The cuisine of Hawaii has sometimes suffered the bad reputation for being hotel-fare caliber targeting mainland tourists. But a new generation of Hawaiian and Hawaiian-influenced chefs is reinvigorating Hawaii’s regional cuisine – often by going back to the basics with inspiration from family traditions. To learn more about this movement, we talked with Sheldon Simeon, chef-owner of Tin Roof restaurant in Maui, two-time finalist on Top Chef, and a proud Filipino son of Hawaii. [Ed. Note: Find a Hawaiian-influenced recipe for North Shore Shrimp Scampi from Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift, inspired by their legendary trip to Hawaii years ago.]
Francis Lam: First, congratulations on all your success on Top Chef. I want to ask you a question that occurred to me while I was watching the show. It was a moment that struck me. It was before we got to the finale, there was an episode where the challenge was for you to reflect on the time you spent cooking in Charleston. What you said was that the experience made you feel like you understood yourself more as a cook from Hawaii. What does it mean for you to be a cook from Hawaii?
Sheldon Simeon: For me, it means that we grew up in a paradise that is so unique, where it is about the people, it is about the community, and how we're connected to our environment and our land. It made me appreciate how special Hawaii is, being so far away from home. The feeling in Charleston is very much like that. It's all about taking care of your neighbor, taking care of the ingredients that feed your family, and it touched me in that way. I was able to relax and be myself in that environment and cook my food.
Sheldon Simeon (Photo: Tin Roof )
FL: I've never had the opportunity to eat it, but just watching it on TV for week after week, your food seems very personal to you. It seems tied to not just your own story, but to the story of your neighbors and the people you know in Hawaii. What is Hawaii food?
SS: Hawaii food is all these layers of immigrants or people who came to live in Hawaii. It dates back all the way to the Polynesian voyagers that came up from the Marquesas [Islands] who first settled in Hawaii. The years that followed World War II played a part in there. Then the hugest influence is the immigration of plantation workers: Japanese field workers, Filipino, Portuguese, Chinese, all coming together, bringing their food and creating this cuisine that seamlessly blends together.
FL: What are the dishes where, if you're Hawaiian, you're like, "Oh yeah, that's ours?"
SS: The saimin, which is our version of ramen. It’s a saimin noodle that you use egg in it so it has a little bit more body. The broth is very clean. It's pork-based, a little bit of seafood in it, very simple. Usually just green onions, maybe char siu roast pork and fish cake, but that's it. It's not over-the-top like how ramen is. But, as you can see, it's a blending of three different cultures into one, and it becomes a delicious bowl.
FL: Which influences do you see?
SS: Chinese in there with the char siu pork; the broth is like some Portuguese in there; and Filipino with pancit noodles, that style with egg noodles – that’s all coming together.
FL: That's cool. Hawaii – I’ve never been. My mother keeps telling me...
SS: We've got to get you out there, Francis!
FL: I'd love to, man. But my mother tells me she took me when I was in the womb. So, I'm like “Thanks, ma!” It doesn't really count, but thank you very much.
For a long time, the cliché was people didn't think of Hawaii as a great place for food. You have this tropical paradise with, obviously, pineapple and all the tropical fruits, but so much of the food was imported from the mainland. So much of what people ate was just hotel food that was geared toward tourists. Has that changed?
SS: We feel that it hasn't changed, but we're changing it. Just over 100 years ago, Hawaii was a fully sustainable island. We're the most isolated landmass in the middle Pacific Ocean; it’s crazy to think that we import everything there. The food was based off what everyone see. It needs to be tropical so everyone thinks that there's pineapple in everything or papayas or whatever. The food's much deeper than that. Talk about vegetables on the island. My grandparents never went to the market. They always had their Filipino garden in the back, and we used to go pick vegetables there. The Hawaiians had this system called ahupua'a, which is a system that is segregated land from the ocean all the way up to the mountain, everything working together in this kind of cycle. It was very much about being sustainable. Tourism came in, we needed to get materials and ingredients, and it evolved that way, how everything started to get imported into Hawaii.
FL: I remember reading about a number of chefs who, in the early 1990s, were proud of this idea that they called “Hawaii regional cuisine.” They were chefs like Roy Yamaguchi, Sam Choy, Beverly Gannon, and Alan Wong. There was a scene, and I feel like people were into that idea of working with the traditions of Hawaii that had been there for many years and working with those ingredients. But that was in the 1990s. I feel like that attention went away for a while, and now it seems seems like there's a new generation of young chefs who are picking up that torch. There's you; Chris Kajioka, who had a restaurant Senia in San Francisco; and there’s a chef named Ravi Kapur. I love that – Simeon, Kajioka, Kapur, three names from Philippines, Japan, and India, and they're all representing this new Hawaii cuisine. Why do you think there's this new energy? What are you guys doing that's different than what they were doing in the 1990s?
SS: I think the idea of the new chefs is that we are thinking about our community first and the food that feeds our community. We are taking a step back and doing the food that our grandmothers and our aunts and uncles all cooked, the food that we grew up eating, and putting it out there instead of trying to do something with French influence with some type of Hawaii flavor, or trying to spin on Hawaii food with French technique. Now we're cooking our food straight up. Kajioka has the best cooking technique I've ever seen in my life, but still, the food's soulful. Again, the food is inspired by his mother, by the Sunday dinners. Chef Ravi, he’s making Spam from scratch on the menu in San Francisco. Who knew, at this time and age, that that's what you'd be seeing in a menu in San Francisco? I'm looking for inspirations from Hongwanjis, the Japanese churches, like cookbooks in the 1980s that are made from mochi-pounding grandmothers. I'm going to Auntie's house and learning how they make their adobos and all that. That’s where the inspiration is. And then, the whole farm-to-table thing – we’re super connected. My best friends are all farmers and not just because of the business. That's my family, that’s my community, and I'm going to support that. I think that's how the food is in Hawaii with these new chefs.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.