5 Women Rocking The Food Scene In Hawaii

Kauai

It used to be that food in Hawaii was dominated by two dishes: poi, a gooey local staple made from taro, and Spam. Yes, Spam, the canned meat: Hawaiians are obsessed with the stuff. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, a new generation of chefs like Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong reinvented Hawaiian cooking, showcasing Pacific Rim flavors that went on to help define dining across America. Now the next generation is pushing the limits of the food world in Hawaii — and some of the most exciting members of this generation are women.

From a powerhouse food festival founder to a chef who is reinventing shave ice to a steward of the environment, we talked to five women who are making waves in Hawaii. Here, these game changers tell what it’s like to be a woman in the male-dominated food world, how other young women can get ahead in this exciting industry and the dishes you must eat if you are traveling to Hawaii.

Hawaii Food & Wine Festival

Denise Yamaguchi, chief executive officer of the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival

Who: Denise Yamaguchi, chief executive officer, Hawaii Food & Wine Festival

Ironically, Denise Yamaguchi’s career did not start in food — it started in policy. Prior to founding Hawaii Food & Wine Festival (HFWF), she worked in governmental affairs, fundraising and community relations in Washington D.C. and Hawaii. After starting her own fundraising and governmental affairs firm, she picked up the Hawaii Farm Bureau as a client. At about the same time, she met her husband, chef Roy Yamaguchi, who was a strong proponent of local agriculture. With his encouragement, Yamaguchi developed the concept for a food festival in Hawaii as a way to support farmers, as well as the visitor industry. HFWF has expanded from a three-day Waikiki festival with 30 chefs in 2011 to a two-week culinary celebration featuring 100-plus chefs at 20 events across three islands. In addition to celebrating Hawaii as a culinary destination, the festival has raised close to $1.7 million for community organizations that support sustainability, culinary programs and agriculture. Here’s what Yamaguchi had to say:

Being A Woman In The Male-Dominated Food World: The food industry is no different than the political world, and if you let that become an obstacle, it will become an obstacle. I do think that women still have to work harder to “prove” their worth. It reminds me of that famous saying: “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” Despite my resume and all that I’ve accomplished in my own right, many media writers would describe me as “Roy Yamaguchi’s wife.” Last year, though, we got a good laugh when after six years leading the festival, the references started changing. Roy was actually described as “Denise Yamaguchi’s husband” in two media reports.

Hawaii foodPhoto courtesy of Orlando Benedicto for Hawaii Food & Wine Festival/Flickr

Yamaguchi (center) and some members of her team.

On Hawaiian Food: Hawaii is an amazing place for food because of the cultural diversity that was created through immigration during Hawaii’s plantation era at the turn of the century. During that time, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Portuguese and Okinawan people worked and lived together, sharing their food, culture and traditions. Many of our local foods were created by the blending of traditional foods that were brought by these immigrants. For example, at a local family potluck, you will often find poke, sushi, potato macaroni salad, chow fun, spicy Korean fried chicken, lau lau, teriyaki meat and kalua pig side-by-side.  This evolution in our islands has continued with new immigrants coming to our shores. Today, you will also find Laotian, Thai, Indian, Moroccan and Lebanese foods in our islands. Food is the ultimate connection and pastime in Hawaii.

How The Scene Has Changed: Eight years ago, when we started talking about HFWF, there were very few amazing restaurants. Chinatown was just starting to get cleaned up and there was little talk of new chef talent. Today, that has all changed. It is timing. Plus, our festival has made a major impact on the food scene. HFWF not only put a spotlight on our islands, but also gave new up-and-coming chef talent the opportunity to be front and center with national and international media. And with the festival asking every chef to use a locally grown, caught or raised product in their dish, it also put a spotlight on the amazing bounty we have in our islands.

Must Eat: I think everyone coming to Hawaii should have a shave ice from Waiola Shave Ice.

My Advice For Other Women: Work toward win-win and know you can always figure it out.

Lee Anne WongPhoto courtesy of Lee Anne Wong

Lee Anne Wong, chef/partner at, Koko Head Cafe.

Who: Lee Anne Wong, chef/partner, Koko Head Cafe

Lee Anne Wong made a name for herself as a star on Top Chef, but she’s also a respected chef, cookbook author and restaurant founder. She got her start as a line cook at Aquavit with Marcus Samuelsson — her first job — which led to opening 66 with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and working at the French Culinary Institute. In December 2013, Wong left New York City after living on the East Coast her whole life and ventured to Hawaii. There, she opened Koko Head Cafe, an island-style brunch restaurant on Oahu, and authored her first cookbook, Dumplings All Day Wong. She has also consulted with Circle Hospitality Group in New York City to open Sweetcatch Poke, an authentic Hawaiian-style poke shop in midtown Manhattan and is currently partnered with Hawaiian Airlines as a featured chef on inbound flights from Japan, creating custom menus for both economy and business class. Here’s what Wong had to say:

Being A Woman In The Male-Dominated Food World: I don’t think about it much these days, but I definitely had to have thicker skin when I was a line cook working my way up. The fact is: There are less of us proportionally in numbers, so when women are left out of a conversation involving food, I am disappointed, but not surprised. There are plenty of women chefs and cooks who make incredible food with precision, care and emotion, who have made a tremendous impact and influence within the industry. I find happiness in focusing on what’s in front of me and creating the future I want, rather than worrying about what someone else is doing. Quite frankly, delicious food does not recognize gender and in this industry respect is earned regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, something I try and pass onto my cooks.

Lee Anne WongPhoto courtesy of Lee Anne Wong

Lee Anne Wong, hard at work.

On Hawaiian Food: Hawaii is one of the most special places on the planet, being the most remote place in the world, located smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Sustainability takes on a whole new meaning to a state that imports over 90% of its food supply. What you can find now is a mix of cultural and multi-generational cuisines, influenced from traditional dishes such as luau and lau lau, to 20th century fast comfort foods like Spam, loco moco, saimin and poke, to modern Hawaiian regional cuisine, spearheaded by pioneers such as Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi. Now the next generation of local chefs are innovating the food scene, taking influence from their own personal stories and backgrounds, and working with a revitalized local agriculture community, to create exciting new visions of what it means to be a chef in Hawaii. On a personal level, I am always thrilled and amazed at the uniqueness of what can grow here in our perfect microclimate. The joy of discovery is always around the corner, being in a place that is so naturally beautiful and grows a variety of foods you can’t find elsewhere.

Must Eat: Two dishes. 1. Poke. So y’all know what real poke tastes like — not this cheap chirashi bowl nonsense that is sweeping the mainland — head to Ono Seafood, Tamashiro’s Fish Market or Kahuku Superette. 2. Luau and/or lau lau. Kalo (taro) is the most culturally significant food in Hawaiian history. I have come to adore and worship traditional Hawaiian foods such as these. Luau is stewed kalo leaf with coconut milk and usually some sort of meat, seafood and/or vegetable(s). Lau lau consists of a protein or vegetable wrapped in kalo leaf and then ti leaf and steam-roasted until tender. Get it at Helena’s, Waiahole Poi Factory, Alicia’s Market or Mud Hen Water.

My Advice For Other Women: Perseverance. Spectacular failures are just as valuable as winning ideas. It will be hard. You will at times want to throw in the towel. Don’t. Keep moving forward. Passion. We are so lucky to be in a job where we love what we do, where we can create, teach and be part of someone else’s magic food moment that day. While we are not saving lives, our job is to feed people, to love to nourish and excite and create memories for ourselves, our customers and those who work around us.  Food is the fabric of life — be thankful for how it drives yours.

On The Horizon: I am expecting my first child in November and looking forward to the newest challenges in life. It’s a pretty exciting time for me now, seven months pregnant and newly engaged, at 40 years old. For the longest time, I didn’t think this was possible — but here I am, happy as a clam and yet unsure of what the future holds for me. I am so fortunate that I have a tremendously talented team at Koko Head Cafe that allow me to take time off to focus on this special time in my life. Balancing being a mother and lady boss will be my greatest challenge yet…terrifying and exciting at the same time.

Michelle Karr-Ueoka Photo courtesy of Michelle Karr-Ueoka

Chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka and one of her dishes.

Who: Michelle Karr-Ueoka, pastry chef and cofounder of MW Restaurant, Aloha Ice and more

A renowned Honolulu-born-and-bred pastry chef, Michelle Karr-Ueoka is on a mission to find the sweet spot when it comes to Hawaiian cuisine. After working at The French Laundry and Alan Wong’s, she found her calling to be a pastry chef while working at Per Se. In 2013, she and her husband Wade opened Honolulu’s MW Restaurant, which has been nominated for best new restaurant by the James Beard Awards, followed by the take-out style Artizen by MW. This year, she partnered with chef Michael Mina on Aloha Ice, doing shave ice in a style that is unique in Hawaii. Here’s what Karr-Ueoka had to say:

Being A Woman In The Male-Dominated Food World: Honestly, I don’t really notice it. I feel so fortunate to have such wonderful mentors who have been male and taught me that it was about desire, dedication, perseverance and integrity. They taught me that if you dream it, you can achieve it. When I first started cooking, I didn’t know how to hold a knife like a chef does, let alone turn on a stove. I just knew that one day I wanted to be a chef.

On Hawaiian Food: I feel so fortunate to live in Hawaii. The farmers, fishmongers, ranchers and local purveyors that we deal with are such true stewards to the land. They are share the ohana spirit. Wade and I feel so fortunate to cook with the ingredients that our farmers provide for us. We want to share with others the story of Hawaii and have it live through our food. I try to make sure that every dessert that I create for our menus tells a story of Hawaii and our culture.

Must Eat: Helena’s Hawaiian Food serves the traditional food of Hawaii: poke, lau lau, fresh poi. It has soul. So when you see a modern interpretation of it, people can understand it more. As a chef, I was always taught to have strong fundamentals of cooking and that you can reinterpret a dish if you don’t know the origins. For shave ice, I would recommend a classical shave ice and then a reinterpreted one. Traditionally, shave ice is water and a sweet sugar syrup. At MW we don’t use any syrups, we just use the natural fruit. I compress the fruit to extract its natural sweetness and then we make the shave ice that way. It is 100% fresh fruit. We add tapioca — which is my version of halo halo — fresh fruits, sorbet, mochi ice cream, kanten and the fresh shaved ice on top. Depending on the season, it will dictate what flavor we offer. We just finished mango season.

My Advice For Other Women: Surround yourself with people who share the same dreams, vision and work ethic as you. They will help you to become better and help mentor you. Work for people who will elevate and challenge you. Don’t be afraid of mistakes and obstacles. It is part of life, and the more obstacles you encounter, the stronger you become. These are experiences to learn from. Always remain humble and grateful. Somebody once told me when we were opening the restaurant: “Do not be part of a trend. A trend has a beginning and an end. Be part of a movement — a movement lasts forever, a movement makes a difference.” For me this is how people create a legacy, as well as giving back to others and helping the community. Life is all about sharing and creating memories that last forever.

taro farm KauaiPhoto courtesy of Kahahawai Photography/@kahahawaiphotography

Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama on her taro farm in Kauai.

Who: Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama, co-owner, Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. 

Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama fell into her family business headfirst — literally. At the age of 2, she started helping on the fields of their sixth-generation taro farm in Kauai; she was driving tractor equipment by age 6. After studying and working abroad in Europe and Japan, she came home to work on W. T. Haraguchi Farm (named after her grandfather William) and helped create Hanalei Taro — a food truck — where she shares farm-fresh family dishes with others. Visitors can tour the family’s taro farm and the Ho’opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill agrarian museum, which is listed on the State and National Historic Register of Historic Places and is a rare example of Hawaii’s rice era from the late 1800’s. Here’s what Haraguchi-Nakayama had to say:

Being A Woman In The Male-Dominated Food World: Growing up on the farm, I worked with a lot of men in our family and I follow some of the footsteps of my father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great great grandfather. During undergraduate years in tropical horticulture, there were certain classes in which I was the only female in landscaping, arborist and water gardening. In some of the other nonprofit organizations where I serve as part of the board of directors — like the school board and Kauai TaroGrowers Association — I’m also the only woman. I’m comfortable working with guys because that’s how I grew up: They make me stronger, help build character and are like my brothers/extended family.

On Hawaiian Food: Hawaii itself is such a melting pot of ethnicities, which makes one of the best and diverse potlucks when everyone comes together. During the plantation era, different cultures came together to share their lunches, which have graduated to the mixed plates that local food restaurants serve today.

Why Agritourism Is Important: For our family farm’s nonprofit agrarian museum — Ho’opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill — our focus is to help educate others about the agricultural history of Hawaii and farming challenges today. It is important for people to learn the history, culture, preservation and efforts that farming families do on a daily basis to bring sustainability to fruition. “Ho’opulapula” means to plant the seedlings of, which is the mission of the nonprofit — to preserve the artifacts and history of those that have farmed in the community and in Hawaii for generations. Whether it was seedlings of rice or taro, the mission also includes planting seeds of knowledge of agricultural and environmental awareness in children so that the next generation can appreciate all that their kupuna, elders and ancestors have done and how hard farmers work today.

Must Eat: Growing up on the farm, whatever we were harvesting is what we utilized in family dishes, so that nothing was wasted. When we were harvesting tomatoes, it was tomato soup, salsa and lomi lomi. Hanalei Taro customers and tour guests can enjoy the traditional Hawaiian dessert kulolo, vegan taro hummus and taro veggie burgers. Another favorite: our kalua bowl, which is made with the traditional poi (customers can also opt for rice), layered with kalua pulled pork and topped with lomi lomi salmon.

My Advice For Other Women: Whatever you do, find something that you are passionate about, so that you enjoy the work you do and are able to persevere through the challenges that arise.

Hawaii Agritourism AssociationPhoto courtesy of Pomai Weigert

Pomai Weigert, with the Hawaii Agritourism Association.

Who: Pomai Weigert, marketing and project development, Hawaii Agritourism Association 

Lani Weigert was one of the pioneers in agritourism in Hawaii, beginning with Ali’i Kula Lavendar Farm, which she founded on Maui and later the Hawaii AgriTourism Association, which helps teach farmers how to do it right. Now her daughter Pomai is continuing her mission. Together, the duo coined a concept called “sustainable aloha,” which is a philosophy that guides the work they do in their community through educational stewardship and nurturing the planet for future generations. In addition to her work with the Hawaii Agritourism Assocaiton, Weigert recently joined the GoFarm Hawaii Team focusing on growing the next generation of farmers statewide and creating healthy community food systems for Hawaii. Here’s what Weigert had to say:

Being A Woman In The Male-Dominated Food World: I like working with men. It’s definitely not for everyone — or every woman — and I like that, too. You have to be tougher (mostly emotionally). You have to be able to work hard and take a crude joke every now and again. You have to have a strong identity and skill set — but once you prove that, you are generally well-respected and cared for. In a weird unspoken way, women have a higher bar to hit and ceiling to shatter, so if you show that you do that in your work, you create a need and demand for yourself at the table. This is probably true in most male-dominated industries.

On Hawaiian Food: Ethnic diversity is not only seen in our food but also in our people, and it really leaves an impact on folks who experience it firsthand. The food scene has really changed and keeps changing. The global culinary scene has become more accessible via technology and the globe in general has become more accessible to this new generation. It makes the food scene a lot more competitive if you are trying to do something “new or innovative.” Trends in food are changing rapidly, so what was cool yesterday can quickly feel like yesterday’s news. Increases in food-related jobs and careers have also grown. Chefs, farmers, distillers, sustainability assessors, wine makers, on and on — there is currently a strong revitalization of knowing where food comes from and wanting the freshest out there. Local food is definitely a global trend.

Why Agritourism Is Important: Agriculture is a lifestyle. It’s not something you do, it’s something you live. Consumers want that. The desire to experience authenticity, to immerse themselves into the fabric of a place, to learn to love and to feel connected. Everyone wants that (whether they know it or not). Farms and all the people associated with farming provide opportunities to share that lifestyle. Through education and opportunities to merge agriculture and tourism, we are able to bridge gaps in culture and generation.

Must Eat: Hamachi kama. Anywhere. If it’s on the menu, get it. It’s a rule I live by — and I’ve never been disappointed.

My Advice For Other Women: You need to be a rebel and you need to be brave. There’s a lot of unchartered territory, which provides opportunity, but also unknown variables. Old hierarchies still exist, so you have to be clever and creative in finding out where you fit in the mix. It’s not an easy industry, and you can’t just prance right into it and be taken seriously. You have to do your due diligence, you have to know people, you have to build relationships and connections because that’s how things are done in Hawaii.