A Conversation with Owner of Aloha Snacks Jesse Wykle
In our segment “Launched,” we converse with Coastal Virginia natives who have gone on to success around the world.
Jesse Wykle is a man on a mission. He officially opened his own restaurant, Aloha Snacks, in Virginia Beach in early 2018. Shortly after, he was contacted by the Food Network to compete on their popular cooking show Beat Bobby Flay. Sometime in between, he was instrumental in creating what is now called the Virginia Beach Artery District—a move that helped rebrand an area of Laskin Road near the oceanfront to help create more awareness for the local business there.
Wykle’s career in the culinary arts began as a student at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). While he was studying to earn his degree in hospitality management, he worked his way through school at City Grocery under John Currence—who is considered to be one of the top three chefs in the southeast. After graduating, he was the chef de cuisine at the Farmington Country Club and Clifton Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia. He moved to Virginia Beach in 2008 and took over as executive chef at Eurasia, then moved on to become executive chef at Zoe’s Steak & Seafood. During his time at both restaurants, he was also an adjunct professor at the Art Institutes and Stratford University.
CoVa Mag: What was the catalyst for opening your own restaurant?
Jesse Wykle: I really just wanted to step out of the high-end intensity of fine dining and I wanted to try something new, so we decided to do a fast-casual play where I think we’re still very specialty, but we’re not necessarily fine dining. We don’t have servers. My front and my back are both kitchens. We call them “front kitchen” and “back kitchen.” And we’re a little bit more designed and curved toward to-go food and quick service.
What gave you the idea for Aloha Snacks?
I felt Aloha Snacks was a blue-ocean strategy. Blue-ocean strategy means there’s no competition. A red-ocean strategy means there’s a ton of competition in the water. We knew we were going to be original and we were going to serve Hawaiian-style food, traditional and contemporary, and we have something for everyone. Literally, we have raw fish, poke, sushi, burgers, tempura chicken, sandwiches, kid’s food, fries, vegan, vegetarian-driven bowls and burgers (a mushroom tempura burger, a black rice burger), a really, really good spin on tiki drinks, great craft beers, we want to be kid-friendly, we want to be driven to go, and we want to accommodate everybody. Instead of places like Zoe’s where I would have the same two diners twice a year, we wanted to have them twice a week.
Why a Hawaiian theme?
[My wife and I have] been to Hawaii. We have some really good friends in Kauai. Again, the blue-ocean strategy. What Hawaiian restaurant is here? And there is a direct correlation to surfing in Virginia Beach. Plus, a lot of folks here on the north end, they have timeshares in Hawaii. They’re going over there several times a year, so to have a Hawaiian-style place at home would be intriguing. But in all honesty, the real answer is for me to relax. I wanted to open a Hawaiian place to slow things down a little bit, to have great music and culture in a town that I think suffers on its identity—on what their identity is on how fresh their food is. I feel like Hawaiian food defines freshness. Pineapples in Southern hospitality is a major symbol. So that’s really the reason.
How did that translate on scoring a spot on Beat Bobby Flay?
I think a lot of that had to do with me being invited to cook in the James Beard House in 2015. I was the youngest in Virginia at the time invited to cook there. I was 32 years old. That’s probably where they got my name. We were asked to do Top Chef the year that we opened Aloha Snacks. And as much as I wanted to go on it I had to decline. And they circled back around to the Beat Bobby Flay show the summer of 2019. I personally didn’t want to do it. I didn’t have any interest in doing any reality TV. I was fine with my little world. But my wife convinced me it would be great publicity for me, Aloha Snacks, and the City of Virginia Beach. Honestly, I think the shooting just happened in May, so we thought it would be a positive thing for the city. I’m very involved with the city. I’m on the Virginia Beach Vision Board of Directors. Who knew what would come of it? I didn’t know I would go in there and win the show. It was just such an honor to be included.
What’s the format of the show? You had to compete against another chef before moving on to compete against Bobby?
The show is kind of built on talking trash. I met the guy I went against. He was a really nice dude named Brian Lopes. That’s probably what I was most nervous about—cooking against another chef with a mystery ingredient. I mean, here’s this big chef out of New York City and here I am out of Virginia Beach, Virginia. But we got our thing going and got our mystery ingredient, which was white navy beans, which is why the show was titled, “How you bean?” Brian did a cassoulet, and I did a composed white bean salad with guanciale sourdough croutons. It was a 20-minute round and that was probably the fastest 20 minutes of my life. I mean it just flew by. But I ended up beating Brian. Our judges, who were an absolute riot—Sunny Anderson and Damaris Phillips—both have millions of followers on Instagram and social media. They are so funny. Complete riots. Both chefs themselves. They moved into being the hosts of the second round, and then we had judges—real, actual restaurant judges in the second round.
To even things up, when you competed against Bobby, the challenger gets to name the dish?
Right. I had to present Bobby with my signature dish, lumpia, which is a Filipino-style egg roll. He did a shrimp and ground beef lumpia and I did a pork belly. I cut it a little bit differently. The show was a riot. I wasn’t nervous at all. Completely unscripted. I never imagined I would win. So, I hope something comes out of it.
What was your key to success?
I want to give a shout out to two of the pig farms that we use—Autumn Olive Farms in Waynesboro, Virginia. They are owned by the Tranums, Clay and Linda Tranum. They have the absolute best pork in the world. And locally, we get some pork from Cartwright Family Farms—that’s Derek [Eason], and he’s an incredible young man. He’s a firefighter and he just has a great product. These are all humanely raised pigs. We’re just honored to have the highest ingredient for this lumpia. Being able to source things locally is a big deal, for sure.
What was it like to meet Bobby?
Bobby was so cool. I talked with him afterwards while we were shooting and filming, and asked him, ‘Man, do you ever get burned out? You have so many cookbooks and restaurants and shows.’ He’s like, ‘I’m so in the weeds all the time.’ I told him I’d love to pick his brain and asked him if he wanted to get a beer or something afterwards and he had to go to the restaurant. And I felt like that was the end of that. Then he comes back and said, ‘Hey, what are you and your wife doing later? I want to buy you all dinner.’ So we went to his restaurant Gato, which is Spanish for cat, and he picked up our tab. I bet he doesn’t do that with all of his contenders. That was a real honor.
And there’s more to the story locally?
Yes, we held a raffle and ended up raising $13,000 to buy a bike called The Adaptive Bike, basically for children for special needs to provide them inclusion where they’re included in society and having a little bit of freedom. To get out there and ride these bikes. They’re kind of like big kid Big Wheels. I think they were able to buy six or seven of them. The Noblemen matched us. It was the time of my life.
Have you been getting a lot of positive feedback from this?
Yes, I’ve had random people tell me it was the best episode of Beat Bobby Flay ever. And the funny thing is, the show was originally supposed to air in September 2020, so almost a year after we filmed it. And it kept getting pushed back due to holiday programming, and they ended up airing the show on the exact day of our third-year anniversary at Aloha Snacks. I definitely feel like God had a hand in that.