Feeding Their Passion
Pastry chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka and chef Wade Ueoka of MW Restaurant found each other through food. And e vidently, it’s just the right mix
While we here at MidWeek would like to think that MW Restaurant is named after us, it actually stands for husband-wife team Michelle Karr-Ueoka and Wade Ueoka, its chef-owners.
Located in the former KGMB building at 1538 Kapiolani Blvd. (across from Ala Moana Center), MW serves Hawaii regional cuisine with influences from Ueoka’s many years spent in the kitchens at Alan Wong’s and Zippy’s. The restaurant opened in October 2013 to rave reviews, and was even nominated by the James Beard Foundation in the category of Best New Restaurant.
Karr-Ueoka also was a cook at Alan Wong’s, which is where the couple met. She worked there for 14 years, including the first six on the savory side before realizing she wanted to be a pastry chef. She studied at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, during which time she completed a stage at renowned Daniel, and an externship at The French Laundry. She later returned to New York for a three-week stage in the pastry department at famed chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se. In 2012, she was given the Rising Star Award from StarChefs.com as a pastry chef, and more recently James Beard Foundation nominated her in the category of Outstanding Pastry Chef. Not bad for someone who enjoyed reading about cooking but never really did it until college.
“My mom and grandma did it (cooked), I was always playing golf,” explains Karr-Ueoka. “When I applied for an externship at Alan Wong’s, Chef asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I want to be a chef. He asked, ‘Do you know how to cook?’ I said not really. I know how to make fudge brownies out of a box.”
A 1993 graduate of Punahou School, Karr-Ueoka went to Lewis & Clark in Oregon before transferring to University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she studied business and travel-industry management, and was on the golf team. She admits she never dreamed of becoming a chef until she was in college, but she now is making great use of both her culinary training and business education as a restaurant owner with approximately 50 employees.
Ueoka, a 1993 graduate of Mid-Pacific Institute, was born and raised in Kailua, and started working at Zippy’s as a summer job between his junior and senior years in high school. He stayed with Zippy’s for about five years, starting as a dishwasher and moving up to line cook. At Alan Wong’s, where he worked for 17 years, he also started as a dishwasher and moved up to chef de cuisine.
Together since 2001 and married for four years, it was in the kitchen that Ueoka and Karr-Ueoka discovered not only their love for each other, but also a shared passion for cooking for others. They also developed similar goals, including opening their own restaurant.
“I had left Alan Wong’s to run Tsunami’s for a little bit just to try to do my own menu, and then Michelle’s brother (J. Garrett Karr) found this place and we really liked the location,” recalls Ueoka. “We never thought it would happen. We just got married and were saving up. We didn’t have money to open up a restaurant. It just seemed like such a far idea.”
“It was spur of the moment,” adds Karr-Ueoka. “Within half-a-day we had the money, so we said, OK, let’s do it.”
With their family’s help and support, their dream became a reality, but it hasn’t been easy. Since opening the restaurant, they both have been working nonstop, often starting their day early in the morning and finishing with just enough time to grab a bite to eat on their way home before midnight.
“I don’t cook at home,” shares Ueoka.
“If you open our refrigerator, it’s empty except for wine, beer and dog food (for their 2-year-old Pomeranian Chihuahua Echigo),” laughs Karr-Ueoka. “We’re hardly home, so we take out a lot.”
Among their favorite go-to places are Zippy’s, of course, and Chiba-Ken, a Japanese restaurant near their residence in Waikiki.
“MW Restaurant is our take on what we learned over the years,” says Ueoka. “It’s Hawaii regional cuisine, so we just do our interpretation of it. I like the local foods, the local flavors.
“We also try to support local as much as possible — such as local produce, fish and meats.”
Among its signature dishes are “Stew and Rice,” which is a beef stew risotto with Big Island beef tenderloin and oxtail roulade; Mochi Crusted Monchong-Sickle Pomfret served with somen noodles and yuzu koshu soy vinaigrette; and “Fried Chicken” featuring pressed jidori chicken in a garlic soy sauce.
For desserts, the most popular items include Tropical Fruit Creamsicle Brulee made with lilikoi sorbet, tapioca pearls, tropical fruits, lilikoi custard and guava chiffon; and Kula Strawberry “Shave Ice,” served with haupia tapioca, strawberry kanten, mochi ice cream, strawberry-yuzu sorbet and shaved “Hibiscus Strawberry.”
“(In designing this restaurant) we wanted to be able to provide a dining experience for people to come if they want to come once a week, twice a week or for special occasions,” says Karr-Ueoka.
“I think that’s how we approached the menu. We didn’t want it to be just a special occasion restaurant, but it can be because we also have a Chef Tasting Menu, which is higher.”
The couple also recently added a second restaurant, Artizen, in Hawaii State Art Museum in downtown Honolulu. Open for lunch only, the casual eatery features grab-and-go sandwiches, salads and bentos, as well as simple made-to-order lunch dishes.
“It’s nice cooking for people and seeing that they have a really good experience,” says Karr-Ueoka on what she enjoys most about her job. “We’re making people happy and creating memories for them. We’ve also built a regular following and formed relationships with them, so it’s like cooking for your family.”