom got started being a really, really amazing home cook.

When I went to college at FIT, [Fashion Institute of Technology] in New York. I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer. I liked clothing/shopping when I was younger, I mean that was the extent of it. I excelled in art and design, so I did really well in that respect. I came down, I went to the school, I graduated. I worked in the  [fashion] industry for about three years, and I really became disenchanted with it. It was not what I thought it would be. I decided instead of being hunched over a sewing machine all day, I figured being hunched over a hot stove might be a little bit different.

I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 15. I’ve been a server, a waitress, a bartender … I’ve done all aspects of service. In New York, I started at Dojo in the West Village, which I heard just closed.

RIP Dojo!

I worked there for five years and I was bartending. At that time I decided to quit fashion and go to culinary school. I had started cooking my own meals in the back, and so getting into cooking happened because I was bored.

And I happened to have Food Network on my TV. I had the basic cable and by some miracle I had Food Network. I started cooking for my friends and they were the ones who told me I should go to culinary school. And I still tell people, “It was to improve the quality of what I was cooking for them at the time.”

So I went to French Culinary Institute, my parents were not happy. I thought my mom would be happier, but she asked me if I wanted to go to the CIA upstate. I said, “No I want to stay in the city. I have job, I have an apartment.” So I went to FCI and I took night classes while I was working at the restaurant, and then eventually I quit the restaurant and I started working at Aquavit full time.

I started as a prep cook at Aquavit and eventually worked my way up to a line cook. After two years I was writing the specials menu for Aquavit café upstairs, which was amazing. It was a huge opportunity for somebody my age and lack of experience. The Executive Chef, Marcus Samuelsson, and Chef de Cuisine, Nils Noren, really took me under their wing; they tested me, they pushed me. I thankfully got the best out of it that I could, including learning what kind of environment that I liked to work in, as well as the kind of environment that I wanted to create for my own kitchen some day.

So it wasn’t perfect, but there was obviously daily comedy to things that happened in the kitchen. One of the things that I love about Marcus and Nils was that they really encouraged creativity. I remember one day I was trying to be a smart ass, and I ran out of the sorbet for my course on the tasting menu. We had a bunch of Pacific sea urchin in the walk-in and Nils was like, “Come up with an idea.” I was like, “Okay why don’t we do sea urchin sorbet?” And he made me make it. So that will be the last time I ever do something in jest.

It was very funny, we had a Japanese fish cook Kazuo, who was a sushi chef, and he I remember he tried the sorbet and he was like, “Mmmmmmm… amaaaaazing no good.”

It was actually a sea urchin sorbet?

A sea urchin and yogurt sorbet, yes. It was interesting, it was supposed to go with the foie gras ganache. But anyways …

But that level of trust, and that little push, “Okay smart ass, go ahead and make it.” You know? those are lessons that I’ll never forget.

As far as first jobs go, I lucked out… I left there, I went on to be a private chef for a Fortune 500 family and that was terrible. I learned that private chef-ing was not what I wanted to do. Then I got a job at 66, Jean-Georges Chinese restaurant in Tribeca. I was part of the opening staff and I worked hot apps, which was the hardest station ever.

What was the quintessential dish at that time in the hot apps station?

The frickin scallion pancake. I literally had to make 400 of those a day! At the time I had a partner who was terrible, she would’ve clawed my eyes out for the junior sous chef position. She would cruise in to work night service…. come in and set up the station, but would never do prep or anything. I’d be there from 6:00 in the morning til like 9:00 at night. Every day. Anytime something went wrong she’d throw me under the bus. My tenure there did not last long in the sense that I quit as soon as I had the opportunity to work at French Culinary Institute as their Executive Chef of Events and Continuing Education.

I did that, I left right after we got reviewed. And I remember my chef at the time telling me he thought it was a mistake to go work at a culinary school, but what he didn’t realize was that the position I was taking was not that of teaching in the classroom. I was literally doing all the custom events for the school, and I was managing their chef demonstration program. So I worked with every single talent that came through that school.

I did everything from setting up their demo date and their topic, to ordering them car service, to prepping out their recipes and their demonstrations, to making the tastings and executing them. Every day was like literally being in a new kitchen for me, learning from another great chef; Chefs like Ferran Adrià, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Bobby Flay, Tyler Florence, chefs from the Japanese culinary school in Kyoto came over for a week.

It was my job to make sure that they were comfortable, and that they looked good. Every day was a learning experience for me, beyond the fact that I got to work with our deans on a regular basis, who are legends in their own right, like Jacques Pépin, Andre Soltner, Alain Sailhac, and Jacques Torres.

My very favorite dean was Chef Andre, the Dean of Classic Studies, an Alsatian chef who had the famed Lutèce in New York, one of the first fine dining French restaurants in New York. and just an incredible guy, an incredible talent, and so humble. I had the privilege of working side by side with him alone on a regular basis, and I would just pick his brain. We’d be prepping for an event together, or he’d be prepping for his demo, I’d be prepping for a wine class, and I would just say, “I’m making beef bourguignon Chef, what’s your favorite cut of beef to use for this?” And he would just tell me his culinary secrets, we’d talk story about food and his experiences as a young cook. Priceless moments, really.

Learning from Chef Andre was a gift. He regaled me with stories of when he was an apprentice, in the 1930s and 40s….they didn’t have oven thermometers or any of the luxurious technological advances most cooks take for granted these days. They would shove a towel in the door to regulate the temperature on the oven. Before Vitamixes, before immersion circulators, cooks didn’t have any of those things, and they still made incredible food. That being said, I carry that with me. When something breaks, or something’s not going right, I always say, “What would André do?” He’s like the little angel on my shoulder, he’s always with me.

And then from the French Culinary Institute, how did you get involved with Top Chef

While I was at French Culinary Institute I was cast on the first season of Top Chef. That was back in 2005 . And then subsequently they asked me to consult on the second season because their culinary producer was having a difficult time. At the time, that type of show hadn’t been made before. Most people saw culinary as like a dump and stir kind of thing. It was an in-studio show, and this was different. This was the first culinary competition that was filmed out in the field every other day. Just the grand scale of it was huge.

I remember that first year, our kitchen, we had single a set of Calphalon. We had the home cook’s 8 piece set of Calphalon… That’s what we had to cook with for the first season. There were a couple extra pots in the kitchen but now since the show’s success the equipment and ingredient pantry are MASSIVE … I built that pantry for six seasons afterwards, and built wall to wall Calphalons. And it’s funny, ’cause it’s like the more equipment you give the contestants, the more they’re gonna get dirty. Take it from somebody who’s done a lot of dishes on that set.

They hired me to consult for season 2 and then subsequently gave me the job of culinary producer. When I did the Season 2 finale in Hawaii back in 2006, we filmed at Waikoloa on Big Island. That was incredible because that trip I reconnected with my roots here. I have ohana here in Oahu, and afterwards I flew over to spend time with my family to reconnect. That was the first call of “aloha”.

I produced seasons two through six, I consulted on season seven, and put together the first Top Chef Masters. That was everything from creating the challenges, to figuring out what food and equipment would be the focus on each challenge, styling out the pantry every day, doing the dishes, setting up that beautiful table reveal, cleaning up after them, packing up all the stuff on a box truck to take to location, unpacking it, setting ’em up, watching them cook, cleaning up … I called it “build/destroy.” It was like literally moving your house every day, and it was horrible. But working on a television production on that side of the camera really helped me to learn how to work in coordination with a group of 100 plus people.

When the time came, I was definitely burnt out after our season six in Vegas. I decided to leave and focus on doing my own thing. I had signed up for Top Chef for cooking and now suddenly I wasn’t cooking, I was just making TV, while they’re giving away cars, and restaurants, and trips to Paris to all the contestants that came AFTER my season (ha!). . I decided to leave that, and I started working with Irene Wong, an award winning producer who specialized in food television programs.  I filmed six seasons of Unique Eats with her, which was featured on the Cooking Channel. I was a guest judge on Chopped several times, I’ve competed on Iron Chef America (I won). I spent several years traveling the world, eating for the sake of the food television (such a hard job!), and eventually found myself a new home in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Was wanting to open a restaurant where you ultimately saw yourself going?

I mean yes, but the interesting thing was that I did it in a sort of reverse order. Most people open a restaurant work their way up and then they wanna become TV chefs and I did it the other way around. I’ve worked at a culinary school, I’ve opened a movie theater, I’ve staged at kaiseki restaurants all over Japan, cooked weeklong events in Kuala Lumpur….I’ve had this amazing breadth of different experiences. And now it’s like, I have a restaurant and I’m working on the next one. I’m the executive chef for an airline. Just to be able to broaden my perspective and my spectrum that way has just been amazing.

At the end of the of the day, yes, the restaurant is home. My employees are my family, and Hawaii is my home now. The restaurant is always a place to come every day and do what you can. We feed people, we’re not saving lives. But if we can help create great memories for somebody on vacation, or become part of somebody’s daily lifestyle or schedule, then I’m doing something good.

Can you tell us a little bit about your food philosophy and how you approach out the specials and the menus here?

Here in Hawaii … Hawaii imports over 95% of its food supply, so sustainability really takes on a different meaning. Coming from New York where I had pretty much access to almost everything, it’s kinda interesting when you come here. You see the price difference, you see that commodity goods, imported goods are cheaper than stuff that’s grown here. It’s crazy, you go into Costco and it’s like bananas from Ecuador. Cases, and cases, and cases of them, on sale. Same thing, like, pineapples from Thailand, and people are buying it, because the cost of living is so high here.

Part of our mission here at Koko Head, and pretty much any business I do here in Hawaii, is to source as much local as possible because … in order for food security, for food sovereignty you really need to buy into the system. And the only way to do that is through our food. We spread our message without being political through what people are tasting, eating, sharing and talking about on social media. We’re huge supporters of all the farmers and local producers and artisans here in Hawaii.

At the same time, we are committed to seasonal cooking. I love introducing our customers to ingredients that they’ve never had! One of the beauties of being in Hawaii is that we have a very unique microclimate. It’s a year round growing season, and we grow things here that you can’t get anywhere else.

Can you give us an example?

The Wailea heart of palms are incredible. Finger limes … there are over two dozen varieties of mango that grow here, same with avocados. Pohole ferns, kukui nut, macadamia nuts, fresh curry leaves…. And a dozen different kinds of banana. The seafood is plucked straight from our surrounding ocean, and now we have local cattle, venison, pork, and chicken. It’s not cheap, but at the same time, we’re looking at the carbon footprint of not having to bring things in from the mainland.

Turning the islands into a place that can sustain itself is a massive, almost impossible challenge. We just had a hurricane scare a month ago, and Oahu’s not ready. Oahu was never meant to hold over a million people. I was thankfully on mainland when all this went down, but I came back all of the stores looked like they had been looted, the shelves were empty. And they’re still empty because you know what? That boat is still waiting to come in. So what happens if the boats and planes stop coming? How long could you survive on an island? How would you know how to feed yourself and your family?

So those are important questions. As a restaurant, we go local because we believe the food tastes better. Hands down, it’s fresher. It’s got the aloha spirit and the soul because it was grown here. That’s something that we’re always promoting, that I think people are always pleasantly surprised by. People come here knowing that they’re gonna have a good meal, but they don’t expect to get an education at the same time. We embrace natural curiosity while showcasing the best the island have to offer seasonally… “What am I eating? What is this fruit?” Our fruit plate is amazing. Everywhere else, probably in this state, you’re gonna go order a side of fresh fruit and you’re gonna get, guaranteed, a piece of fruit that is not from here.

I get what’s in season. So right now we have both pink and red dragon fruit. Longan fruit, fresh lilikoi, star fruit, purple star-apple, guava, pineapple, Kula strawberry … papaya, we currently have three different kinds of bananas— apple, Cuban reds, and ice cream bananas. We have ketembilla, ceylon gooseberry, tropical apricots, Big Island figs, and surinam cherries. Those are all fruits that make it onto our fruit plate, that people have never seen.

I remember the first time I tried a Cuban red banana… we were traveling the Road to Hana. I got so excited, because it was a variety of banana I had never tried before.

We’ve only ever had two types of mangoes on the mainland. Being here is a privilege. Being here is special. Being able to be a chef here, I understand how lucky we are to have access to all this. We want celebrate that produce in unique and delicious ways.

Do you make it out to eat? With a new baby probably not as much as you used to.

Not as much as we used to, but we still go out. What’s amazing is that he’s very social, our son Rye. I worked at the restaurant while I was pregnant, so theoretically he’s used to the noise and the energy. Now one of his favorite places is actually in the restaurant. It’s very comforting for him, and he’s our little social mascot/greeter now that he’s a year old. He knows how to wave hello to all the guests, and he loves my employees. I always had this very selfish fantasy of raising my kid in a restaurant, and now I’m doing it. It’s like, I’m working. We don’t pay for childcare, so we bring him here sometimes. And he’s totally happy here.

Lastly, do you have any favorite places to eat? Either here, or elsewhere in the world?

Favorite New York places … I had the privilege of eating at Suzuki. I love Yakitori Totto, and Soba Totto, Sakagura, and my 20+ year mainstay, Village Yokocho.

I see a Japanese theme here.

Literally the only reason I could move to Hawaii is ’cause the Japanese food here is bananas good. It’s almost better than New York. Borderline.

Favorites here in Honolulu include Sushi II, Izakaya Naru, Hachibei, and Nanzan GiroGiro. People always ask me, “If you had to eat one type of cuisine the rest of your life what would it be?” Without hesitation every time,  “Japanese! Hands down.”

We went on our babymoon in Japan and I ate everything while I was six months pregnant with Rye. We’re hoping that we can take him back soon, before we open another restaurant. To show him how beautiful Japan is. He loves to eat, his favorite thing is noodles. So his first birthday’s coming up and the theme is gonna be ramen.

Anything you wanna talk about that we didn’t hit?

I love your knives, thanks for coming here. I’m somebody who has a healthy relationship with Japanese steel. I mean, I remember saving my money to buy my first Japanese knife, which was a Masanobu. Seeing my cook’s and my employee’s enthusiasm, it’s an extension of your arm, it’s an extension of your career, and yourself. You’re able to put feeling and personality into what you’re doing if you have the right tools. Having a sharp knife is everything.

I tell these guys, “Just get one knife and take care of it.” I have more knives than I know what to do with. I need a knife like a need a hole in my head. Everyone is special, and every knife, to me, tells a story. That’s incredible. Any well seasoned chef, you talk to them about their knives? Each knife has its own history. Each knife has been through a war. Every now and then you find a knife that you forgot about, that you forgot you used, you’re like, “Oh my god! You! We’ve been through battle together.”

I’m interested to know what’s happening with the next generation of knife makers in Japan, because it’s a dying art. At one point I thought we may be looking at the last generation of great, great, hamono makers, because nobody wants to work in a dirty steel factory anymore, hammering steel. Companies like Chubo are essential to keeping the craft alive, by creating the demand for hand forged Japanese knives. It is only through this demand that these masters can afford to pass on their golden knowledge and skills to the next generation of knife makers and sharpeners.