Sheldon Simeon Wants to Change How You Think About Hawaiian Food
The former Top Chef contestant looks to his elders as he prepares to open his second restaurant in Maui.
Sheldon Simeon is eager to talk about his family. He wants me to know it’s his grandmother and his mother who have inspired his cuisine, and he’s quick to clarify that he doesn’t think he and his chefs are preparing those dishes any better than the women who raised him (except that “we might cut a vegetable a little bit nicer.")
Simeon was born and raised in Hilo (on the Big Island), though his parents are of Filipino descent. At Lineage, Simeon hopes, “first and foremost,” to serve delicious food. But his family's legacy is never far out of his mind.
“We’ll be serving a lot of the same food that I grew up eating with my grandparents and taking techniques of old Hawaii and inserting those into our food,” he tells Food & Wine. “The food won’t be pretentious at all.”
At Lineage, Simeon will explore how his ancestors preserved meat, making traditional pipikaula—salted and dried beef—using different types of Hawaiian salts. He’s also careful not to rely too heavily on the past, adding a modern twist where he sees fit. For instance, dried fish is traditionally served with poi (taro root pounded into a paste). In his version, Simeon will grate dried tuna over pasta, similar to an Italian dish called bottarga.
Most ancient Hawaiian methods of cooking and preserving food were not recorded, and what was documented is already well-tread ground in Hawaiian restaurants, according to Simeon. Since much of that history isn’t accessible, he pulls instead from his “short history,” the cooking methods that his parents and grandparents used. He’s adopted their way of thinking about food, too, instead of getting stuck on the technical aspects of cooking.
“Grandma wasn’t thinking about the pH level of the citrus, she was saying, ‘Let me add more sugar because it tastes good,’” he explains.
This straightforward statement sums up Simeon’s remarkably simple, rational philosophy about food—he just wants it to taste good. Somehow Simeon avoided getting caught up in what he calls the “glamorous” world of Instagram cooking, where chefs seem to prepare dishes that photograph well.
"I think a lot of chefs are realizing, ‘Let’s not take ourselves too seriously,'" he explains. "We're just tired of the flashiness and the hype. At least I am. I just want to serve good food."
Simeon says that cooking is one of the easiest ways for him to share his heritage with other people, but he doesn’t think that the full spectrum of true Hawaiian food has reached the mainland yet. At most (at least on the East Coast) there is the growing popularity of the poke bowl restaurant. Simeon calls poke bowls “delicious," but they aren’t representative of Hawaiian cuisine.
“Poke was the first thing because it's accessible, and it reminded people of sushi and then the way it was delivered too, in that Chipotle kind of style,” he says. “It was meant to be inspired by Hawaiian poke, but if you spend time in Hawaii, you know that poke is marinated. [In a poke bowl restaurant] you just pick your sauce, and it gets tossed. Everywhere here, you take a half-pound of Ahi or crab, it's already pre-marinated, and you point and tell them how much you want.”
So where can you go if you want authentic Hawaiian cuisine in New York City? Nowhere, honestly.
“New York needs a legit Hawaiian spot, I’ll tell you that, straight up,” he says.
Regardless of New York’s limited vision of Hawaiian food, Simeon wants to expand the entire country’s idea of what Hawaiian food can be. And he doesn’t mind giving his fellow chefs a little tough love when it comes to encouraging them to do the same.
“When we say that it's fresh and sustainable, and it’s from Hawaii, it better be from Hawaii. I think a lot of restaurants are taking advantage of the visitors that are here and are serving mediocre food; I’ll put that out there,” he says. “I think we can do a lot of better in the care and responsibility of running restaurants here in Hawaii and serving more food that represents our culture.”
Where's a good place to start? Simeon encourages everyone curious about Hawaiian cuisine to try pa'i'ai—taro root pounded using nothing but a stone and board. No salt, pepper, or other seasonings. At Lineage, Simeon will also be serving a play one of his kids’ favorite dishes, fish soup and rice; and a Japanese-inspired meal known almost exclusively to Hawaiian people as chicken hekka. He’ll also serve a dish inspired by his father, who never kept ranch dressing in the house, but rather mixed his own special sauce of shoyu and mayonnaise. Simeon will serve his version alongside vegetables sourced from local farmers.
“I realize how special the place that I live in is,” he says. “That’s all we want to celebrate."