Story by Becky Speere
Whenever I would visit O‘ahu, Koko Head Café was at the top of my dining itinerary — a tiny venue where chef and partner Lee Anne Wong always offered a daring menu bursting with bold and exciting flavors. So when I discovered she was opening Papa‘aina at the Pioneer Inn on Maui in late 2019, I was overjoyed.
Papa‘aina means table, and here Wong offers a spread that will delight any and every appetite. “[The restaurant’s menu] is the amalgamation of all the food journeys I’ve had throughout my career,” says Wong.
However, her path almost didn’t include cooking at all: Wong’s original passion was fashion and she studied design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. But once she started cooking for her friends, she changed tack. Wong graduated from the French Culinary Institute and started working with gastronomic greats such as Marcus Samuelsson and Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York. She appeared as a “cheftestant” on season 1 of Bravo’s Top Chef series and afterward was hired by Bravo as the supervising culinary producer on both Top Chef and Top Chef Masters. She even published a cookbook called Dumplings All Day Wong (Page Street Publishing, 2014).
Wong moved from New York to Honolulu to open Koko Head Café, and then to Maui to open Papa‘aina. When asked if she misses the bustling city lifestyle, she says, “Lyle and I wanted space to raise our son, Rye, and we decided that [Maui] would be the place.”
“My first trip to Hawai‘i was when I filmed the season 2 finale of Top Chef at Waikoloa [on the Island of Hawai‘i]. I was captivated by the beauty of the Islands and took a tour of the Hawaiian Kanpachi Farm on the Kona coast. Subsequently, I have been using Hawaiian kanpachi in my restaurants and at events both here and back home in New York. Now that I live on Maui, Kanpachi & Eggs is regularly featured on the Papa‘aina menu. It’s an unusual, surprising dish with different textures and temperatures. The key: Making sure the fish is ice-cold right before slicing and plating!”
— Lee Anne Wong
I’ve kept up with Wong since she opened Papa‘aina, following her menu changes and drooling over her Casablanca Friday Nights — special curated menus posted online and priced to sell. When you visit, expect a spirited and seductive selection of dishes that traverse the world in flavor, from Morocco to China to south of the equator. So let your hair down, relax and celebrate food and life at Wong’s Papa‘aina.
RECIPE: Kanpachi & Eggs
Serving Size: 1
- 1 slice of baguette, 4 inches long, 1/4-inch thick
- 1 teaspoon butter
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 teaspoon sour cream
- 6 slices kanpachi sashimi
- shoyu-lime butter (See recipe below)
DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 325 F. Place dry baguette slice on a baking sheet and bake until golden. Set aside. Heat a small nonstick pan over medium-high. Add butter and swirl to coat. Add egg and season with salt and pepper (to taste). Scramble quickly, and as egg begins to set and is still slightly wet, remove pan from heat. Add sour cream and mix well. Spoon egg mixture onto toast. Layer kanpachi over eggs and drizzle with warm shoyu-lime butter. Garnish with rice crackers and fresh herbs, such as scallions, shiso or cilantro.
Makes 1 3/4 cups
- 1 egg yolk
- 1/4 cup shoyu (soy sauce)
- 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 3 tablespoons Hawaiian honey
- 1 cup butter, melted and hot
- 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
- pinch each salt and white pepper
- 1 finger (aka “caviar”) lime, peeled, caviar removed
DIRECTIONS: Add all ingredients except lime caviar to a blender and blend on high until smooth and emulsified. Combine 2 to 3 tablespoons shoyu-lime butter with a small amount of finger-lime caviar and spoon over fish.