Wonder Wong would be a fitting Instagram handle for Lee Anne Wong. Visit this account and you would see a steady stream of images of Wong, the multitasking force of nature, cooking, managing restaurants in multiple states, Top Chef onset selfies (if phones were allowed) and of course proud new mom photos of son Rye.
Bobby Kwak, her partner in four NYC-based Sweet Catch Poke stores and no slouch himself (he owns the Manhattan-based Hospitality Group) calls her a badass who has it in her DNA to give 100 percent to everything she’s involved with. Says Kwak, “Lee Anne truly cares about everything and anything she is a part of. That’s just part of her DNA. Although she and I do business together, everything she does makes working with her so easy and naturally smooth. If you think she’s a badass chef then you won’t even know how awesome of a mother she is to baby Rye.”
A graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education ( formerly known as the French Culinary Institute) Wong’s initial foray into cooking after graduation were in the elite kitchens of Marcus Samuelsson’s Aqvuit and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Restaurant 66. Fast-forward a few jobs and the young chef found herself a finalist on the first season of Bravo’s Top Chef. After the season ended, the show’s producers invited her on as a supervising culinary producer for both Top Chef and Top Chef Masters. While the chef loves her NYC homies, she was feeling isolated, and in 2013 after seven seasons working on Top Chef, Wong was ready for a change.
“My father’s cousins and their surrounding family all live here on O‘ahu. I would travel to Hawai‘i every six to eight weeks and would bring my knives to cook a popup or event, sort of scoping out the scene and figuring out how I would get from New York to Hawai‘i. When Kevin Hanney called me to see if I was interested in partnering on a breakfast concept, I jumped back on a plane to check out the space that had housed 12th Ave Grill for 10 years, which he moved down the street to a larger space. We agreed that brunch was a niche market that hadn’t really been touched. I had already developed a menu and Kevin let me take the ball and run with it.”
Concurrrent with opening Koko Head Cafe, Wong was also writing a cookbook Dumplings All Day Wong, that debuted in 2014 the same year Koko Head Cafe launched. Maybe the many years on the road traveling to diﬀerent cities as the culinary producer for Bravo’s hit franchise instilled in Wong a restlessness she carried with her to Hawai‘i or as a second generation Chinese-American, it’s in her DNA to be a super achiever, whatever it is the multitasking wonder was ready when Sweet Catch Poke partner Kwak approached her about a New York project. “I was a fanatic of Bravo’s Top Chef and was intrigued by Lee Anne’s ability to just cruise into the top four during the first season. In the back of my head I knew I wanted to do something with her in the future. I did reach out to her back in 2010 to work together but the stars weren’t aligned so I waited until 2016 to present her with Sweet Catch. She was interested, and here we are today” says Kwak.
Today finds Wong and fiance? Lyle planning a move to Maui and opening a new concept restaurant on an island that oﬀers more open space for their son to grow up. I have to ask Wong how she does it—balancing motherhood, restaurants in multiple states and her new role as executive chef for Hawaiian Airlines. The chef says she’s grateful for an amazing team at Koko Head Cafe whose abilities allowed her to focus on her pregnancy “I’m so grateful to my team at Koko Head Cafe; I had a complicated pregnancy and they gave me the reassurance that I could focus on my health and that of Baby Rye’s because they do such a great job everyday. For the most part, I’ve been glued to my phone as daily communication while on maternity leave, still doing ordering, scheduling, etc. I have done a few events here and there but am still recovering from my caesarian, and I hope to be able to get back in the kitchen soon. I think the most difficult part is the thought of not being with Rye all day every day. Thankfully my partner Lyle is literally Super Dad, and we approach parenthood as a team sport. He is able to freelance work as a graphic designer from home so it alleviates the thought of having to find daycare immediately. Selfishly, I’ve always had some fantasy about raising my kid in a kitchen, but for now I can only hope that he will grow up to love food as much as we do.”
That’s a likely outcome, since Rye was in fierce culinary competition before he was out of the womb. In 2017 and in her second trimester of pregnancy, Wong returned to competition on Top Chef for their web series Last Chance Kitchen that concluded in what one entertainment writer called the “mother of all exits.”
Says Wong about the emergency exit, “We filmed five episodes of Last Chance Kitchen back-to-back in a day and filmed the sixth and final episode the next morning before moving right into the Elimination challenge in which they told us we’d be camping on Mount Estes. Having only been in Colorado a few days I hadn’t acclimated to the elevation, which was hard as I was just getting past a rough first trimester—when your body is working the hardest and going through extreme changes in order to grow another human being. I needed additional oxygen, and then working and sleeping in below freezing temperatures I ended up in the hospital with altitude sickness. At that point I made the decision to bow out when the doctor told me it would be best for me and my unborn baby to get back down to a lower elevation. While it was a disappointing choice I had to make, I didn’t think twice about it, as Rye’s wellbeing and health was the only thing that mattered to me.”
It must be Wong’s organizational skills and calm collective, the same attributes that Top Chef producers first saw in the young competitor when they asked her to continue on as a culinary producer after her on camera role ended, that makes her Wonder Wong.