Food & Wine: Chef Kevin Lee
Photo © Hawaii Hospitality

Kevin Lee

F&W Star Chef

Restaurants: Justus Drugstore, The Hillbilly Cook Shack (Smithville, MO)

RESTAURANT: Prima (Honolulu, HI)

Education: Culinary School at CIA in Hyde Park; Bachelor’s in food science from UC Davis

Experience: Dovetail, Oceana (New York)

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
My mom and my grandma were the most influential. I grew up in Southern California, but my extended family lives in the Bay Area. Heritage-wise, my family’s Chinese. My grandmother would either come down to visit or we’d go up to the Bay Area. My mom would cook more American-style, like variations of your classic meatloaf, Chinese-style fried chicken, that kind of thing. My grandma cooked more home-style Chinese. Snacks-wise, I’d help her make these light, crunchy deep-fried grated taro balls with potato or tapioca starch, sesame oil and cilantro. They’d always be a lot of work, because she’d cut everything by hand. And at first she didn’t trust me with a knife. But then we split it up. She would clean the outside of the taro and slice it into little rings then she’d let me julienne them; we’d both mix everything together and she’d show me how to fry it. We used spherical metal tea balls for brewing loose tea, the spring-loaded ones you squeeze to release the leaves. We’d put the taro inside the tea ball and then put the ball in the oil to deep fry it. Once it had started to cook, we’d release it to let it finish cooking. Probably the most important thing my grandma and mom taught me was to take care of ingredients, to select the best available.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
I don’t know if I have one of all time. Right after culinary school, I cooked at Oceana, which became a full submersion into learning about fish. I spent a lot of time with the River Cottage Fish cookbook. It was a fun reference, and interesting to see all the different possible ways to cook fish, classic techniques used here and in Europe.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
Prima’s fennel panna cotta. It’s a savory dish; the whole thing revolves around the single ingredient. We cook the bulb in cream with a little bit of garlic and then set the cream with gelatin. We take more of the bulb and puree it with fennel tops to make a green fennel puree that goes under the panna cotta. Then we make a marmalade out of the fennel stem, which we slice and cook down with sugar and vinegar. We put the marmalade on top of the panna cotta and garnish it with a couple of slices of raw or fresh fennel bulb, and a few sprigs of fennel fronds. Then there’s a thin black line of Kona coffee salt. I like to take one ingredient and try to use it in as many ways as I can, being as playful as possible. At Prima, we do have meat and fish, but we’re more vegetable-focused than protein-driven. I think you can be more creative and seasonal with fruit and produce.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
The next thing on my list, now that I’m living in Hawaii, is to use more native and invasive species. We need to start doing R&D, but I’m curious to try cooking with this invasive algae, or these small non-native snails. I’d like to use them to help benefit the community, the ecosystem.

What are your talents besides cooking?
I just started to learn how to surf long board. It’s going all right, a little rough to start. Nothing like getting heckled your first time.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Making your own pasta or noodles. I like to make the dough by hand, so that you can feel the moisture content and the gluten development. I usually use a machine to roll it into sheets.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
Vietnamese crab fat. It comes in a jar. It’s kind of got the texture of a spread. You can finish sauces with it. I did this oxtail foie gras terrine with maybe half a jar of crab fat. It boosted the flavor of both the foie gras and the oxtail.

What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
Laphroaig on the rocks. I have to be in the mood for it, but I like the smokiness.

If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make?
A small propane burner, a chef’s knife, a deba or Japanese fish knife for butchering fish, and a fishing pole. I don’t think I’d need a skillet. Since I moved out here, I’ve been learning about local cooking techniques. For a whole roasted fish, you can wrap it in ti or banana leaves.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
A few years ago, I did a backpacking tour of Southeast Asia. I brought back an Indonesian kris sword that I found in Yogyakarta. My flight home went through Singapore, where they wouldn’t let me leave the airport to go to my hotel because I had a weapon on me, so in order to bring this sword home, I had to sit in the airport for something like 20 hours.

Any memorable meals in Indonesia?
There are hardly any sit-down, upscale places; it’s all street food. So one of the most memorable ones for me was when it was really humid, in the 90s, and I was sitting on a milk crate next to this noodle stand, eating noodles. I was just dripping in sweat, but it was delicious.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur’s good, and Panang is even better. It has both Indian and Chinese influences, so it was nice to see how the two cultures came together on the plate.

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