In her world of desserts, as she adds liliko‘i to a custard or stirs macadamia nuts into butter toffee, Michelle Karr-Ueoka ’93 thinks about origins. She thinks about how custard begins and where the macadamia nuts come from. One starts from a mother recipe, the other from the soil of a local farm. In Karr-Ueoka’s world – the pastry kitchen of MW Restaurant – origins come together in elegant desserts, combining classical sensibilities with a sense of place. Chocolate crunch cake with Waialua chocolate. Carrot crêpe cake next to a salad of loquats and baby carrots from Wai‘anae’s MA‘O Organic Farms. “If you don’t know the basics, you can’t make different things with them. If you understand the process, it’s easy,” she says. “When Wade (chef/husband Wade Ueoka, the W of MW) and I taught a class, I made our Tropical Fruit Creamsicle Brûlée. I taught them what a classical crème brûlée was and how we twist it to make a different style.”
For Karr-Ueoka, the beginnings were all about learning – exploring ingredients and techniques, mastering new challenges and then, drawing on her own ravenous curiosity, tweaking until each recipe was as fresh and whimsical, composed and elegant as her imagination sensed it could be. Curiosity and drive got her into the kitchens of Alan Wong’s Honolulu and Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and Per Se (a stranger to Keller, she sent him a toothbrush and told him she would clean toilets with it if he would let her work for free). With these mentors and legendary pastry chef Stanton Ho, she developed the signature style of artful, tightly focused desserts that have brought her three James Beard Award nominations for Outstanding Pastry Chef. It’s fair to say only Karr-Ueoka would create a dessert illustrating the life cycle of chocolate – fruity-tart cacao pulp sorbet atop a dark chocolate tuile atop her version of a Fudgsicle. Her liliko‘i brûlée, voted the crowd favorite at a Star Chefs event, was a layered study of the fruit in custard, sorbet and chilled cremeaux cubes topped with a warm and crunchy brûléed tuile.
Now 44, Karr-Ueoka is the undisputed grande dame of desserts in Hawai‘i. That’s why she thinks about origins – they’re the underpinnings that help legacies survive. “For me, Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine isn’t a trend. It’s a way of life,” she says. “Our job is to pass it on to the next generation and the generations after because that’s how we keep it alive. Traditions of the Hawaiian culture, the stories, if we don’t do our job of passing these on, people might not know. They might not know to support local farmers and local companies, the people who truly make Hawai‘i special.”
More and more these days, Karr-Ueoka adds the role of teacher to her everyday schedule creating desserts for MW, its downtown sister café Artizen by MW and countless weddings and catering jobs. There’s also on her calendar quarterly visits to Trailblazer Tavern, a San Francisco restaurant she and Wade opened with culinary super force Michael Mina in late 2018. She isn’t particular about where she teaches. Often the venue is a classroom, including at Punahou, where faculty member Trislyn Tom ’00 Ferris has asked her to help with the baking part of her culinary arts class, and where she and Wade taught students during a G-Term about the business side of restaurants; and in community colleges on the Neighbor Islands, where Karr-Ueoka helps out as a director of the Hawai‘i Culinary Education Foundation.
Earlier this year, in France, she mentored Team USA at the Bocuse d’Or culinary competition. But passing on a culinary legacy means reaching more than just cooks. Part of her role on the board of Localicious Hawai‘i is raising money to teach public primary schoolchildren about Hawai‘i’s farmers and food. She’s even considered starting a program to teach customers who might be curious. “You can’t make a creative lau lau without knowing what a proper lau lau is,” she says. “You understand the history, the soul of the dish. That’s what’s important, getting the soul of it and teaching and sharing that with the staff and guests. A long time ago, chef Keller told me do not be part of a trend, a trend doesn’t last. Be part of a movement. A movement lasts. It creates a legacy. When you think about it, that’s how things keep moving on.”