Chef Kevin Lee is a cerebral chef. You could imagine him as a professor—instead he puts his brain power into his food. On his plates is a restrained drama. An alumnus of such lauded New York restaurants as Dovetail and the late, great Tabla, he can pull flavor out of shiitake mushrooms like nobody’s business. Same with the humble carrot. He also has a great sense of design, as can be seen in his sleek, understated restaurant Pai Honolulu. The newlywed (he just got hitched to his restaurant partner and true love Justine Kadokawa!) seemed to be a great candidate to participate in the Honolulu Museum of Art’s spring benefit Palette—an event featuring food inspired by works from the collection.
Along with Lee, the event features chefs Lee Anne Wong of Koko Head Cafe, Wade Ueoka and Michelle Karr-Ueoka of MW Restaurant, and HoMA Café’s Robert Paik. They were invited to wander the museum or browse a selection of images of artworks and select one on which to base a trio of dishes—two small bites and one full plated course.
Lee chose to visit the museum, and we weren’t surprised when after wandering the galleries he selected a scholarly tortoiseshell ink brush, along with a brush holder and scrolled stand. This handsome set is on view in the China Gallery.
“It was nice to be able to take a break from the every day and go to the museum and let my mind wander,” says Lee. “The brush kind of reflects my style and personality of being minimalistic. It’s really well made. You can see the detail that went into it.”
He likens the well-preserved brush to a cook’s knife. “There is the same outlook for a painter as for a cook—you can tell a lot by someone’s knife. How well they take care of it, says something about what type of personality that person has.”
Lee’s culinary interpretation of the brush took a physical path. For the event’s Platinum Tables, Lee created a Carrots and Grains dish that features a striking orange slash. “I used a brush to paint a spicy carrot miso puree on the plate to show the actual purpose of the ink brush. And I chose those ingredients to have a little bit more of a spring color.”
We can’t wait to taste that, along with his two other bites—citrus-cured salmon and mentaiko mousse with ikura on sourdough toast, and shiitake mushroom gougère (we’ve had that at Pai, and we wish it came in giant bottles to take home).
The only way you can get a taste of Lee’s Carrots and Grains is to buy a ticket to Palette.
See the full menu and get your tickets online.
Next week: See what Michelle Karr-Ueoka picked as an artwork and the memory-packed dessert it inspired.
Photos by Erin Paris.