I first met Lee Anne Wong (@leeannewong) about two years ago when she was in town shooting a segment of “Unique Eats” for the Cooking Channel.
She was sampling the plate lunches at Rainbow Drive-In when I popped up behind her and said, “Let’s take a photo!” (See above shot.)
We were instant buds.
We ate lunch at Heeia Pier General Store & Deli after that, where she met Mark “Gooch” Noguchi for the first time. And then I took her surfing in Waikiki.
We’ve been pals ever since.
Born and raised in Troy, New York, Wong, at the time, lived in New York City, where she served as executive chef of the French Culinary Institute, her alma mater. In 2006 she catapulted into mainstream fame by competing in the first season of Bravo’s “Top Chef” — which just so happened to be one of my favorite shows.
Wong finished fourth that season — and then went on to work for the uber-successful series for years — but she won over legions of fans who loved her sharp wit, her infectious laugh, and her mad skills in the kitchen.
She definitely won me over.
Now the cheftestant made the transition from skyscrapers to sunsets — she recently moved to Oahu, where she’s already planning big things. On Friday she will be popping up at Taste Table in Kakaako with a noodle bar that you know will have pork on it.
1. You + Hawaii — makes sense to me. When did you know this was where you needed to be?
The trip when I met my boyfriend, about a year and a half ago. I had been to Oahu twice beforehand within the year and was already feeling the call of the aloha spirit. Having a reason to come back kinda set the wheels in motion for the move here.
2. What do you love about the Hawaii food scene?
There’s a ton of talent here, whether it’s a young new business or an old school mom and pop joint. Hawaii is in the midst of revitalizing its culinary identity by combining its local bounty and cultural heritage/diversity with some really cool business ideas
3. Tell me about this new venture with Kevin Hanney and Koko Head Cafe?
Breakfast and lunch, seven days a week. Think reinvented diner classics — with a Hawaiian/Asian beach blanket. Breakfast congee. Local Fruit Pancakes. Bfast Bibimbap. Taro Biscuits and Gravy.
4. When you look back at your culinary career, what moments stand out?
Too many great memories to count. Aquavit, FCI, Top Chef, Iron Chef, Unique Eats, the list goes on… What really stands out are those times when I said goodbye to something, making the conscious decision to stop doing one thing, most likely in my comfort zone, to step off into the great unknown and try something new. Every time you leave a job to start a new one, or take a shift in career direction, and all the personal minutia and emotions that go along with such change, it’s like hitting a reset button. This is one of those moments, I know it, probably the biggest change I’ve ever taken on. For me, Hawaii is the undiscovered country. My chance to start a new adventure in not just my job but in life.
5. Let’s eat. Where are you taking me?
Let’s see. On an all day excursion we kill it at dim sum at Fook Lam, the earlier, the fresher. Followed by wannabe cronuts at Regal Bakery, just because it’s close. We will collect fresh local fruits and roasted meats and maybe a few manapua as we stroll through Chinatown on our way to Pig and The Lady to get a to-go bahn-mi as they open for lunch (We put this in our pocket and save for later…). Time to find me an end table and lounge chair for my apartment. After furniture shopping in Kakaako we hit up Cocina for taco lunchtime, split that bahn-mi in secret at the table (maybe we give Quinten a bite). An afternoon of food shopping at Ala Moana/Shirokiya (still food collecting, maybe a kimukatsu sandwich for midnight snackies). Beer in the beer garden. Sunset cocktails at the Royal Hawaiian. First dinner: Restaurant Wada. Second dinner: Kohnotori. Dessert: We accost Michelle Karr-Ueoka outside of MW restaurant as they are closing and make her spoon feed us lemon meringue brûlée.
My kind of girl!
Check out Lee Anne Wong’s Noodle Bar pop-up from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 17 at Taste Table.