Chef Tylun Pang of Ko: “High Expectations”
Vanessa Wolf is a Maui-based writer who spent the summer with her uncle in Alaska hunting wolverines.
By Vanessa Wolf
Chef Tylun Pang is something of a Maui institution. His book, WHAT MAUI LIKES TO EAT, celebrates not just his own cuisine, but that of many other chefs on the island. Currently the Executive Chef at the Kea Lani and often found behind the lines at Ko, we talked to Chef Pang about his craft, his goals, and what keeps him going.
When did you know you wanted to do this for a living?
I started cooking many years ago. My first job was in the summer between middle school and high school. I was about 15. I started in a very simple restaurant where I grew up in Oahu. I didn’t know I wanted to cook. I knew I wanted to work. I got there, I liked it, and I never left.
Whom or what most influenced your career?
When we grew up there were a lot of rules: “It’s this way.” Now you see terms like fusion or molecular gastronomy. The German chef I learned from? There was no fusion.
A few months back, when we opened Ko, I was able to bring my mentor there. I worked with him my first 13 years, and it had been many years since we’d seen each other. He didn’t realize how many disciples he left behind who are now successful in the business. We all still keep in touch. He denies his tyrannical reign over us, but I remember those clogs well.
What keeps you in the business?
As I got older and became established, I realized cooking is a team sport. It’s not a one-man show back there. There are no great chefs, there are great teams. The guys in the back I work with? They’re like family to me. You come to work every day and interact with a lot of people. Some good, some bad: you love them all because they’re family.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten?
I’m a fan of Asian cuisine. I like how that culture treats food. They have a lot of respect for it. When we were in Japan, we met a chef who specializes in a single fish preparation. He was preparing fugu (blowfish) sashimi. It wasn’t the taste so much that it was the fact that it was something I couldn’t prepare myself: you really have to be trained in it.
I think when I consumed that meal it was probably the most respectful meal I have ever eaten. It was a humbling experience to eat something so simple, but so expertly prepared.
Just the thought that someone dedicated their life to the preparation of this one dish: it’s just amazing.
How has Maui influenced you as a chef?
The agricultural scene, definitely. Going out and meeting the farmers and knowing their struggles and all their trials and hard work is important to me.
When you see how hard they work, you just don’t want to give up on it. Good farm-to-table food isn’t cheap, but knowing the struggles they go through gives you an appreciation of the food itself. I know the farmers have started certain crops for me. It’s more of that team effort: it’s an extended team
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started out?
Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. I went straight out of school into cooking. I never regret the path that I took, but I think for younger people starting out in the business, a good education will make it less painful for them.
The competition is so fierce that a good education – as well as creativity – will give you the edge. Good food is very important, but good business sense matters too. How to stay a little ahead and stay in the public’s eye: all these things matter.
What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?
I think going back to my mentor; he always said if it’s not good enough for you, it’s not good enough for anybody. In many aspects it referred to food, people, and environment.
I guess in his own words he was always telling me to “keep your expectations high and never settle for less. That has stuck with me in everything I do.
Do you have a favorite junk food indulgence?
I never turn down a crispy French fry. Never.
Are you a local artist – sculptor, poet, mime, slack key guitar player, tattoo artist, photographer, pastry chef, performance artist, sand castle builder or comedian – with an interesting story to tell? Know of a great band, artist, author, filmmaker, or event coming to town? Have an idea for a fun or thought-provoking story? Get in touch: we want to hear from you. Vanessa(@mauinow.com)