“I HAD NO IDEA, HE WAS JUST MY KID BROTHER, DOING THE USUAL KID STUFF—GOING TO SCHOOL AT ST. LOUIS, HANGING-OUT, PLAY- ING IN A BAND, HE NEVER COOKED ANYTHING” SAYS ANDERSON LE, OLDER BROTHER OF PIG AND THE LADY CHEF AND CO-OWNER ANDREW LE. “It’s like he went to college and the floodgates opened, he mentioned taking culinary classes at KCC and I thought, that’s great he’ll have a vocation, maybe work at Zippy’s or in a hotel.” Two restaurants later, older brother Anderson still seems incredulous that his younger brother who played drums in a band called Smarter Particles and was an avid gamer growing up is a highly respected chef with multiple shout-outs in the New York Times. President Obama and A-list Hollywood celebrities have dined at Pig and the Lady.
Andrew Ilnyckyj, co-star of the BuzzFeed series Worth It , described the range of flavors he experienced at Pig and the Lady as “a baptism for my mouth.” The Worth It episode featuring Chef Le has earned more than 8.5 million views since it was posted in April 2018.
Le is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Prior to opening Pig and the Lady, he worked as a sous chef at Honolulu restaurant Chef Mavro. In 2011 he was at a crossroads, should he take a promotion to the chef de cuisine position at Chef Mavro or pursue a new path. Le decided to travel and backpack as he contemplated his next steps, but two chance offers changed his plans.
The first was an offer by food writer Martha Cheng to do a series of pop-up events at Hank’s Haute Dogs in Kaka‘ako. “When someone tells me I shouldn’t do something, I want to do it more” says the chef whose friends and colleagues thought doing a pop-up wasn’t such a good idea. Le named his pop-up Pig and the Lady. He being the Pig and his mom, Loan Le, being the Lady.
Dr. Tin Myaing Thein, executive director of the Pacific Gateway Center, a non-profit that works with immigrant and refugee communities was a frequent customer at the pop-ups. She mentioned to Le that he should check out the non-profit’s restaurant space in Chinatown. The space wasn’t quite in Chinatown or in the heavily trafficked Downtown area. But this second offer lingered in the back of his mind, as he looked for a restaurant space in Kaimuki.
For the Le family, Kaimuki is IT. “The neighborhood was a hot-bed of creativity, it helped shaped who we are” says Anderson, who is the Artistic Director for the Hawaii Film Festival. Their father, Raymond started Toys N’ Joys in Kaimuki. The video game and toy business grew to several locations and remained open for 30 years. Alex, the Le middle brother was the general manager. In 2015, the family closed Toys N’ Joys, and Alex transferred his business skills to running the Pig and the Lady’s growing enterprise, which included the soon-to-open restaurant and a thriving farmer’s market operation. Their dream was to have a restaurant in Kaimuki
The family search for a restaurant space in their childhood neighborhood wasn’t going well, they expanded to Kapahulu, with no luck. That’s when the chef decided to follow up on Dr. Myaing Thein’s offer and look at the Chinatown location. “We were surprised, it had a big kitchen and a lot of natural light, we took the space” but Le says he still had doubts, even two weeks before opening. “I was scraping paint off the walls late at night and there was a fight outside and I thought, is this going to work?” As a way to laugh off the stress, Le decided to hang the poster for the Kurt Russell movie Big Trouble in Little China on the bathroom wall. Fast forward a few years, and Samuel Jackson, in town shooting a film, becomes a frequent guest. Jackson tells his friend Kurt Russell about the poster and in 2016 and a group led by Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn and Hawn’s daughter, actress Kate Hudson drop into the restaurant.
“If people feel at home, if we can help bring down barriers, especially in these times, you’re getting down, laughing, that’s the whole point of eating at our place,” says the chef. His humor and pop-culture references are everywhere, from the name of his second restaurant, Piggy Smalls, a homage to deceased rapper Biggie Smalls, aka Notorious B.I.G. to a menu description of Le fried chicken as “LFC” wings, a tongue-in-cheek play on KFC.
While his approach is fun, Le brings serious credentials to his craft having studied at America’s premiere culinary school and cooked under classically trained French chefs. But the food is his own. It’s about the places and people he experienced.
Food can be a way of connecting and holding on to what’s lost. It was his mother, Loan Le’s dream to have a restaurant. Loan and her husband Raymond were refugees who escaped the fall of Saigon in 1975. Loan was nine months pregnant with Anderson when her water broke over the Pacific Ocean and the plane made an emergency stop in Hawai‘i. At the time, she didn’t know how to cook, but learned quickly from the Vietnamese and Buddhist community here. Son Anderson, thinks it was a way to hold on to the country she lost.