The Hawaii Rising Stars Winners: Why They Shine

by Nicholas Rummell with Will Blunt and Antoinette Bruno
Will Blunt and Antoinette Bruno
October 2012

Hawaii has turned a corner in its food culture. While gustatory relics such as Spam, greasy macaroni salads, and the endless parade of bad hotel buffets still exist, they've been nudged further out of the public consciousness by a groundswell of younger chefs eager to reconstruct the islands' culinary past.

That's not to say Hawaii hasn't had its share of culinary champions over the last couple decades. Twenty years ago a group of 12 chefs—among them current Hawaiian legends Alan Wong, George Mavrothalassitis, Roy Yamaguchi, and Mark Ellman—scratched the record on bad, mostly imported Hawaiian food, and composed quality dishes using local product.

Today, a new crop of Hawaiian Rising Star Chefs has taken up the tune, developing operatic odes to Italian, Asian, and French dishes, re-creating charcuterie in the island's less-than-ideal circumstances, and beating the drum loudly for sustainability. For mixologists, it's no longer about the size of the umbrella in the coconut coupe, but the delicacy of the drink. And sommeliers are, against all odds, pairing amazing classic and New World wines, despite the difficulty in getting some of those vintages to the far-flung islands.

This year we tasted savory dishes, desserts, cocktails, and wine pairings from more than 50 talented chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers in Hawaii. Only 14 earned the title of Rising Star. So what makes them shine?

Rising Stars have attributes that make us believe they will be the future leaders of the country's culinary scene. Put simply, they're not just surviving the Hawaii restaurant industry, they're defining it with exciting cuisine, pours, and culinary concepts. So, without further ado, our 2012 Hawaii Rising Stars: who they are, why they shine, and how they're shaping the future of American cuisine.

Christopher Kulis

Chef: Christopher Kulis, Capische?

CIA-graduated and Keller-trained, Chef Christopher Kulis is so well versed in the farm-to-table approach (or as he calls it, dirt-to-mouth), that he won't cook East Coast scallops and builds his menu largely upon fish he gets from the off-the-clock Maui construction workers who work part-time as fishermen. The result is an Italian menu at Capische? that always challenges but never baffles. Kulis deftly weaves together pepper, acid, sweetness, and salt to create bold, challenging dishes. And his rustic, naturalistic approach to plating is clearly inspired by the product he works with, most of which comes from the organic garden that Kulis started and each cook at Capische? tends. With a side catering company and a pop-up restaurant in the works, the sky is the limit for Kulis.

Dishes that Clinched It:

Andrew Le

Chef: Andrew Le, The Pig and the Lady

Andrew Le's wildly popular pop-up restaurant, The Pig and the Lady, is a sophisticated tour de force of Vietnamese street food, some of which is unfamiliar to even many of Oahu's native Vietnamese community. But it's not surprising that Le is carrying the flag for his Hue and Hanoi forebears. Drawing influence from his parents' home cooking—and from his experience as sous chef at Chef Mavro—Le has the aptitude to perfectly cook noodles or slow-braise trotters, and the brazen confidence to perfume his dishes with just the right amount of shiso, cilantro, and mint. While The Pig and the Lady may still double as a semi-weekly farmers market stall and Le still in search of a permanent brick-and-mortar location, his cooking is well-defined and some of the most talked about on Oahu.

Dishes that Clinched It:

Cameron Lewark

Chef: Cameron Lewark, Spago Maui

Most chefs draw upon their experiences to create dishes. For Cameron Lewark, it's the cuisines he channels that create an entirely new dining experience—one that’s part Asian, a dash French, and entirely Hawaiian. Lewark is a Wolfgang Puck veteran, but far from a cookie-cutter protégé. And now that he's ensconced on the Hawaiian islands, Lewark blends Thai flavors with bright Maui product to make dishes that are perfectly in sync. Lewark’s plating style meanders between playful and artistically serious, but it always hints at the exotic and reflects an integration of flavors and textures that make his dishes as fun to eat as they are to look at. This mainland transplant’s devotion to Hawaiian product runs deep. He leads servers and line cooks on field trips to local farms and fisheries—all to inspire constant innovation and inspiring of-the-moment menus at Spago Maui.

Dishes that Clinched It:

Nick Mastrascusa

Chef: Nick Mastrascusa, Beach Tree

Half Sicilian and half Spanish, Nick Mastrascusa’s cuisine reflects his duel heritage in a symbiotic and soulful way. Many of his dishes would be right at home on an Italian sidewalk café, while others could be plucked from the cobbled streets of Barcelona—but all of his cooking showcases the exotic flavors of his adopted Hawaii. As with Mastrascusa's background, his dishes are greater than the sum of their parts. In a market where food is often overwrought, his dishes are rustic, refreshing, and casual. Mastrascusa focuses first on fresh ingredients (he sources at least 75 percent of his ingredients on-island, from among a network of more than 160 farms), but it's what he does with those ingredients—making a paella with Kona lobster or creating three variations of dreamy gnocchi—that makes him a Rising Star.

Dishes that Clinched It:

Wade Ueoka

Chef: Wade Ueoka, Alan Wong's

In Hawaii, there's doing things the right way, doing things the wrong way, and then there's doing things the Wong way. Few chefs have made such a mark on Hawaiian regional cuisine as Alan Wong. And it's his longtime disciple, Wade Ueoka, who is taking up that mantle. Having staged at The French Laundry and Las Vegas's Alex, Ueoka is one of the driving forces behind Wong's empire (along with his wife and fellow Rising Star Michelle Karr-Ueoka). It's Ueoka's childhood memories of Hawaiian staples (think mochi, opakapaka, and oxtail soup) that inform his cooking. But instead of simply representing Hawaiian traditions, he's reinterpreting them, using the Asian and Italian influences he picked up on his travels with Wong. At the end of one of Ueoka's meals, diners leave both comforted and curious about the glorious possibilities of Hawaiian cuisine.

Dishes that Clinched It:

Jojo Vasquez

Chef: Jojo Vasquez, Plantation House Restaurant

Jojo Vasquez knows all about pressure and success. As one of Morimoto's cooks on "Iron Chef," he's seen his share of both. But it was at Maui's Banyan Tree where Vasquez first came out from his mentor's shadow and started to shine on his own. After leaving Banyan Tree in 2008 to helm the kitchen at Morimoto Waikiki, Vasquez returned in 2011. Although he’s since departed for Plantation House Restaurant, Vaquez’s driving philosophy has remained the same: ”If it's not exceptional, I won't use it." It’s a mantra that has helped the young chef create accessible menus that dazzle with simplicity but equally wow with experimentation. The results are like watching an artist paint with two brushes and in dueling styles. For one plate, the minimalist chef briefly sears Molokai shrimp on the plancha with just a bit of harissa, and in another he dehydrates and then rehydrates black olives to create olive paint for a cheese tart. All the diner has to do is marvel. And eat.

Dishes that Clinched It:

Michelle Karr-Ueoka

Pastry Chef: Michelle Karr-Ueoka, Alan Wong's

When Michelle Karr-Ueoka first started cooking, she could barely hold a knife. But with 11 years at Alan Wong's (first on the savory side, then moving to pastry) she has become one of the dominant pastry chefs on the islands, with a contemplative, mature approach to sweets. Her pastries are explorations waiting to be savored and slowly navigated, as crunchy textures give way to silky mousse, and sweet begets sour. With stages at New York's Per Se, Daniel, and the now-closed Union Pacific, and a full-time position at The French Laundry, Karr-Ueoka certainly has the pedigree. But what she really brings to the table is a deep knowledge of her native Hawaii's terroir. For most pastry chefs, dishes reflect something about themselves; for Karr-Ueoka, it's about reflecting the heart and soul of Hawaii.

Dishes that Clinched It:

Elizabeth McDonald

Pastry Chef: Elizabeth McDonald, Honu Seafood and Pizza and Mala Ocean Tavern

Pastry shouldn't just plunge into glutinous, sugary bliss; it should also challenge expectations and force diners to think about the conclusion of a meal in a new light. Elizabeth McDonald's creations are all about intensity—of flavor, texture, and color. And more impressively, her sumptuous pastry belies a healthy creativity and fearlessness. She slathers chocolate mousse with tofu frosting, dreams up stevia-based desserts, experiments with garbanzo flour, and bakes one mean flax-seed bread. Of course, it's not hard to imagine this from McDonald—who once baked in the bush camps of the Alaskan wilderness, 450 miles outside of Anchorage, with little access to milk and eggs. Her technique is not driven by limitations, but instead by a desire to open up the pastry menu to as many different tastes (and health restrictions) as possible.

Dishes that Clinched It:

Quinten Frye

Sustainability Chef: Quinten Frye, Salt Kitchen & Tasting Bar

Chef Quinten Frye's credo is to "use local ingredients whenever possible." It's an easily stated philosophy, but in Hawaii—where 80 percent of food products are still imported—actions speak much louder than words. At Salt Kitchen & Tasting Bar, the soft-spoken Frye's actions shout and scream in a friendly, sustainable call to action (to eat). Having cooked at the now-closed Shoreline Grill, one of the first certified sustainable seafood restaurants in Texas, Frye is now sharing his brand of eco-eating with Hawaii. Every month at Salt, he cooks a Wine & Swine dinner, where five-course menus focus entirely on locally ranched pigs (as well as other island animals). He's also a supporter of Grow Culture, an inter-island "virtual farmers market." But it's Frye's unwavering work at Salt—where he uses local fish in all of his dishes—that shows just how devoted to sustainability he is.

Dishes that Clinched It:

Doug Kocol

Artisan Chef: Doug Kocol, Salt Kitchen & Tasting Bar

In Hawaii, where Spam is still revered by (too) many and the naturally high humidity makes it difficult to hang-dry sausages, charcutiers are a rare breed. But charcuterie is in Doug Kocol's blood—every restaurant he's worked at has had some form of meat program—and he says that charcuterie is one of the true art forms in the culinary world. At once an artist and craftsman, Kocol's dried-and-cured lineup is among the most delicate and delectable we've tasted (in any market). Working the line at sister restaurant 12th Ave. Grill, Kocol butchers three pigs a week for the charcuterie program at Salt. And, along with Salt Owner Kevin Hanney, Kocol has plans to open a deli across the street to sell his wares. With Kocol in charge, charcuterie on the islands is sure to be more commonplace, but never common.

Dishes that Clinched It:

Sheldon Simeon

Concept Chef: Sheldon Simeon, Star Noodle

In a way, Chef Sheldon Simeon has it easy. His job is to wow diners with the vast, colorful spectrum of Hawaiian ingredients—sweet Maui onions, fresh ahi tuna, bitter pohole greens—set to the tune of Asian flavor profiles. And with his three-star technique and down-home approachability, Simeon has created a casual, inventive concept and one of the most popular dining destinations on Maui. Located in an industrial park above Maui's Lahaina neighborhood, Star Noodle is at once straightforward and complex—it could easily open its doors in New York City's Lower East Side and give ramen shops there a run for their money. In fact, it was Simeon's tasting trip to the Big Apple that he credits with helping refine his style and approach. The busy lines, James Beard Foundation nods, role as 2012 "Top Chef" contestant, and raves from fellow chefs make Simeon the leader of a budding restaurant empire in the making.

Dishes that Clinched It:

Mark Noguchi

Community Chef: Mark Noguchi, Pili Hawaii

Chef Mark Noguchi, or "Gooch" as he's known to practically everybody on the Hawaiian Islands, focuses his attention on a trinity of core values. As one would expect, food is one of those values—but not the exclusive one. The mission statement of his catering company, Pili Hawaii, is: "Community. Education. Food. In that order." And it shows. Besides his near-constant presence in the kitchen, Noguchi has been a member of the Hanohano He'eia Community Education Group, co-chair of the Share Our Strength "Taste of the Nation" in Honolulu, and a featured chef in the 2011 Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. That's not to say food takes a back seat. Noguchi has wowed locals (and us) with his takes on local ingredients and his fearless blending of Latin, Asian, and African flavors. At just about any Hawaiian fundraiser, you'll find Noguchi, tongs or spatula in hand, sweating over his flavorful creations and talking up (and leading) his fellow chefs.

Dishes that Clinched It:

Ed Kenney

Restaurateur: Ed Kenney, Town and Uptown Evetns

It's the accepted wisdom that in Hawaii, to be a successful restaurateur, you need to cater to tourists. But for Ed Kenney, it was more interesting (and ultimately just as profitable) to open with a focus on locals. Kenney has become a fixture of the New Hawaiian movement both to islanders and outsiders with Town and Uptown Events catering. In 2011, he was chosen by President Obama as one of the chef representatives to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative, and he also serves on the advisory board for the Culinary Institute of the Pacific and for the culinary program at Leeward Community College. But it's the endlessly comforting and always welcoming nature of his food and cocktails that have made Kenney such a popular figure—and the ultimate success story for the future of Hawaiian cuisine.

Dishes that Clinched It:

Dave Newman

Mixologist: Dave Newman, Pint + Jigger

Bartenders are a tight-knit group in any market, but especially so in Hawaii. And those in-the-know know that for some of the best cocktails on the islands, you need look no further than Dave "Thor" Newman. As former mixologist at Nobu, and now one of the founders of speakeasy Bar&D and bar Pint + Jigger, Newman creates drinks that defy the tiki-only imprint of Hawaiian cocktails of yore. Not that he eschews drink types. Newman is the kind of mixologist perfectly willing to take it to both extremes: he'll more than gladly whip up a nail polish-and-high-heels sangria straight out of the B-reel of "Sex and the City," or a manly, stoic gin cocktail. But he's also not afraid to tackle spur-of-the-moment creations or reimagine untouchable classics. But what makes Newman truly shine is his ability to impress his own ilk, creating drinks that the most dedicated mixologists would look up to and happily imbibe.

Dishes that Clinched It: