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Why This Celebrity Chef Only Serves Local Seafood

© Troy K Shinn/

Among other accomplishments, Lee Anne Wong has cooked in some of the world’s best kitchens and appeared on TV series including “Top Chef.” On Tuesday’s episode of the Food Network’s “Chopped All-Stars,” she will be competing for a top prize of $75,000, which will go to CI Hawai’i should she win. (© Marina Miller)

Next Tuesday, celebrity chef Lee Anne Wong will be competing on the Food Network’s Chopped All-Stars for a top prize of US$ 75,000.

She has chosen CI’s Hawai‘i program as her charity of choice for the show. Learn why in our Q&A with her below — and don’t forget to tune in to the Food Network Tuesday, May 19th at 10 p.m. EST to see Lee Anne in action!

Q: What led you to choose Conservation International as your charity for Chopped All-Stars?

A: I recently worked with Conservation International Hawai‘i on the Big Island to help promote both sustainable seafood from local fishing villages and the integration of modern technology that will aid in the marketing, traceability and commerce for these small community-based programs. Now that I reside in Hawai‘i, the idea of sustainability takes on a whole new meaning. Our ocean’s health and its role as a resource — especially in coastal areas — is crucial to the future of Hawai‘i.

Q: How did you become interested in the ocean?

A: I have always been captivated by the ocean and underwater sea life. The Earth has been around a few billion years and water covers about 70% of the planet’s surface. It is mind-boggling when I think about the science behind our oceans — their vastness, the span of time, the millions of underwater species that have come and gone and what exists now, and how the ocean is elemental in Earth’s atmospheric balance and health. There is so much still to be learned, and to know there is an entire world beneath the surface of the water is fascinating.

What’s crazy is that in the short time human beings have been on the planet, especially in the past century, with the boom of technology and industries we have managed to bring ocean health to a critical point. Overfishing is real. Pollution is real. Global warming is real. Thousands of scientists can’t be wrong. We as a global community can no longer ignore the effect the human population has had on our planet’s most precious resource.

Q: Does the issue of sustainability factor into your decisions about what to serve at your restaurant, Koko Head Cafe?

A: At Koko Head Cafe, we pride ourselves on sourcing as much local product as possible, working with farms, fisheries and producers to showcase the best our āina [loosely translated as “sources of life”]  has to offer.

Considering that Hawai‘i imports over 90% of its food, I can proudly say our menu is at all times at least 70% locally sourced outside of staples like dry goods and some dairy. I only serve local seafood at my restaurant, featuring pelagic, reef and oceanic varieties, as well as farmed species. By committing to these values, we are able to support local business and promote sustainability awareness with employees, customers and industry colleagues.

Lee Anne Wong (left) poses with other chefs at a CI event promoting seafood traceability in Hawai’i. CI Hawaii has been developing a consumer-facing traceability system that enables consumers to learn more about the seafood journey from boat to plate. (© Amanda Corby Noguchi)

Q: What’s your favorite sustainable seafood dish to cook?

A: I’ve fallen in love with local small fish like akule, halalū and ʻōpelu.

Recently we made an akule meatball soup at the restaurant, taking the flesh and making small meatballs, and then making a rich broth using roasted akule bones. We sold out in three hours. This response from our customers lets us know that the demand for these types of fish exists, especially within the local community.

Q: If you could give readers one suggestion for how they can help the oceans, what would it be?

A: Be a conscious consumer! Know where your food comes from. Be aware of where your refuse goes. Start the conversation in your own community; you’d be surprised how many people are interested in learning how to help their environment on a local and global scale.

Lee Anne Wong is the chef and owner of Koko Head Cafe in Honolulu, Hawai‘i; learn more about her. Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

Cover image:  Fisherman in Hawai’i. Although fishing is an integral part of Hawaiian culture, 63% of seafood purchased in Hawaiʻi is imported. (© Troy K Shinn/