WAIMEA — Long before he was the youngest person (at the time) and the only person from Hawaii to ever appear on the nationally televised show Food Network Star, Philip “Ippy” Aiona was an 11-year-old Hapa Hawaiian boy learning how to cook in his parents’ kitchen.
Nearly 20 years later, it’s still a family affair. When Ippy opens his second namesake restaurant — Ippy’s Hawaiian Barbecue — later this month in Waimea, it will be the sixth restaurant the Aiona family has opened together.
When Ippy was young, his father Max, a native Hawaiian, opened a Hawaiian plate lunch restaurant called Kamuela Deli. Later when Ippy was in middle school, his mother, Robin, who’s Italian, opened Solimene’s Italian Restaurant.
Thus a young Ippy observed and learned how to cook a variety of styles from both his parents and his elderly Japanese auntie Masayo, who served as the deli’s head chef.
Not only did he learn how to cook, he also learned when you’re born into the restaurant business, it’s a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week job.
“At the deli, I was the hamburger and macaroni salad guy until I didn’t need a stool anymore. Then I started doing all the other things,” he said.
It turned out Ippy had a natural affinity for cooking — and more importantly, he had desire.
“When I was 11, I made of series of cooking videos called ‘The Italian Chef,’” he said. He also used to walk around the house with a white towel on his shoulder, imitating a chef.
After graduating from high school Ippy always knew he’d go to culinary school but wasn’t sure where. He ended up at Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco, where he graduated with honors.
“A lot of the other culinary schools were outside the city but I choose San Francisco because I wanted to experience a city and the food culture there is intense,” he said.
Culinary school proved even more fruitful when he met his now wife, Genna, whom he married two years ago.
Ippy was only 16 when he left for school, so he wasn’t yet 20 when he came back to Waimea. Despite his young age, the first thing he and Genna did was open a coffee shop next to Solimene’s called the Food Boutique and Espresso Bar.
A year later he was selected to be on the eighth season of Food Network Star, which changed his life forever.
As a foodie, he had always liked the show and remembers watching it one night with a buddy.
“I wasn’t planning on (applying),” he remembered, but then food celebrity Bobby Flay came on and said, ‘Can you be the next Food Network Star?’
“I thought, I could do that. I could be the next Food Network Star. So we busted out a video camera, did the interview and the next thing you know I’m getting called back.”
Ippy charmed the show’s producers and those watching at home with his laid-back Hawaiian style, neverending smile and impressive cooking techniques, particularly his knife skills.
He was selected for the team led by Italian-born host Giada de Laurentiis and became close to her in part because of similarities to his own mother.
“I grew up with an Italian mother, so working with Giada I thought hopefully she can yell at me a little bit because then I’ll feel just like I’m at home,” he joked.
Ippy breezed through the reality show competition only to be eliminated just prior to the final round. Nevertheless, he was appreciative of the experience.
“I didn’t leave the show feeling like a loser or down on myself,” he said. “I was happy, proud and felt I had represented Hawaii well.”
Ippy agrees the exposure gained from Food Network Star was invaluable. With new-found notoriety and confidence, he represented the US in Canada’s International Iron Chef competition and won, and he was named to Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” list in 2013, 2015 and 2017.
On Hawaii Island he opened not one, but two restaurants: Ippy’s Hawaiian Barbecue in the Waikoloa Resort Queens Shops and the more upscale Three Fat Pigs restaurant in the Kings Shops across the street.
Ippy’s Hawaiian Barbecue currently showcases Hawaiian barbecue and plate lunch, while the Three Fat Pigs, which later became The Koa Table, gave Ippy the opportunity to be more creative, especially with what he really enjoys — pickled vegetables.
One of his favorite dishes at the Three Fat Pigs was fried pickled beets. The recipe was totally his own invention, as were BLT sandwiches made with pickled cherry tomatoes.
“I’m a pickling fanatic” Ippy said. “There’s endless possibilities when it comes to pickling. I’ve pickled watermelon rinds, beets, tomatoes and onions. You name it, I’ve pickled it.”
Today at the ripe old age of 30, Ippy feels seasoned and more mature as he looks forward to the next stage of his career. To match his attitude, he took a drastic step and cut his iconic hair, which was halfway down his back, part of his brand and largely how he’s been known and recognized by people for the past decade.
It wasn’t easy, but it was something he felt was needed.
The day he was getting it cut, “I actually felt nauseous,” he said, but once it was all gone he felt freer and more energized.
For those who loved his long hair, not to worry — he’s keeping the caricature of him as a long-haired Hawaiian as the logo for Ippy’s Hawaiian Barbecue.
Waimea’s Ippy’s Hawaiian Barbecue will feature the same food as the Waikoloa restaurant. Customers can order and enjoy the classics — including brined rotisserie chicken, baby back ribs and Hawaiian plate lunch with kalua pig. There will be a few more local dishes available only in Waimea, including Saimin.
Ippy’s plan is to eventually expand by opening Ippy’s Hawaiian Barbecue restaurants on the mainland. But for the Waimea restaurant, it’s his love for his family, friends and community that has him most excited about opening the doors.
“Community is very important and Waimea’s one of the last few places where it’s still community-oriented,” he said.
“My family’s had so many restaurants here and I’m a firm believer that when you’re from somewhere, especially somewhere like here where we go somewhere else for an education, it’s very important to come back. I’m glad to be back and can’t wait to give back.”