Vernon Wong guest lecturing in a Kealakehe classroom.
Vernon Wong, CEC, used to ply his craft in some of the most exclusive hotel dining environments in Hawaii. His career has included stays at the Kona Surf, Kona Hilton and Keauhou Beach Resort, where he dished up fabulous fare for well-heeled guests with sophisticated tastes.
Today, the customer base Wong serves remains one with exacting tastes, and it certainly remains a demanding one. But the demographic has changed. Instead of the middle-aged executives and vacationing power lunchers of the past, Wong must cater to kids and preteens as food service manager for Kealakehe (HI) Elementary and Intermediate schools.
It's a familiar story: Wong migrated to noncommercial foodservice after growing tired of the long hours and little personal time that the commercial foodservice world demanded. In 1991 he answered an ad for a food service manager at Kealakehe and took the position. For about five years he also worked part time in the hotel business but gave that up when he realized that the compromise in time spent away from his family wasn't worth it.
Today, he is responsible for providing daily breakfast, lunch and snacks to some 2,000 students and a couple hundred staffers in a district where about half the enrollment qualifies for free and reduced lunches. The Kealakehe nutrition program operates out of a central production kitchen at the intermediate school and transports prepared food over to the elementary school.
Wong maintains contact with the adult culinary world through his active involvement in the local Chefs de Cuisine society of the American Culinary Federation. In fact, he is currently president of the Kona-Kohala chapter of Chefs de Cuisine and has led his group to a number of prestigious titles, including winning a pair of Gold Medals and being named Chapter of the Year at the Western Regional Conference of the ACF in February. This month, Wong's chapter will compete-for "National Chapter of the Year" honors during the ACF's national conference in San Antonio.
What do the other chefs in the Chefs de Cuisine chapter say when they find out you work in school foodservice? They laugh. But you know, after 10 years or so they wish they were doing the same. In small restaurants, for example, the pay is good but there are no real longterm benefits like those available when you work for the school system.
How creative can you be in developing menus for the schools? We are a Title One district and because of that they are pretty strict about what we serve and what we don't serve. We have to follow certain guidelines to meet the requirements but beyond that we try to be creative. For example, I had a banana bread recipe that I used at the hotel I worked at that I adapted to meet RDA requirements but was still different than the traditional school recipe.
Meanwhile, I've been able to create some things for the staff that I originally developed in the hotel. For example, the pork dishes at the school had a lot of fat but by blanching and adding flavors I took some of that fat out but still made it flavorful. They were very impressed and happy that it tasted so good but was healthier than what they had been eating.
Do the students appreciate your background? For a while I worked at both the hotel and at the school, and students would see me at the hotel and say, 'Hey, Chef Wong, what are you doing here?' I'd tell them that I work here too. Then they'd say things like, 'How come the school food is so bad then?' I'd reply that actually it was mostly a matter of perception.
The same food served at the school, if served in the hotel, would seem to be better because of where it was served. But for the most part they are the same recipes. Of course, then they'd say they want the same things in school that they saw on the seafood buffet we had at the hotel—crab legs and prime rib. I'd laugh and say, 'Okay, if your parents are willing to pay for them I'll be happy to serve them...'
It's hard for kids to appreciate what they have in terms of food quality. It's funny, but as the kids grow up and move on to the high school [which is not Wong's responsibility] they will sometimes come back and say, 'I wish I still got to eat the things you make, because it was better than what we have at the high school.' I say, 'Make sure you tell my staff that because they are the ones who work hard to keep it that way. They need the appreciation.'
How did you start out in culinary matters? Were you always cooking? My family would always cook at home so it was natural that everyone in the family learned how to cook. In fact, because there weren't a lot of canned ingredients available we had to make our own. I remember parboiling and peeling water chestnuts to get them ready because we didn't have the canned version where all that was already done. From there I took a cooking class in high school and found I really liked it.
I went to culinary school at a local community college, and then into the army. After that I worked in clubs and hotels. I was executive chef at the Kona Hilton when I decided to slow down back in 1991. That's when I took the school job.
| Favorite Restaurant: French Laundry |
Chef Hero: Louis Diat
Favorite Cookbook: The Escoffier Cookbook
Cuisine Specialty: Pacific Rim