Chef and restaurateur Sheldon Simeon is in town bringing the tastes, flavors, and ingredients of traditional and modern Hawaii foods to the East Coast. His love and appreciation for his home state’s culinary traditions have taken him from Maui Culinary Academy to the finals of Top Chef to opening up his own restaurant on Maui, Tin Roof. Our writer Ankur Parikh caught up with Chef Simeon to discuss what the difference between Hawaii food and Hawaiian food is, and why he considers himself ‘Filipino,’ not ‘Hawaiian.’ If you want to get a taste of Chef Simeon’s cooking, he’ll be at MOFAD (62 Bayard St) Thursday evening and is also hosting a BBQ with Dale Talde at Massoni (11 East 31st St) Friday night.
I feel like Top Chef’s been a nice avenue towards exploring first generation culinary contributions, especially in recent years with yourself, Kristen Kish, and Paul Qui. There’s a whole other kind of American chef, and especially as a first-generation immigrant myself, I’m wondering how it feels, personally, to be a part of that group. How do you associate it with what American food means?
Sheldon: I’m doing a show right now on Eater called “Cooking in America,” that explores just that, all the immigrant chefs across America, what they’re doing, and their contribution to the food industry. For me, it’s a little bit different. I’m still discovering my own viewpoint because growing up in Hawaii my whole history has been a melting pot. I’ve never been exposed to it like on the mainland, haven’t seen it directly through the lens of separation or having the concept of immigrants at the forefront of it, but I think it’s great. I mean, we’ve always, to some degree, we’ve always been here and I think it’s just a coming out of the shadows now. That’s what it is. And being recognized for it.
And what is American food, right? It’s still a question that is difficult to answer, I think. You can ask a chef that, and it’s a loaded question filled with politics, filled with history, filled with their own personal conflicts or experiences. But, I think it’s awesome that more and more first and second generation chefs are reaching back. And even though we’re born in The States, we’re reaching back and going into our roots and cooking, drawing from and adapting our culture. I think it’s an avenue for us to connect with our roots and tell our stories. I don’t speak the language. I don’t speak Ilocano, I don’t speak Filipino, but my way of connecting and sharing with everyone in my culture is through food. And I think a lot of chefs are doing that. Immigrant chefs.
What’s the difference between Hawaiian fusion and the kind of ethnic fusion that people on the mainland see or think about?
S: Hawaii’s been inhabited for only a few hundred years and the culinary landscape is influenced by the people who’ve come, settled here and made it home. At the very basis of it all, Hawaiian cuisine derives from the first voyagers, the first settlers. We have the Polynesians who came up from the Marquesas and created foods with a very prehistoric kind of style, just like salt and fire. Hawaiian food is based on and around that. When people think of Hawaiian food now, they see and taste all of these Japanese and Filipino flavors and other cultures mixed into it, but that’s the second wave of people who settled in Hawaii, the immigrants who came to work in the sugar cane fields and the plantations. They brought their culture to it.
That’s the main difference between Hawaiian food and Hawaii food. Hawaiian food is the traditional food of the Hawaiians, and then everything else that came afterward is Hawaii food. But people just tend to call it Hawaiian food, because it organically blended all together and became one. There’s no real separation. That’s how Hawaii is, it’s organically, seamlessly blending all these flavors together.
There’s a poke joint almost every few blocks, some fancy spots, but mostly casual ones. How do you feel about that? Does it represent what you would like it to? How do you think it happened so fast? What changed?
S: We just discovered it, you know, it was just a part of us. We all knew that it was delicious. Then it turned into something that was marketable and the question became how it can be fun and approachable to everybody. They built it upon a concept that already works. Now we’re at the point, where we’re not going to be able to change where it’s gone, but it’s our duty to try to educate people as to what the tradition is.
I came to the realization, it’s not a representation of Hawaiian food, but it came from and it was inspired by it. And it gives us a platform. Again, it’s our duty, from people and from Hawaii. We’re the most isolated spot, you know? Or landmass in the world. A lot of people still don’t know what Hawaii is. Some people still don’t even know it’s a part of the United States, still yet, in this day and age.
We’ll see how this craze continues. It’s unfortunate in some ways. It is putting a hurt on our fisheries and our fishing industry. But, that’s how we can be responsible, too. Again, using this as a platform. That’s why we have this sustainable series that I’m a part of through Pokéworks.
Yeah, and I wanted to touch on that also. In the Dan Barber mode of thought, what responsibilities as a chef do you feel?
S: If you look at Hawaiian culture again, we have the systems called the Ahupua’a, which is the direct relationship of dividing the land, all the way from the top of the mountain, down to the ocean. How it all kind of works together. And the Hawaiians, they were geniuses when they cultivated things, and when the water was overfished, they knew to pick other things or they would eat things when it came in season. But everything’s so readily available now and everyone is always consuming everything.
One of the things that I’ve heard you mention is comparing Hawaii to a time capsule. In terms of islands and culture, cuisine, what do you mean when you say that?
S: I got to visit the Philippines for the first time about a year ago. We went there and followed back some dishes that we make at home, trying to look for dishes that we share in Hawaii. We quickly noticed, going place to place, that they weren’t readily available. It turns out that the Filipino dishes we eat regularly in Hawaii have become dishes that they only cook during celebrations. They refer to it as, “Oh, that’s the old cuisine.” But in Hawaii, it’s almost preserved in stone. We’re cooking the food that our grandparents brought with them a hundred years ago, when they migrated. And that goes the same for other cultures. The food that we eat, that we associate with our grandparents, is now food back in the motherland of wherever it came from, seen as a kind of an old cuisine, so to speak. It’s evolved over hundreds of years of influences and ideas. Now they are considered to be celebration dishes.
Was your father born in Hawaii?
S: My father was born in Hawaii. His parents came here when they were teenagers. So if you imagine, at 18 years old, you move to some new place and you have to remember cooking the food of your parents. So you have to go upon taste, flavor, and imagination. That’s how you attempt to recreate those dishes from your childhood.
We still consider ourselves, I still consider myself Filipino. We refer to ourselves as that ethnically. Not geographically, you know, not like, “I’m from California, I’m a Californian,” or whatever. A lot of people, still, here in Hawaii, refer to themselves as what their ethnicity is. I’ve never called myself a Hawaiian. The Hawaiian values and culture is a big part of me, but to recognize myself as a Kanaka Maoli of blood that came from that, I would not say that.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility, to teach [your children] certain things about their heritage and the food that they come from, is that something you actively think about?
S: Oh, totally. It’s my family’s way of connecting with our culture. For my wife and I, well, she understands Ilocano but doesn’t speak it, food is pretty much our only way to really, intentionally dive in and be connected to our culture, to being Filipino. I try to give my kids experiences of knowing where their food comes from, so we’re constantly visiting farms. We just did this whole retreat in Hana, which is on the east side of Maui, and it’s one of the last Hawaiian towns. And you see those guys who live out there, they still live off the land. They still cultivate their own things. And you see it right down to their kids. There were 10-year-old kids, hunting in the morning then skinning the pigs after the dad left and said, “Finish it up. Pack it up.” And they did! And then we came back from and they were cooking. 10-years-old!
What would be your favorite moment post-Top Chef? Favorite person you’ve met, the most inspiring experience? Something that you just know that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
S: James Beard House. And not even the cooking part, it was going there the day before the dinner, walking in, and there’s only the dishwasher in the whole place, and all these emotions of just standing right there, you know? Just all these emotions came together. All these memories from washing dishes, cooking rice as a kid in my grandparents’ house, culinary school, to Top Chef and crazy-busy nights opening restaurants. All of that flashed through my eyes and came to me at that moment. I was like, “Wow, this is amazing to be standing here in such a prestigious place, with all these experiences.” I was just so overwhelmed, so thankful and just felt so blessed in that moment.
A long journey, and then there could’ve been many ways to shortcut or be somebody that I’m not to get it quicker, but I did it by staying true to myself and being who I am.
**This interview has been edited and condensed. For the full interview, head to Ankur’s blog.**