Alan Wong's Amasia Cocktail Lounge, Maui

King of the Kitchen

Alan Wong marked the 19th anniversary of his eponymous restaurant in April, swiftly approaching his second decade of feeding Honolulu foodies.

In that time, he’s also managed to open The Pineapple Room at Ala Moana Center and Amasia on Maui, publish two cookbooks and pick up a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest, 1996.

He launched-with fellow chef Roy Yamaguchi-the annual Hawai’i Food and Wine Festival in 2011 to raise awareness of Hawai’i’s agriculture and sustainability issues and promote Hawai’i cuisine internationally while raising funds for culinary education in the islands. He’s also a proponent of the Hawai’i Agricultural Foundation’s Localicious Hawai’i, a spring event that recognizes restaurants committed to buying locally and encouraging diners to eat local to raise funds for agricultural education.

He’s among a dozen chefs that started a revolution on the Hawai’i dining scene, an amazing and far-reaching arc that, looking back, just appears to be business as usual to the restaurateur who confesses that, back in 1995, “To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what I was doing. The only thing I was envisioning was survival.”

He hoped the restaurant would last five years, but he knew that would be an anomaly when it’s been noted within the industry that nine out of 10 restaurants fail in their first year.

Sure, he had the culinary chops gleaned from an apprenticeship at The Greenbrier Hotel, working at Lutèce in New York City, opening CanoeHouse restaurant at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows and participating in every “Cuisines of the Sun” event held at the resort for a dozen years.

It’s one thing to work for someone else but quite another to be your own boss.

“My game plan and vision were to continue cooking in the style of Hawai’i Regional Cuisine like I had been on the Big Island,” he explains.

“When you’re opening, you’re focused on all the details. It’s almost like tunnel vision. You’re not worried about the big picture,” he says, from his office in the same building that houses Alan Wong’s. “It’s like you’re in a jungle. Where you want to be is on the mountaintop looking down into the jungle.

“I think I was lucky to have been surrounded by smart and caring people who gave me great advice. Even so, I had to learn by mistake, and I made many mistakes.”

One of his mistakes was partially a result of having been ahead of his time in 1999. That’s when he opened the Hawai’i Regional Cuisine marketplace on the fourth floor of Ala Moana Center.

It was a place where those who loved artisanal foods could buy the same salads, prepared foods and bread served at his restaurants, along with fine desserts and chocolates. But at that time he found, “Nobody goes to the fourth floor to buy groceries.”

Today, artisanal and craft foods are the buzz of the industry, with people demonstrating the willingness to make the time to drive out of their way to farmers’ markets for signature edibles.

“That’s why I tell the staff it’s OK to make mistakes. You just have to learn from them and rebound.”

He lives by the formula “Change = Stress = Growth.”

“Each experience adds to what you know and adds to your repertoire. Attitude is everything. It’s more important than skill that can be learned. It’s about work ethic, how you respond to new challenges.”

Those changes inevitably involve the loss of staff to other restaurants and endeavors. Last year marked the departure of Alan Wong’s long-time chef de cuisine Wade Ueoka and pastry chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka to their own MW restaurant.

But Wong, an avid baseball fan who says he always dreamed of being a coach, has made it a point to be a mentor in the kitchen-even winning a Mentor Chef Award from for his efforts-and promote younger chefs through his Next Generation dinner series. His next rising stars, Miya Nishimura and Vivan Wu, have capably stepped in, respectively, as the restaurant’s new chef de cuisine and pastry chef.

“What’s common in coaching on the field or in the kitchen is that you have to put in the work, practice; you have to be disciplined.”

Wong’s boot camp comprises many a meeting and demos led by various staffers in their specialties, whether front of house service or the dynamics of particular dishes.

Alan Wong’s restaurant is still noted for a menu highlighted by local, sustainable produce and ingredients, with dishes influenced by Hawai’i’s multi-ethnic influences. On the menu, you’ll find the likes of soy-braised, kalbi-style grilled shortribs, pan-seared fish with shrimp pork hash and shrimp and clam linguine with chili-coconut and lemongrass-basil sauce.

A chef ‘s tasting menu might start with a liliko’i shot, side-by-side tasting of locally made butters and cheese, and Maui Cattle Co. beef and foie gras burger.

The culinary scene has grown in diversity since Wong opened his first restaurant. Now, there are few barriers to entry with the emergence of food trucks and pop-ups as viable meal sources.

“The culinary landscape is changing in Honolulu, but what I tell my staff is we want to be the best that we can be. I don’t want to compete with other people. I listen to what our customers want.”

Today’s sophisticated clientele craves authenticity.

“Diners are more well-traveled than ever before. Twenty years ago, you could make pad Thai, and no one knew what that was. If you bought a book on Italian cooking it would be about Italy. Today, you’d find books focused on Tuscany, Venice or Emilia-Romagna.”

Through all the changes, his restaurants continue to win accolades. In March, the American Culinary Federation honored Alan Wong’s Restaurants with an Achievement of Excellence Award, one of only three restaurants nationwide to receive the distinction in 2014.

Wong is currently eyeing expansion abroad and takes a fearless approach to growing beyond Hawai’i’s shores.

“I may have been a little gullible. I may have been naïve when I started, but the opposite of taking action is what I call analysis paralysis. If you give yourself a reason why you can’t do something, you won’t do it. So I’m glad I had a little bit of that naïveté, because who is ever fully prepared to start a business?”

Alan Wong’s, 1857 S. King St., #208, 949-2526,

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