Chef Philip “Ippy” Aiona first appeared on the national food scene as the youngest contestant on Food Network Star. Back in 2012, the Big Island native’s winning smile and enthusiasm for Hawai‘i’s cuisine caught the eye of celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis.
“That was the first thing I ever auditioned for,” he recalls. “I was 23, drinking at my house with my friend, and Bobby Flay comes on TV saying, ‘Do you think you have what it takes to be the next Food Network Star?’ You know how you answer your TV, ‘Yeah, I do!’ And your buddy sitting next to you goes, ‘But do you really, though?’ And you go, ‘Yeah!’ And he goes, ‘OK, let’s send something in then. Let’s do it!’”
When Ippy got the callback and met with De Laurentiis, he put anchovy at the top of his list of favorites — then whipped up an anchovy-based dish on the spot to secure a place on her team.
Their shared heritage may have also helped. De Laurentiis is famous for her Italian cuisine. Ippy’s father is Native Hawaiian/Chinese and owned a Hawaiian plate lunch shop; his mother grew up in an Italian family in New York and ran an Italian restaurant in Waikoloa.
Although he didn’t quite make it to the finale of Food Network Star, Ippy impressed the judges — in the final episode, judge Susie Fogelson confesses to crying when he was on the chopping block.
Ippy says he has no regrets because putting himself out there opened so many other doors.
He made Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 list for the food and wine category and, memorably, won the International Iron Chef title in Canada in 2013.
“I got my first restaurant, The Three Fat Pigs, which I had for six years,” he says. “I was just 23 at the time. There’s no way Kings’ Shops (inside Waikoloa Beach Resort) would have given a 23-year-old a lease, but I had done all of these things and that gives you some credibility.”
A lot has happened since then. Now 35, Ippy is a husband and a father to two young daughters, Grace and Poppy. He cut his long, curly locks — “The only guy I’ve ever seen who can pull it off after age 30 is Jason Momoa, you know?”
But the big smile remains, as does his love for cooking and competition.
Earlier this year, he was back on The Food Network. In May, he was one of three Hawai‘i contestants on Alex vs. America. O‘ahu chef Jon Matsubara beat celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli for that title.
“It was the first time for me being back on a cooking competition in almost 10 years and it definitely took some adjusting to get used to again,” Ippy recalls. “I left the skin on my kampachi, which I never do. Even in the exit interviews they were like, ‘Is this a Hawaiian technique?’ I was like, ‘No, absolutely not. This is me messing up because I had cameras in my face, and I got flustered.’”
By July, he was back on his feet for season four of BBQ Brawl. He landed on the team of defending champion celebrity chef Anne Burrell, and appeared to take it in stride whenever she urged him to “hurry up and plate already.”
“Was Anne tough? No she was as soft as butter,” he laughs. “People were surprised actually, when I told them what you saw on camera was actually way more mellow than how she was … because she came off as pretty tense on camera.
“But the reason she’s on top every year is because she’s a serious chef. There was a point where she was cooking, and she’s leaning over by the trash can and I was like, ‘What are you doing, chef?’ And she was like, ‘These eyelashes! I can’t cook with them on.’ She was tearing off her fake eyelashes and throwing them in the trash can. She didn’t care because the food is the most important thing to her — and helping us win.”
He says he actually admired her strength and tenacity — qualities that reminded him of his mother.
But competition is competition and when Ippy was the last one on Team Anne and elimination time came, he had to pack his bags.
He was disappointed — it would have been awesome for a Hawai‘i boy to beat pit masters from the mainland — but gracious and supportive of his fellow contestants, with whom he’d become friends.
“Food is subjective, and it’s supposed to be subjective,” he says. “It’s like music. Some people like country, some people like rap. It doesn’t make them bad people, it means they have different taste, and the same thing with food. So, the one thing I tell anybody (who enters a contest) is don’t take it personal.
“I’m proud of myself,” he continues. “I did a local dish, Hawaiian but with Korean sauce, and a version of lomi salmon and coconut rice that I thought was great.”
Ippy knew from a young age that he wanted to be a chef. The Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy alum spent his childhood in Waimea on Hawai‘i island, hanging around — and eventually helping out at — his parents’ eateries.
While other 8-year-olds may have been dreaming of rock’n’roll stardom or glory on the gridiron, Ippy was binge-watching food shows and filming cooking tutorials. This was before the explosion of social media.
“In third grade I made a series of videos called The Little Italian,” he recalls. “I was really into Emeril (Lagasse) at the time. I had the towel over my shoulder. I had the apron on. I had the belly like him. So yeah, I kind of knew.”
When he turned 10, Mama Masaya, the legendary cook at his father’s restaurant (staffers called her The Kitchen Magician for her culinary skills), gave him a Chinese cleaver for his birthday.
“She was an amazing cook,” he says. “Obviously my mom is an amazing cook, and my dad too, but she was the one who, when I would go in after school, she’d make food for me. So, when she gave me the cleaver, I was chopping it up. Like I said, I watched Emeril all the time, so I tried to use the proper technique.
“And she pretty much told everybody, ‘Oh, this boy is going to be a chef!’ And when you have somebody you look up to like that, who’s teaching you all this stuff, say that that’s what you’re going to do, you’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do!’”
As a testament to the impact Mama Masaya had on him, he dedicated his Easy Hawaiian Cookbook to her.
Ippy got additional validation from his parents, who bought him a set of pots and pans to go with the cleaver and encouraged him to get to work.
“I remember I learned how to make hamburger,” he says. “Back then, we would mix our own hamburger. We put dried onions and all kinds of stuff in it. The first time I did it, I thought it was so cool and my parents were like, ‘Wow, you did such a good job!’ And I was like, ‘Thank you!’ And they were like, ‘All right, tomorrow you come in and do this same thing OK?’ It was like, oh shoot! I just gave myself a job.”
The job eventually took him to Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco, where he took his skills to the next level — and met his future wife.
These days, Ippy is putting the finishing touches on The Dizzy Pita, his gyros-and-falafel eatery, which is slated to open later this month. It’ll be right next door to his Ippy’s Hawaiian Barbeque restaurant in his hometown of Waimea.
Even when he’s not cooking there’s a good chance he’ll still be in the kitchen — possibly filming a video for his YouTube channel with his 4-year-old daughter Grace (who recently successfully negotiated for her own mic). With two chef parents, she’s already absorbing a certain point of view.
“When she was probably 2 or 3 years old, she was playing with a bunch of other kids and they had these wooden toy fish,” he recalls. “Then my daughter grabs the fish and walks over to the toy kitchen and throws them in the sauté pan.”
Meanwhile, his youngest daughter, Poppy, not yet in preschool, is already sampling ikura and natto.
“Having my daughters has changed a lot of ways that I see things,” he says. “Now that I have that moment, that ikura and natto moment I shared with my daughter, whenever I eat ikura or natto that’s going to be something I think about.”
Being a father also has him thinking about his legacy.
“I would say things change as you grow older, and as your life changes and your circumstances change, your goals change also,” he says. “But I’m Native Hawaiian, my whole family is here, and I’d love to be able to stay here and continue doing this in Hawai‘i my whole life so that when my daughters get older, they have that.
“And that’s kind of what I’ve been doing … Hawaiian food has been a part of me forever. I grew up with all the other local kids watching Sam Choy and idolizing local chefs. If I could someday take that on and become the next chef that takes Hawaiian food to the next level, that would be amazing.”
To keep up with Ippy, visit his website, chefippy.com.