Just Desserts


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At the Culinary Institute of America, Michelle trained in savory cooking. But it was her stint at Per Se in New York that she realized she wanted to become a pastry chef

We have to ask her, “do you ever sleep?” and pastry chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka’s response is a short “yes, I sleep.” But one has to wonder. Since Michelle and her husband Wade Ueoka left their chef positions at Alan Wong’s restaurant in 2013, the couple has been in fast-forward mode, opening MW Restaurant across from Ala Moana Shopping Center, Artizen by MW in the Hawai‘i State Art Museum, as well as partnering on several projects, most notably with San Francisco chef Michael Mina. This November, the culinary couple will bring their interpretation of Hawai‘i comfort food to San Francisco with Trailblazer Tavern, Mina’s latest restaurant in the Salesforce East build- ing in downtown San Francisco. This is not a small undertaking—the restaurant will seat 215 and serve lunch, happy hour and dinner. While Trailblazer Tavern may sound more Pacific Northwest than Hawai‘i, Michelle says the name reflects how the company views their employees—as trailblazers, but the food will definitely be grounded in Hawai‘i comfort food.

All this in five years. This October is the five-year anniversary of the opening of MW Restaurant, their first restaurant.

Looking back Michelle says, “It was al- ways Wade’s dream to open a restaurant. We are lucky that we have such supportive owners whom have supported us in our journey. It’s hard to believe that MW is celebrating its five-year anniversary, but it is due to our wonderful mentors, guests, farmers, ranchers, purveyors who have helped us to make our dream a reality.”

In 2013, it had been more than a decade since both started their culinary journey at Alan Wong’s Restaurant and perhaps, the couple thought, time to pursue their own dreams. Wade having worked at Alan Wong’s for 17 years and Michelle for 14 years, starting with an externship in Wong’s kitchen while attending the University of Hawai‘i as a Travel Industry Management major. Her time in the kitchen changed the course of her life and after graduating from the University of Hawaii, Michelle enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, the premiere culinary institution in United States. At the CIA she trained in savory and after graduating, staged at some of the best kitchens in America, including Daniel and Per Se. It was at Per Se that she realized she wanted to be a pastry chef. Coming in at 5:00 a.m. and leaving at 1:00 a.m. happy to be making bread and chocolate. “Even when I was working on the savory side at Alan Wong’s, I loved working the salad station,” says Michelle as she thinks back to the early days in the kitchen and what drew her to pastry. An avid reader, she is naturally curious about how things work, from the excitement she gets from working with a new ingredient or her enthusiasm when working with Hawai‘i farmers, her desserts often reflect a playful, clever approach. One of her most memorable dessert challenges was inspired by the theme, connectivity to the ocean. “It was a fun theme, and I created a dessert that was called Hurricane Popcorn Shave Ice. It was a seaweed furikake shave ice with popcorn and arare ice cream, Hawaiian sea salt and popcorn chips. It was served in a glass bowl surrounded by seaweed with dry ice, which created a cloud and the shave ice was on top. We served it with petit fours that were inspired by the sea”

“All of my desserts have a story behind it,” says Karr-Ueoka, but when asked if there is one dessert with a story that represents the past five years, the chef says there isn’t one dessert that summarizes it all. Understandable given all that’s transpired in five years. But she does mention Grandma’s Cookies, which are a signature MW Restaurant item. “The Grandma’s Cookies we serve at MW is based on an oatmeal raisin cookie I would bake once a year with my grandma. Growing up I golfed, played tennis and piano, I didn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but making Christmas cookies with Grandma was something I always looked forward to. It was time to laugh and spend time talking to Grand- ma.” Since the opening of MW, Michelle’s mother has helped to package the cookies, eventually progressing to baking the cookies as well packaging them for the many eager Grandma Cookie fans who are restaurant regulars.

A three-time James Beard semi-finalist for “Outstanding Pastry Chef” the ever-humble chef says she doesn’t feel she’s yet arrived as a pastry chef. “I don’t consider that I have arrived at being a pastry chef. I just consider myself as someone who loves to cook and make people happy. Every day is a new day where you get to learn new things and grow.”

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