Sheldon Simeon draws on the history of Hawaii to create summery grilled dishes—get the recipes.
In 2013, Sheldon Simeon learned a lesson in his first appearance on Top Chef that has gone on to define the three restaurants he has opened since. He had advanced into the final three chef-contestants by connecting with his Filipino heritage, cooking upscale versions of a tamarind-laced sinigang and pork adobo. But when he lost touch with those bedrock flavors (cooking, instead, ill-fated dishes of quail with garam masala and white chocolate with fennel), he lost his winning streak along with it. He hasn’t made that mistake again. Since then, with every new project and menu he creates, Simeon has delved deep into history—his own, his family’s, and that of Hawaii, where he lives and where he is from.
“My huge lesson from that [experience]: Don’t try to be nothing that you’re not,” Simeon says. “Before, I used to look at the mainland and to what they’re doing in New York for inspiration.” But when he came home from his defeat, he raided his dad’s cookbooks for recipes collected by Hongwanji, Hawaii’s Buddhist temples. He listened to songs by native Hawaiian Edith Kanaka’ole that praised different varieties of wild limu (seaweed) and kalo (taro). And he took a closer look at what he loved about Hawaiian cooking: Fishermen stuffing and baking uhu (parrotfish) with lup cheong (Chinese sausage) and mayo, the smell of garlic frying in butter from the shrimp trucks on the north shore of Oahu, the roadside stands roasting whole chickens on a spit over kiawe wood. He realized that all the culinary traditions butting up against each other on these tiny islands, the result of waves of migration—from the first Polynesians who settled Hawaii to the Western explorers and missionaries to the plantation laborers from countries including China, Japan, and the Philippines—provided a deep well of inspiration. “Now, I’m definitely coming from a Hawaii point of view,” Simeon says. “Instead of looking outwards, I’m going back to the roots.”
Simeon was born in Hilo, on the Big Island, to Filipino parents. His mother was an immigrant from the Philippines, his father the first-generation son of plantation workers. “Our house was the gathering house,” he says. “My dad was the cook of the community. All birthdays were celebrated at our house—luaus and weddings, too. For multiple weekends, he’d be cooking sunup to sundown.”
When it came time to open his own restaurant, Simeon tried to imbue it with the conviviality of his childhood home. In 2014, he opened Migrant in the Wailea Marriott resort in Maui, but though the menu was inspired by flavors he grew up with, the resort setting meant mostly tourists came. Simeon decided not to renew Migrant’s lease. Instead, he and his wife, Janice, opened Tin Roof, a 538-square-foot takeout counter next to a payday loan store, serving noodle and rice bowls topped with local favorites like mochiko chicken. The space had been a family-run okazuya, a Japanese-style deli, for more than 20 years, and the owners wanted to retire. He and Janice cashed out their own retirement to renovate and reopen it. “I hate seeing mom-and-pop shops closing down,” Simeon says. “I didn’t want to see a Quiznos or Subway go into that spot. And I just wanted to do something that was going back to feeding my community.”
While Tin Roof is devoted to everyday fare, Simeon’s newest restaurant, Lineage, which opened late last year, draws more inspiration from the family gatherings and luaus—the larger-scale celebrations around, for example, a wedding or a baby’s first birthday—that are a part of Hawaii’s social fabric. But that doesn’t mean the food is fussy. What often characterizes the food at these multigenerational parties is abundance. Luaus are where everyone’s signature dishes come out, like Simeon’s huli huli chicken with smoky grilled pineapple, which calls to mind the racks of whole chickens spit-roasted on the side of the road; his dad’s pork guisantes (a Filipino pork-and-pea stew); a sister-in-law’s kamaboko (surimi) dip, which, for Simeon, who grew up near a fish-cake factory, “pulls on the heartstrings of small-kid time.” Whether they’re served to his children at a family cookout or in the dining room of Lineage, each dish taps into Hawaii’s commingled roots, giving the past a place in the present.