Words by Melissa Chang
Photography by Melissa Chang & Jamie Takaki
When Michelle Karr Ueoka was in high school, she wasn’t thinking about becoming an award-winning pastry chef: She was on the Hawaii golf team, making a name for herself in the golf circuit.
She wasn’t even thinking about it when she got to the University of Hawaii, when she was majoring in Travel Industry Management. But one day, it clicked.
“I was doing an externship at Alan Wong’s, and he asked me if I knew how to cook. I said no, and he thought I was being humble … but I didn’t know how to hold a knife correctly or turn on a pilot light,” she said. “I always enjoyed cooking with my grandmother, even though I didn’t cook. Working there inspired me to learn to be a chef.”
She headed to the Culinary Institute of America, using money she had saved from waitressing at Planet Hollywood Waikiki to pay for her tuition. While there, she decided to apply for a coveted externship at The French Laundry, and sent owner/chef Thomas Keller a toothbrush and a letter saying she would do anything for the opportunity, even scrub toilets with a toothbrush.
She got the externship, of course, and was at The French Laundry for two years until she graduated from the CIA in 2000. She came home to again work for Alan Wong, this time as a chef. (This is also where she met her husband, Wade Ueoka, the chef de cuisine.) Although Alan wanted her to work in savory, she was adamant that she become a pastry chef.
“I had to put myself on the path to my dream,” she said.
For Ueoka, the years of training in savory laid the fundamentals of cooking out for her so she could create the sweet.
“You need to understand how to make the basics first, or you can’t get creative,” Ueoka explained. “For example, there are so many custards … but if you don’t know how to make it, you can’t recreate it. What happens if you add coffee? Or coconut? You have to make a good custard before you can experiment with flavors.”
Ueoka became the first woman from Hawaii to be nominated for a James Beard Award — and being so humble, she had no idea she had been nominated, or that she was the first woman.
The day the nominations came out, her East Coast friends were texting her congratulations and she didn’t know what for. One friend called her to tell her she had been nominated, and she thought he was joking— so she hung up on him. She later apologized when he sent her a picture and a link.
“In my wildest dreams, I would never have thought I would have gotten the nomination. The other James Beard categories are separated by region. Pastry nominations cover the entire U.S.,” she explained. “It was truly an honor and great to share with the team.”
She’s been busy with husband Wade at their self-named MW Restaurant, which opened in October 2013. It’s been a learning experience for them in business and in cooking, and they’re moving forward with a new private dining room adjacent to the venue, as well as offering wine dinners, cooking demos and more.
“You gotta dream big,” Ueoka said, with a big smile. “It’s a journey. We’re striving for excellence, and looking to make things even better.”