Michelle Karr-Ueoka was born and raised in Honolulu, though her pursuit to become one of Hawaii’s most notable pastry chefs has taken her far afield. After a year at college in Portland, Oregon, her passion for cooking was ignited after an externship at Alan Wong's while getting her Travel Industry Management degree from University of Hawaii. It was at the Hawaiian culinary temple, where Karr-Ueoka could barely hold a knife properly, that she realized she wanted to be a chef. After a heart-to-heart with Wong, Karr-Ueoka decided to attend the Culinary Institute of America, during which she completed stages at Daniel and Union Pacific. But her most memorable externship was at The French Laundry, which she landed by writing to Thomas Keller, saying she’d do anything for an opportunity, even scrub toilets with a toothbrush (she mailed him a toothbrush as proof of her passion).
When Karr-Ueoka rejoined Alan Wong's, she spent six years on the savory side. She moved back to New York City for another brief stage, this time at Keller's Per Se—an experience that made Karr-Ueoka realize she wanted to be a pastry chef. With her new direction, she returned to Hawaii and rejoined Alan Wong’s, this time as pastry chef, where her desserts are a testament to her native land’s exotic bounty. For Karr-Ueoka's travels have taken her full circle to who she wants to be: one of the most daring and thoughtful pastry chefs in Hawaii.
Interview with 2012 Hawaii Rising Star Pastry Chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka
Nicholas Rummell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Michelle Karr-Ueoka: While attending the University of Hawaii in Manoa majoring in Travel Industry Management, I had to do an executive level externship in a hotel or restaurant. I chose Alan Wong's. When I went there, he asked me what I wanted to do in life and I said I wanted to be a chef one day. He asked me if I knew how to cook; I said no. He thought I was being humble, but he soon realized that I was telling the truth. I didn't even know how to hold a knife correctly let alone turn on a gas stove. After graduating [culinary school] I returned home to Hawaii, where I went back to work for Chef Wong.
NR: What about your stages? What impact did they have on your career?
MK: When I was at Daniel, it was for savory, but I spent some time in the pastry department as well. It was interesting to be able to see both sides. I spent my time at Daniel while attending the [Culinary Institute of America]. I would go there on the weekends since school was only Monday to Friday. I would leave CIA right after school and then work at night, and on the weekends and take the last train back on Sunday. When it was time for my externship, I left for The French Laundry where I focused on savory, but Stephen Durfee was the pastry chef there and also taught me some pastry ideas. He originally worked the hot line and then became a pastry chef. He was the one who also inspired me to think how the sweet and savory can be intertwined together. I was so fortunate to be there at such a wonderful time. Chef [Thomas] Keller was always there, Eric Ziebold was the chef de cuisine, Grant Achatz was the sous chef, Gregory Short was the sous chef, and Stephen Durfee was the pastry chef. They were such an inspiration.
NR: When did you decide to return to Hawaii?
MK: After The French Laundry, I returned to CIA where I graduated and came back to Hawaii to work for Chef Alan Wong. I worked the savory side for several years and then left for Per Se. At Per Se I spent most of my time with Richard Capezzi in the pastry department and a couple of days in the savory. It was when Jonathan Benno was the chef de cuisine. During that stage it was the turning point for me where I knew being a pastry chef was what my heart desired.
NR: What culinary trends do you see in the market now?
MK: More and more people are focusing on the origins of food. Of course, farm-to-table and buying local, but also about going back to the culture of food. Japanese, Chinese. What traditions were there. For us, it’s just a way of life, but so many more people are doing it now.
NR: What is the status of pastry on the islands?
MK: They seem a little bit more dealing with the savory side of things. I see people going back to comfort food, and trying to do different spins off of that, like the shaved ice or the almond float. Hawaiian people like familiarity. But a lot more pastry chefs are trying to showcase the product and the farm. Like now is mango season, so it’s all about mangoes on the island. One of the farmers once told us that if they don’t make money, they won’t farm, and that’s how you get the next generation to keep farming.
NR: How are you involved in your local culinary community? Is it a tight one? What about older pastry chefs on Oahu?
MK: If I have the time to on the outer islands, I try to do so. On Oahu, I knew the chef from Morimoto, but he then left Hawaii. The chefs here are like one family. You want to help everyone out as much as you can, because then you make the industry stronger and bring greater attention to Hawaii.
NR: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
MK: I honestly don’t think there is anything I would do over, because everything happens for a reason. Be it a mistake or something I didn’t do right, I learned from. It’s like I always tell my staff, there is no such thing as a mistake, just a moment you learn from. One of the toughest things I had to do was coming to Chef Alan Wong as an extern and pursuing my dream of becoming a cook/chef some day. When I came to him I didn’t know anything. I was in a kitchen that was filled with people who were experienced, with three or more years’ culinary experience. It was overwhelming, but I knew that I had to work three times as hard to catch up.
NR: What does success mean for you?
MK: Passion goes up and goes down, but dedication will help you get to where you want to go. For me, success is being able to do what I want to do, what I love, and make other people happy. Both my employees and every guest that comes in. Nothing else makes me as happy as watching somebody else enjoy the dining experience or watching one of my cooks go onto another job and say “thank you for my time here.”
NR: If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
MK: I don’t really know anything else. I know golf. I was on the golf team in Hawaii. That’s what my father wanted me to do. I would probably have gone into business, but I couldn’t imagine anything else [than cooking].
NR: Where do you see yourself in five years?
MK: You’ll probably still find me here [at Alan Wong’s]. Right now I’m in the midst in doing Pineapple Room desserts right now, which is a more casual style. And we’ll do wedding cakes eventually. I would like to see us have a bakery eventually, which had all the different ethnic influences. Now you’d have to go to Chinatown to get Chinese bakeries. There is no bakery that has all those influences, and are contemporized but still done in a familiar way. My other goal is to be nominated and hopefully win the James Beard for pastry chef in the near future.