Travel more, work at more restaurants and experience with other cuisines. The more experience that you have, the better off you will be. When you’re able to pull from so many different cultures and cuisines that you’ve experienced, you will be able to more intricate dishes and appeal to a wider audience.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ken Lum.
Chef Lum brings more than 28 years of culinary experience to this position and rejoins the Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House team after initially working at the restaurant from 1998–2000 and 2001–2007.
Lum studied culinary arts at Kapiolani Community College. After working his way up from line cook to sous chef in various restaurants in Hawaii, including Detlef’s, Hanaki Restaurant, La Mer, and Chef Marvo Restaurant, he began working under acclaimed chef and Food Network personality, Emeril Lagasse, as a line cook at Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House at the MGM Grand in 1998. In 2007, Lum moved back to Hawaii and was the chef de cuisine at Tidepools at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa. Most recently he was the executive sous chef at The Club at Kukui’ula, Koloa in Kaua’i, Hawaii.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
My grandmother would throw an elaborate Chinese New Year dinner every year that we all looked forward to. Our family had a great relationship with food and food as a gathering point for us. Working in the restaurant industry was something I fell into. While I was in school it served as a great way for me to buy a car. From there I fell into a natural progression that lead me to culinary school, but I always loved the rush of being in the kitchen, the service aspect and having the opportunity to meet so many unique people.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
As someone who works in a fish house, seafood is something that I very much love to cook. Growing up in Hawaii I was surrounded by incredibly fresh seafood straight from the surrounding ocean. When you’re that close to the ocean, the seafood options are endless. La Mer, Hawaii’s only five-star restaurant, was my first high-end job where I learned the nuances of cooking fish and different varieties of seafood. Seafood lends itself to a variety of ingredients and flavors, you just have to be creative with it.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
Well, this is actually my third time back at Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House. It was my first job when I moved to Las Vegas. I worked as a line cook to start and then left to pursue a sous chef position elsewhere. Then I came back as a sous chef and left one more time. Lucky for me, it all came full circle and I’m grateful to be back as the Chef de Cuisine working for one of the longest-standing celebrity chefs on the Las Vegas strip, which was always a dream of mine. From it all, I learned that you never know where the road is going to lead you, so always be on the lookout for opportunities.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
When I left Las Vegas the first time it was my first sous chef position and I was completely burnt out. I truly thought that I would end my cooking career after that but having the opportunity to come back to Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House and work with the incredible chefs that I had worked with before on the line who had been promoted, it encouraged me to continue my chef pursuit. I needed to look at things through another lens and once I did, I’ve enjoyed cooking ever since. I had to remind myself that work cannot be my only focus.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
The key to a dish that customers will love is just being honest with the ingredients, the process and the flavors. A great story always helps sell a dish, so if you can pull from inspirations in your life or connect it to something else, do it. Since we reopened after COVID, we’ve been bringing back variations of fan favorites. One of the dishes that we’ve tweaked a brough back is the Cedar Plank Ribeye Steak that was served on a smoking cedar plank. We’ve now taken that old fan favorite and replaced the steak with salmon and guests love it!
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
The perfect meal is any meal that I get to share with my family. On my days off, we try to sit down and have a family meal together. I try to cook at least one of the meals or we will order takeout. It’s more about the company for me.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
Inspiration comes from everywhere, from my family, my travels, other chefs. I love to eat almost as much as I love to cook, so I just think of what I enjoy eating and put that together for others to enjoy. Growing up in Hawaii, it’s such a huge melting pot of different cultures and cuisines so I like to pull from those memories and find a way to infuse them into my work.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Right now, we’re rolling into our fall menu. We’re constantly thinking of new dishes that we can incorporate with the season, even if it’s not major, we strive to incorporate some more seasonal ingredients to our dishes. It helps keep the menu fresh, keep the staff motivated, and gets the chefs engaged. It impacts everyone from FOH to BOH and gives our guests a reason to keep coming back for each seasonal rollout.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
My advice to avoid burnout would be to maintain a work/life balance. Have another outlet or hobby to focus on so that you’re not constantly focused on work. When you’re able to maintain that balance, you will be a lot happier, you will produce better ideas and overall be more satisfied with your work.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- You have to work hard. You’re going to work long hours, some weeks you won’t have two days off, and this leads me to the next thing, which is that you will be on your feet for those longs shifts.
- You have to be on your feet all day. You will work 10–14-hour shifts where you’re on your feet the entire time. Working in a kitchen doesn’t allow for much downtime, so find the best shoes and be prepared to be standing all day.
- You have to work the holidays. It just comes with working in the restaurant industry. Holidays are some of the busiest days in this industry and most of the time everyone is required to work. So, don’t plan on having the holidays off.
- You won’t see your family that often. When you’re working 10–14-hour days, it doesn’t allow for much time with your family. Especially the little ones, so cherish the time that you do have with them.
- Travel more, work at more restaurants and experience with other cuisines. The more experience that you have, the better off you will be. When you’re able to pull from so many different cultures and cuisines that you’ve experienced, you will be able to more intricate dishes and appeal to a wider audience.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
When you come to Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House, you absolutely have to try the Carolina Gold Jambalaya. It’s a classic New Orleans dish. We make our own homemade andouille sausage at the restaurant and serve it with Carolina gold rice, from Anson Mills. It’s recommended to keep the rice in the freezer or in the fridge because it’s so fresh. This dish has tons of flavor and overall is just a great staple. If I came to eat at the restaurant, that’s what I would be ordering.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Truly, I’m happy just being able to create positive experiences through food. If I can continue to do that, then I’m happy. Being able to make anniversaries, birthdays and other milestones special for our guests through the means of food is rewarding enough.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!