Lee Anne Wong hasn’t had what many would call a traditional relationship with cooking for somebody who is now an acclaimed chef, her website quotes “ [Lee] was not drawn to the kitchen, favouring sports –softball and ice hockey – instead. Though her mother encouraged her to eat unique cuisine, Lee Anne’s tastes were intrinsically tied to American favourites such as pizza, jalapeno poppers, and burgers.”, however after a stint studying at FIT and subsequently cooking for her friends her passion for cooking was ignited and since then she hasn’t looked back this is what she had to say about the cooking Bucket List life:
- What does a normal day for a chef look like?
For me, because I have a brunch joint, I get up around 4 am to get to work by 5 am. We start service at 7 am and go till 2:30 pm. Breakdown and post serve ice prep go until about 5 or 6 pm, sometimes later. So we have a long day, but what’s great about having brunch joint is being able to have the evenings to yourself, like a normal person.
- How does a chef such as yourself intend to advance her career?
I stay pretty busy. Beyond Koko Head Cafe, I continue to consult on various projects (Sweetcatch Poke, NY), as well as maintain a presence in the media. While shows like Top Chef and Iron Chef America have been great for both branding and visibility, I find the most satisfaction in having Koko Head Cafe be as successful as it is within the Hawaii community, and our restaurant continues to garner both national and international press.
- What are the biggest obstacles to becoming a chef?
There’s no easy path to becoming a chef. Most young cooks fresh out of culinary school have very ambitious aspirations, which I feel one should never lose. The difficulty is having the skill set and workplace maturity to follow through, and that always takes time, and I’m talking years. You have to know how to do a lay-up before you can dunk if you know what I mean. The most successful chefs are great managers, beyond their culinary talent. I’d say half of the difficulty in my daily job is HR, managing both my employees and my customers’ expectations. Cooking is easy. From a female point of view, this is still a male-dominated field, so thicker skin, perseverance, enthusiasm, and sheer will power have become part of the requisite in garnering respect from both colleagues and employees, beyond being able to lead a team through the daily pitfalls of having a restaurant.
- What’s your North star? (your ultimate goal) when will you be finished?
My own bed and breakfast with a restaurant attached. I have worked in the hospitality industry since I was a teenager. The dream is a piece of property here in Hawaii, focusing on renewable energy and self-sustained agriculture and aquaculture. The mission is immersive cultural and culinary activities, showcasing the best Hawaii has to offer, in creating custom one-of-a-kind, unforgettable experiences for the guests, and connecting them with our community and area.
5.What’s been the happiest moment of your career so far?
Hard to pinpoint one. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a wealth of culinary experiences, both business and personal. Walking into a busy restaurant every day is always a thrill, and I love my employees and customers dearly. I think my one on one time spent with Chef Andre Soltner when I worked at the French Culinary Institute will always be treasured moments of mentor and student. Spending a month working in a kaiseki restaurant in Japan is still inspiring in what I learned. And all the fun I’ve had both producing food television (part of the first Emmy-winning season of Top Chef), and also starring on various shows (“oh, you mean you want me to go around the country and eat everything in sight and then TALK about it on tv???”) has been so much fun. Honestly, I believe my happiest moments are yet to come. And that’s what’s so exciting about working in this field.
6.Three pieces of advice for anybody looking to get into the world of cooking?
It’s hard work. Don’t be fooled. While many dream of being a “celebrity chef” (I despise that term), the reality is you shouldn’t be called a chef until you can actually manage a team of cooks. Be realistic with yourself and what role you want to fill and how you can get there. This playground is big enough for everyone, but it’s a competitive playground in more ways than one and you don’t want to be to one getting blindsided with the dodgeball in the side of the head. Which brings me to my next point(s).
Focus. Whatever you think you know, leave your ego at the door. There are chefs and mentors out there of varying calibres. Find someone who inspires you, who you want to learn from. And listen. Watch. Ask questions. Write things down. Use common sense. Have the desire to understand the science of cooking (for every action there is a reaction). Taste everything. Understand that the only way we get better is through learning from our mistakes. Learn from those around you, in both their victories AND their mistakes. No one is an island. Teamwork is ultimately the key to success in any high-pressure situation. Humility is the first step to greatness. You’re not an artist. You’re more a craftsman who is in the business of feeding people. Don’t forget that.
Beyond all this, stay passionate. While a restaurant situation is not for everyone, there are plenty of career options and lateral movement within the culinary field. Keep yourself educated and abreast of what is happening while forging your own culinary mantra. What do you believe in? What gets you excited about cooking and food? Read, ingest, absorb, commit through repetition. To become a great chef, it takes years of being a sponge, and even when you get there, this is one of those careers where you should never stop learning because the playing field is always in motion. When you get complacent, that’s when it’s time to retire.
Finally, what’s next on your Bucket List?
Hmm. While I’m a seasoned world traveller there are still so many places I’d love to visit and eat my way through (like Italy and South America). I’ll figure all that out in between getting the next restaurant up and running and continuing my culinary adventures here and abroad.
A huge thank you to Lee for sharing her Bucket List journey and knowledge with us and if you’d like to read some more about Lee’s journey head over to www.kokoheadcafe.com. If you’d like to keep up to date with all our recent Bucket List knowledge then sign up to our mailing list.