Chef Wade Ueoka’s biggest inspiration, and the one that continues to drive him to this day, was growing up on Oahu and watching his mother cook fried mochi and other Asian delicacies. After graduating high school, Ueoka took his first job as a fry cook at Zippy’s, a Hawaiian fast food chain. But humble beginnings didn’t deter the young Ueoka. Two years after working at Zippy’s, he took a job at Alan Wong’s.
His passion no doubt palpable, Ueoka was actually hired as a prep cook at the now-famous Honolulu restaurant. Seven years later, he had risen to chef de cuisine, with a culinary degree from Kapiolani Community College and stages at The French Laundry and Las Vegas’ Alex under his belt.
And his career has taken him farther than that. Along with fellow Alan Wong’s Pastry Chef Michelle Wade-Ueoka, whom he married in 2011, Ueoka has traveled with Wong around the world to Singapore, Germany, and Japan. Those experiences have helped him create “Next Generation Dinners” at the restaurant, menus created by Ueoka and the other young chefs at Alan Wong’s. By drawing upon his various travels, as well as the memories of his mother’s cooking, Ueoka crafts familiar and comfortable dishes and then elevates them to the sublime.
Interview with 2012 Hawaii Rising Star Chef Wade Ueoka
Nicholas Rummell: How did you get into cooking?
Wade Ueoka: I was working at Zippy's (a local chain restaurant), and kind of got more and more interested in the cooking field. I entered [Kapiolani Community College] after working at Alan Wong's . Have pretty much stayed with Alan for 17 years. It was a summer job at Zippy's, but liked the atmosphere of working in a kitchen. Working my way to line cook, and then to Alan Wong's, started from the bottom and worked my way up.
NR: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
WU: I like to follow chef's philosophy of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine, using local farmers, relying on their local backgrounds. Keeping the menu fresh and up to date. That's pretty much what I've followed my entire career.
NR: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
WU: A lot of stages we get have gone through it. I didn't get to graduate myself, but I recommend it for a lot of young students because it provides solid background. It provides a foundation. There are two main programs on Oahu: KCC and [Leeward Community College]. They are building both programs really well.
NR: What's the toughest thing you've had to do in your job?
WU: What gets hard is you always have turnover in the industry. I've seen a lot of people come through our kitchen. The rebuilding process is always tough. Retraining on our style and philosophy can be tough. When you lose four or five people all at once, it is a disruption. We do a lot of catering events. The biggest we had to do was 1,000. I would say that was extreme.
NR: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
WU: I probably would have gone to the mainland for a little bit longer. I've stayed with chef Alan for 17 years. I don't regret anything that I've done, but if I could have I would liked to have gone to the mainland to work. Probably in New York City, because there is a lot going on out there.
NR: If you weren't a chef, what would you be doing?
WU: I really like art. Drawing was a big thing for me. I was heading into architecture, but then cooking came along. But I love being a chef. I like working on my feet, and the action of the kitchen. Once in a while I look at architecture to look at things differently. Utilizing different chinaware or plating product in different ways.
NR: How do you define Hawaiian cuisine?
WU: I'm seeing a lot of farm to table concepts, sustainability. Promoting local farmers and making them get bigger. I have spent much time on Maui or the other islands to really see how they are different than Oahu.
NR: Where do you see yourself in five years?
WU: I hope to own my own restaurant one day. I'm moving in that direction. It's always been one of my dreams. It would probably be a family-style dining concept. Not so much higher-end dining, but following the same concept of using farm-to-table cuisine. We've developed relationships with a few farmers, but there are always new ones coming up, so there are different opportunities.