On a recent trip to Hawaii, we caught up with renowned US chef, Lee Anne Wong, executive chef at Hawaiian Airlines and owner of Koko Head Café on Oahu.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into cooking as a profession?
I’m from New York, born and raised, and I went to fashion design school but I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 15, so I have a tonne of front-of-house experience. I didn’t really start cooking for myself until I was in college. I was living alone, I had to fend for myself so I had to teach myself how to cook. I was staying in a tiny apartment in Times Square, on a futon mattress on the floor, I had my 13-inch box TV and by some miracle, I could get local channels and Food Network.
I started watching it and then I bought my first cookbook. I just started cooking for myself and my friends and then they were the ones who suggested I go to culinary school and I always tell people, I’m pretty sure it was to improve the quality of what I was cooking for them at the time! They kind of put me on that path.
When I was 21 I enrolled at the French Culinary Institute (now International Culinary Center) and when I graduated from there, I got a job at Aquavit with Marcus Samuelsson right away. I was there for almost three years and then I opened up a Chinese restaurant for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and then I went on to be a private chef. Later I went back to the French Culinary Institute to be an executive chef and in charge of events, at which point I was cast on the first season of Top Chef.
I shot that first season and then subsequently they asked me to sign on as their culinary producer, so I ended up being the supervisor culinary producer for the series for four years. I produced seasons two through six and the first Top Chef Masters. We won an Emmy for season six – and then I quit! It’s like okay, we’ve won the Emmy, I can go now!
After that, back in 2009, I took that opportunity to really go travel and focus on myself. I did a lot of on-camera work for both Food Network and Cooking Channel and a few other channels and at that point in time, I was really looking for the next thing and I ended up moving out to Hawaii in December 2013.
What attracted you to Hawaii?
A boy! The boy that I moved here for is still a boy – and I am no longer with him! My fiancé, I met on Kauai– he’s been on Kauai for 15 years and now we have a two-year-old son who is a food and beer enthusiast!
What excites you the most about Hawaiian cuisine right now?
Just look around you. I think Hawaii had a really negative connotation in terms of food for the past few decades – and just the change that you’ve seen in the past 5 or 10 years. It began with the Hawaii Regional Cuisine back in the early 90s, and now you see the next generation of chefs – guys who have all come up under Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi and Beverly Gannon.
It’s a combination of both those mum and pop joints that have never gotten the appreciation that they truly deserve are now getting their recognition; as well as the next generation of chefs coming in and turning Hawaiian food on its head.
There is so much more access and knowledge about available ingredients to work with here. Our community and our government are doing everything to help support our small farms and events like this are incredible because they give right back into the community. What you see is that it just becomes a playground for chefs. We still have to run a business like everybody else. It’s hard to balance labour and as a small business owner, we are constantly battling with hotels. Like, “you’re gonna pay my guys $30 bucks an hour, I can only pay him $15 an hour” – there’s that, but at the same time, the wealth of talent here is incredible. I think the wealth of young cooks who are coming out of KCC and the culinary schools and are willing to learn – their presence here alone tonight shows they’re really eager to get into the industry and work with well-known chefs. All around, it’s a great time to be in Hawaii.
What are your top three foods you would advise visitors to Hawaii should try?
If you’re going to come to Hawaii, you have to try Hawaiian food. You have to try traditional dishes such as poke-bowl, lau lau and kalua pig. I recommend doing that by not necessarily signing up for a Polynesian luau but getting out. People come to O’ahu and they think Waikiki is O’ahu and I’m like, “No, rent a car, get on the bus for the day, travel around the island for the day because there is so much more to discover just outside of the commercial tourist areas. It’s the same if you have time, get to an outer island.
I think every island is very special and has its own distinct personality. Every island has something to offer – definitely get outside of your hotel.
What are your top three dining experiences you would recommend to visitors?
My favourite places are The Pig and the Lady. Chef Andrew Le and his family are doing incredible, incredible food. They have The Pig and the Lady and they also run Piggy Smalls, and they are at the Wednesday and Saturday Farmer’s Markets in Honolulu. They’re going to be opening up in Tokyo soon. I’ve been a huge fan of theirs since day one and they were just at the farmers markets back then, so to see them grow so much is incredible.
Definitely go check out Sheldon Simeon at Lineage restaurant in Wailea on Maui. He’s doing award-winning food and conceptual food that refers to his Filipino background and his Hawaiian roots, so I think that’s really important.
And then any of Ed Kenney’s restaurants. He’s incredible and a leader in our culinary community. All of his restaurant’s cooks live under the same mantra of ‘give Aloha, live Aloha’ and he’s just an incredible chef.
Of course, I’m a Hawaiian Airlines chef so Wade and Michelle Ueoka from MW restaurant in Honolulu are like a power couple. The food that they make is incredible and they just keep on opening restaurants.
And for brunch, you must come to my Koko Head Café on O’ahu!
What are your signature dishes at Koko Head Café?
We have many signature dishes. I would think people come for our Cornflake-crusted French toast. It’s Punalu’u sweetbread dipped in a coconut vanilla milk custard, rolled in Corn Flakes, fried served with candy bacon, a creamy black pepper maple and frosted flake gelato from our friends at Via Gelato next door. We have our Breakfast Bibimbap, our Koko moco, and we have something called Ohayou eggs – which is basically baked eggs, ham, shitakes and caramelised onions and bonito. We opened up in March 2014 so we’re going on six years right now. I’m like, “we’ve made it”!
Can you tell us how your relationship with Hawaiian Airlines came about and the challenges in selecting food for an inflight experience.
I began working with Hawaiian Airlines back in 2016 as one of their guest chefs for the guest chef program. At that time, chef Chai Chaowasaree was the executive chef and I think it was me and Wade, Sheldon and Jon Matsubara and Andrew Le were the first five and we each did a six-month cycle of outbound meals to North America. That was my first taste of creating airline food. Subsequently, they asked me to do their inbound from Japan; and then in March of 2018, they gave me the executive chef position which has been wonderful. That involves me making all the inbound meals from North America, our guest chefs still make the meals outbound in North America; I do all of our outbound internationally to Australia, New Zealand, and Korea, Japan. And then I’m also doing the inbound from Oceania – from Australia, New Zealand. And then Wade currently handles our inbound from Japan and then we have a partner chef in Korea that does all our inbound food.
What sort of suppliers are you working with?
We have to work with our airline caterers. So depending on what city we are in, we have partner airline caterers and we work individually with each of our caterers to basically streamline the recipes and the ideas. We get everything from the recipes down to the gram – from the packing and the heating to the plating – it’s really a very intricate system. We do a workshop first where we invite all the chefs in and then I’ll go a month later with my manager Ross to each of the cities and then test what they put there for us.
What are the challenges when creating menus that people will consume at altitude?
At altitude, certain taste buds are diminished and certain taste buds are elevated. On our airline, we have to have no peanuts no pork, no shellfish. We’re based out of a New York, East Coast market so for that reason, I’m not doing pork and shellfish inbound from North America. For people with dietary restrictions, I’m currently making our second First Class option for people vegan and gluten-free so we can cover our bases and make sure that everyone has a chance to eat a delicious meal. But essentially, it’s a very carefully-planned process from the creation to the packing to the reheating. Our flight attendants are really our sous chefs as they do all the heating and the finishing touches on the dish. We create a very detailed instruction booklet for them with pictures and they’re actually the most important part of the equation because they deliver it to our customers.
Is there a focus on working with sustainably-focused suppliers?
We work with each of our individual caterers to really source seasonal, available ingredients across the board, we really need to streamline the menu across the cities. I try and find things that are going to be in season; who they’re getting it from. Some of our caterers work with local farms and producers so whenever that’s an option, we are always a big supporter of that. It’s exciting because every kitchen is a little different, so we always have to find just the minutia and the tweaking of something so that everybody across the board can understand and be making a consistent product. It’s challenging but it’s also very rewarding when they get it right.
We hear you’re opening a new restaurant in Maui soon. Can you tell us more?
I just moved to Maui and I’m working on taking over a restaurant in a legendary location overlooking the ocean on the west side in Lahaina. I’ll be taking over the Pioneer Inn. It’s beautiful, right next to the Banyan tree, and it’s the oldest hotel in Maui open since 1901. I’m really excited that the owners are trusting me with this project. I’ve been on the road for the past two months and I’m eager to get to work. Right now the restaurant is open, so I’ll be taking it over in stages and swapping the menu over slowly. We want to get through the busy Christmas season with some minor changes so I think after January, I can implement some bigger changes once we have our new equipment installed and the kitchen has been changed over.
Find out more: kokoheadcafe.com