LeeAnne Wong's Culinary Adventure on Oahu's North Shore

The 'Top Chef' finalist takes us on a food tour of the North Shore's top restaurants and farms.

In a span of a several hours, Lee Anne Wong consumed green tea shave ice from Matsumoto’s, snow puffies from Paalaa Kai, golden fried chicken and SPAM musubi from the neighboring Paalaa Kai Mini Mart, and coconut peanut butter from North Shore Goodies. Anything for the pilot show, quips the former “Top Chef” finalist and owner of the popular Koko Head Café, while filming a new online video series for Cookspace Hawaii.

Not shy in front of a camera, Wong possesses a natural on-air persona that resonates, not only among viewers as evidenced by her successful run on the Bravo TV series, but with her subjects — some of whom may or may not know of her. While talking to Stan Matsumoto of the eponymous shave ice shop, Wong reveals that her love for the classic cold treat dates back 10 years ago. “I have a stack of tees but they don’t fit me anymore,” Wong jokes. “Too much shave ice!”

When director Andrew Agcaoili of ShibbyStylee.com shouts action, Wong flips into her hostess mode, opening with an infectious smile while saying, “Every year millions of people visit the North Shore. And when you talk about the North Shore, you talk about the waves … and you talk about Matsumoto’s.”

LeeAnne Wong Pilot Series
LeeAnne Wong shoots a pilot series on the North Shore. (©Simplicio Paragas)

In a cone, says Matsumoto, in response to the best way of eating shave ice. “Being a local boy, my favorite flavor is strawberry,” he says off-camera. “But most visitors like the Rainbow or any one of the combinations.”

Before leaving for our next stop, Matsumoto’s spouse, Noriko, presents Wong with a parting gift: bright orange and pale blue Matsumoto logo shirts, adding that Wong now has two new tees that will fit.

En route to Paalaa Kai Bakery, Cookspace co-founder Melanie Kosaka explains the premise of the new program, which is to invite a chef — who is willing and brave enough — to go on a culinary adventure. “But it’s all got to be tied to food,” Kosaka says. “It could be cycling down Haleakala and stopping at the various farms or skydiving and landing at Sunset Ranch, which we plan to do with Lee Anne.”

The chef will then be invited to conduct a cooking class at Cookspace at Ward Warehouse, using some of the ingredients featured in the actual show. “I’m ready to eat those puffies,” Wong smiles as she walks into the Paalaa Kai Bakery, which is a more-than-40-year-old Waialua institution. “But even those donuts look good and I don’t even like donuts.”

Paalaa Kai Bakery Snow Puffie
Paalaa Kai's snow puffies have a cult-like following among island residents. (©Simplicio Paragas)

The corners of her mouth covered in confection sugar, Wong flashes her shaka of approval before taking another large bite into her snow puffie, which has a cult-like following on social media sites.

Driving all the way from Pacific Palisades, Kim Komoto says a visit here was her 30th birthday gift from her parents.

“This is all I wanted,” Komoto says while lifting the lid of a box to reveal a dozen of the Napoleon-like dessert. “I just kept seeing pictures of it on Instagram and I had to try it. It was definitely worth the drive.”

Next door, the automatic sliding glass entry might as well have stayed permanently opened as a steady stream of customers made a beeline for the cash register to place their order of fried chicken at hte Paalaa Kai Mini-Mart. One piece chicken and rice, one guy orders. Two piece chicken, another person asks. Three piece chicken. Four piece chicken. The orders kept coming and so did the fried chicken, which is dredged in flour and deep-fried to a golden crisp. Evidently owner Paul Sakai has developed his own Colonel’s secret; this one, though, might be better, considering this tiny mini mart goes through 400 pounds of chicken a day.

“Fried chicken and musubi, how can you go wrong,” Wong asks rhetorically while dipping a piece of chicken skin into a small container with Tabasco sauce. “I would definitely drive here just for this.”

LeeAnne Wong at North Shore Goodies
LeeAnne Wong holds up a jar of locally made coconut peanut butter at North Shore Goodies. (©Simplicio Paragas)

After sampling the creamy coconut peanut butter and chocolate peanut butter at North Shore Goodies, our convoy of cars headed for our last stop of the day — Sunset Ranch. Winding up Pupukea Road, the air got cooler and the sound of traffic muted. Arriving at Sunset Ranch, stunning vistas welcome us, along with Tristan Reynolds and Nathan Stowell, land stewards with Hawaiian Fresh Farms, which operates this 29.5-acre property. On this particular Tuesday, the rolling landscape is a tranquil respite for a group of women and a couple who were all having the “perfect” lunch picnic, according to Stowell.

“We offer this picnic, a Waimea Valley hike-lunch package and a farm-to-fork sunset dinner,” Stowell says. “We grow a lot of our own ingredients or we’ll get them from other farmers nearby.”

Private dinners at Sunset Ranch by Hawaiian Fresh Farms
Private dinners can be arranged by Hawaiian Fresh Farms at Sunset Ranch. (©Simplicio Paragas)

As we scout the area for Wong’s potential landing pad for her upcoming skydiving adventure, Reynolds begins to share his love for mo‘olelo, imparting stories about the area’s history and his commitment to eco-tourism.

“The historical aspect of this ahupuaa resonates with me,” says Reynolds, a biologist-turned-farmer and tour guide. “I love history and storytelling, and I love growing my own food in a sustainable way and sharing it with others.”

“Here,” says Wong, marking the spot where she wants to land. “I’ve always wanted to skydive and, for a chef, this is the perfect place for me to land—on a farm.”

Food Tourism: Essential restaurant and food stops on Oahu's North Shore