talk story with chef alan wong: finding out what makes him tick

Cocktail Lounge at Amasia by Alan Wong

Cocktail Lounge at Amasia by Alan Wong

Last year’s opening of Alan Wong’s Amasia at the Grand Wailea Resort was one of the most anticipated events in this foodie’s recent memory. We snagged an interview with the culinary mastermind behind the concept and the cuisine.

The Maui Concierge Magazine:  What is your vision for Amasia, your newest restaurant?

AW:  My motto is:  “The journey is more important than the destination.” It’s a work in progress, and the food will evolve as we continue. Every culture has this type of eating [small plates], whether you’re in Spain and they call it “tapas,” or you’re in Japan where they call it “izakaya.” I actually wanted to call this restaurant “Pupus.” But imagine me in an office with executives from the mainland. “What’s the name going to be?” “Pupus.” “Ah, I don’t think so!” So that’s the basic concept of the restaurant: small plates, sharing, and incorporating different flavors from all over the world.

TMC:  Your staff members are very well versed in the Amasia cuisine. What type of training did they undergo?

AW:  That makes me very happy. Thank you for saying that (he smiles broadly). All of our employees went through a three-week training program. If a guest asks about a particular ingredient or preparation, we want them [staff members] to be able to tell the story behind it—like who grew this herb or who raised this beef.

TMC:   When did you know you wanted to become a chef?

AW:     I didn’t—it just happened. When I was growing up, I thought bread came out of a package, and salad dressing came out of a bottle. My first job was dishwasher. Then I became a busboy, a waiter, a host. When I’d done every job in the front of the house, including restaurant manager, I decided to go to culinary school at Kapiolani Community College with the idea that it would make me a better manager. My first culinary class I was baking bread, cakes, and pies, and making salad dressing from scratch. I thought, “This is really cool. I just learned how to make a tomato French dressing that didn’t come out of a bottle.” So I fell in love with cooking, and never looked back.

TMC:   If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?

AW:     Before I’d say a professional baseball player, but I can’t run very fast anymore (he grins, ruefully). So now I’d say a senior on the PGA Tour. I love to play golf.

TMC:   What’s your favorite dish on the menu, and why?

AW:     That’s impossible to say—it’s like naming your favorite son or daughter. So I’ll answer this way: my favorite dish is the one I’m going to create next.

TMC:   What inspires you? How do you come up with ideas for your dishes?

AW:     I get inspired in many different ways, but I think traveling is very important. As a chef, you’ve got to see what’s new and what others are doing. Since the journey is more important than the destination, the process of creating something is more important than actually making it. It’s like climbing a tree. You first go up the trunk, then you have an idea that takes you to the first branch. Imagine all the little branches after that. You may end up somewhere totally different from where you started, but it wouldn’t have been possible if you hadn’t taken that first step up the trunk.

TMC:   What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with?

AW:     It depends on what’s available. The “old school” way was to make a menu and have the purchasing guy find the ingredients. You might go halfway around the world to find a particular ingredient—it might be out of season, it might be expensive—but you made the menu. Instead, I like to ask, “What do we have available?” If you work that way it’s more sustainable. When something’s in season it’s not so expensive, so you don’t have to pass the extra cost on to the customer. And if it’s in season and ripe, you have a better product.

TMC:   What’s your favorite comfort meal at home? Do you do all the cooking?

AW:     Alice [his fiancée] does all the cooking at home. And she’s actually a vegan. The meal I share with her is breakfast, and my favorite thing is oatmeal. But I could definitely eat rice or noodles every day.

TMC:   Do you have any tips for budding chefs?

AW:     Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. And, at least once in your career, work for someone, or at some place, where you really learn how to cook. For me, it was a restaurant in New York City called Lutece. Everything I learned to cook in culinary school was on the menu, so I got to practice the classical techniques over and over.

TMC:   How did The Blue Tomato: The Inspirations Behind The Cuisine of Alan Wong (his award-winning cookbook) get its name?

AW:     Richard Ha, tomato farmer at Hamakua Springs Country Farms, told me about the adopt-a-class program at Keaukaha Elementary School in Hilo. They don’t have a lot of money, and their only field trip was to walk down to the beach and back. For $600, I adopted the 5th grade class, so the kids could ride a bus to ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center two times a year. When I visited my class for the first time I brought Richard with me, and he had a big display with different colored tomatoes. I said, “Kids, this red tomato is where ketchup comes from.” A boy raised his hand and asked, “So you could make yellow ketchup out of a yellow one of those?” I said, “Of course you can.” The next boy raised his hand and asked, “So you could make green ketchup out of a green tomato?” I said, “Of course you can.” So the next boy raised his hand and asked, “Can you make blue ketchup?” I said, “Bring me a blue tomato and I’ll make blue ketchup.” The idea is for kids to grow up knowing that ketchup doesn’t have to be red just because it is right now—that the next generation will become more creative.

TMC:   What’s next for Chef Wong?

AW:     You can never rest. You cannot say, “Let me get comfortable with this one thing, then I’ll move on to the next.” You’ve got to have overlap so you’re working on several ideas at once. I’d like to write a book on the concept of small plates and sharing—how it’s a global cultural thing—how everywhere you go in the world, everyone eats the same way.

TMC:   Is there anything I didn’t ask that I should have, or is there anything you’d like to add?

AW:     My mantra is: “Your success is our success.” I rely on my managers, and they rely on their staff. We invest in them, we teach them, and with their help the more successful this restaurant will be. Also, this is a joint venture with the Grand Wailea and they are outstanding partners.

For more reservations and more information about Amasia please call 891-3954.

–heidi pool

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