Restaurant Insider with Anne Lee: Kapa HaleRestaurant Insider
April 9, 2023
Story By: Anne Lee | Photos by: ANTHONY CONSILLIO
ANNE LEE speaks with Kapa Hale executive chef KEAKA LEE
Celebrated chef Keaka Lee’s restaurant, Kapa Hale, has been on Kilauea Avenue for two years. The eatery’s name was crafted to honor his Hawaiian culture in a modern way. Chef Keaka changes his menu quarterly and, depending on what the local farmers have available, he has created new dishes to celebrate spring. I was eager to try Da Spring Fling Tasting Menu because not only is his food good, but his story is pretty awesome as well.
AL: How did you get into this industry and why?
KL: I have been in this industry for about 15 years. Cooking wasn’t on my radar until the middle of my college years. Luckily, I had a creative side, which helped me try new things. I grew up in the Kahala area and went to Wilson Elementary, Kaimuki Middle and Kalani High schools, and different colleges, but for my culinary career, I graduated from Kapiolani Community College.
AL: Many great chefs have influenced your career. Can you tell me about that?
KL: I worked for many great talented chefs such as Russell Siu at 3660 on the Rise — that guy knows his wines and was my inspiration for my wine list. Alan Wong taught me the importance of supporting local farmers and the next generation. Although I didn’t work at Roy’s, Roy Yamaguchi was very involved with KCC and he has been a part of my journey. These chefs taught me to have thick skin and do whatever it takes.
I was able to stage at Benu in San Francisco, a three-star Michelin restaurant, with chef/owner Corey Lee. I realized that San Francisco wasn’t for me, then NewYork pulled me in. It’s a melting pot like Hawaii with lots of different cultures and European influence. I went on to work at Le Bernardin, Eleven Madison Park, Café Boulud and Gramercy Tavern, which is where I met Michael Anthony, who had a huge impact on what I do today.
AL: What did you prepare today?
KL: Da Spring Fling Tasting Menu starts with the V is for Vegetable Trio, which features Aloun Farms chilled melon gazpacho, Kolea Farm spring onion, curried samosa and Kolea Farm kalo croquette (aka our Hawaiian french fry).
Then, you get a choice of a main entrée: Happy Cauli-days for our vegetarian friends (fresh tagli atelle, Small Kine Farm mushroom and cauliflower bolognese, tomato, Parmesan and basil); the Salmon (green apple and cucumber dashi, yuzu potato, Sumida Farm watercress); or Belly Up (fried pork belly, creamy mustard sauce, couscous, Kolea Farm bok choy and pickled green mango). Then, a choice of sweets: Spring Panna Cotta (matcha buttermilk and Ho Farms calamansi) and the popular Da Kahala Shuffle (chocolate and Kahlua mud pie topped with Kona coffee syrup). The cost is $65 per person (add $25 for a wine pairing).
The Haku Lei Poo ($20), also called our Hawaiian Crown, is special to me. It’s 100% local — I made this before when I was a chef at The Pig and the Lady — and we’re able to support farmers from Maui, Molokai, Kauai, Big Island and Oahu. You can actually place the plate on top of someone’s head to get the full experience as you would if wearing an actual haku lei.
The Omaomao Garlic ($15) features three pieces of house cream cheese rangoon with Kolea Farm spring onion and spinach. One of the first dishes created was You Chick’n Me Out ($38) featuring Ludovico Farms roasted chicken, green harissa — which is unique and made in-house as I wanted the mild flavors of the peppers and for it to not overpower by the spice — pickled grapes, couscous and mint. Zucchini Jun ($15), meanwhile, is my homage to meat jun. It features scallions, radish and soy-chile. I made this thinner and layered it and, with the flavor of the egg and the chili, it acts like a regular meat jun.
AL: How did you come up with the clever dish names?
KL: I call it the “fun puns.” It’s us having fun with food, being creative and tying in culture and mashing it together. It’s quirky but I want our guests to know that even chefs like to have a little fun with food.