Lee Anne Wong’s path into the kitchen wasn’t a straight one, but you’d never know it. She’s one of those cooks who seem like they were born for the job. Born and raised in upstate New York, she made her way to New York City for college, and after transferring from FIT to the International Culinary Center (then the French Culinary Institute), Wong staged in kitchens around the world after graduation. She later worked under chefs Marcus Samuelsson and Jean-Georges Vongerichten and returned to the culinary center to work in its events division, which lead to a role as cheftestant on the first season of Bravo’s Top Chef, during which she became a fan favorite.
Over a decade later and after more time on TV and as a culinary consultant, Wong returned to the kitchen, albeit far away from New York City. She moved to Honolulu in late 2013 to openKoko Head Cafe, a brunch house that soon made waves on the island. The food is locally sourced, and breakfast is serious business (it does more than 300 covers a day).
Wong talks about her passion for Japanese whisky and the state of Hawaiian food and drink.
Koko Head Cafe in Honolulu
When you get a chance to travel, what do you ask yourself in terms of planning food and drink?
What am I hungry for? How much time do I have to eat? Is it hot? Is it cold? Is this [meal] going to break the bank? Am I thirsty? Do they have whiskey? Do they have cured meats? Do I need to dress up? Am I alone or with friends? If I am alone, how much can/do I want to eat? Everything? Almost everything? Definitely dessert? Or maybe save room for dessert at the next place, because double dinner is a real thing.
It’s real! Have your travels influenced what and how you drink?
I’ve been traveling to Japan for almost 10 years now, and I find Japan to have an almost unmatched fanatical culinary culture; the same applies for drink. My time spent in Japan has not gone without several visits to the Suntory whisky distilleries in both Yamazaki and Hakushu, as well as visits to both sake and shochu distilleries all over the country. And the bar scene there is bananas. I am an unabashed sake fanatic, I have an incredible Japanese whisky collection, and shochu is my leaner version of a clear spirit. Because of its lower alcohol, I can drink more of it and stretch the night out.
Wong has visited Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery in Japan several times.
You’re a fan of whiskey too, no?
When I first moved to NYC in 1995, whiskey was the undiscovered country. I thought, What’s the big deal? So I trained myself to drink scotch. I was a loyal scotch fan until I discovered American bourbons and ryes in my late twenties.
I’ve spent a bit of time in whiskey country, both in America and Japan. Visiting distilleries like Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill and Suntory, the art and craft of whiskey is one of those great human accomplishments. I look at my finely aged glass of whiskey and think, Somehow humans figured out how to farm grain, distill this spirit, age it and then perfect it through modern technology, which was also invented by humans. I am fascinated by designed machinery such as massive stills, fermentation tanks and bottling lines. Freaking amazing!
What’s your preferred way of drinking whiskey?
Depends on the whiskey. And my mood. My favorite way, I suppose, is over a large rock or carved ice cube—the way the ice slowly melts. I’m really into barrel-proof whiskeys, which are perfect with a big chunk of ice or a few drops of water.
Wong has her own hand-etched bottle of Maker’s Mark, for whom she later consulted.
What do you eat and drink on planes?
I always get on the plane with food, whether it’s a salad or mediocre airport sandwich, or if I am feeling enterprising and have the time, I will occasionally make my own gourmet lunch to bring on the plane. To drink, it’s Champagne or sparkling wine, whiskey and cognac, and every now and then, a glass of wine.
What’s the biggest misconception about the Hawaiian food and drink scene?
One of the things I have great respect for is true Hawaiian flavors and cuisine, which has its variety of styles, the same way Hawaii is a melting pot of culture. Ancient Hawaiian foods like paiai, poi, luau and lau lau are some of the tastiest dishes I have ever enjoyed. As a sovereign nation that was essentially overthrown by the U.S. and private business owners, Hawaii has a complicated past that has everything to do with its food scene today. You still see influences from wartime-era goods and postwar culture such as spam, saimin and loco moco—fast, inexpensive and filling.
With the ’90s came the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement led by marquee chefs, and suddenly Hawaiian cuisine and locavorism had a voice.
Lee Anne Wong
This all leads us to today, with the next generation of chefs and food service leaders working together as a community to not only help support and sustain local producers but to bring their A-game to the table. You see more and more small farms, distilleries and brew houses popping up every day, and they are producing really great products like rum, vodka, beer and shochu.
In a state that currently imports about 90 percent of its food supply, I think there are some outstanding businesses that are balancing both originality and practicality, as the word sustainable brings a whole new meaning when you live in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. While it has its challenges, living in one of the most beautiful places on earth with its own natural bounty has its perks too.