Sheldon Simeon isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. Instead, he looks to family history for inspiration in creating his soulful cuisine.
The line snaking its way along the counter and out the door of Tin Roof, the Kahului lunch joint helmed by Sheldon Simeon, never ceases. For four hours, a steady thrum of hungry patrons neatly file behind one another, waiting to get their hands on bowls filled with mochiko chicken, poke, or dry mein, and, perhaps, catch a glimpse of the guy whose humble persona and cuisine earned him the “fan favorite” award on both seasons 10 and 14 of Top Chef.
It has been a whirlwind of activity for Simeon since his two top-three finishes on the Bravo TV cooking show. He has made appearances at food and wine festivals around the country, started his own YouTube channel with Eater called “Cooking in America,” opened one restaurant, Migrant Maui, in 2014, only to close it in 2016 and open Tin Roof later that year.
“I was gone every single month last year,” Simeon says. “But I’m just trying to preach the concept of Hawai‘i cuisine, [for people] to hear it from the horse’s mouth.”
For the born-and-bred Hawai‘i chef, Hawai‘i cuisine is nuanced and often misunderstood.
“Everybody calls our cuisine ‘Hawaiian,’ but ‘Hawaiian’ is very specific,” Simeon says.
Rather, Hawai‘i cuisine is a celebration of different moments in history, including when immigrants came to call Hawai‘i home, he says, and how it all seamlessly blends together today.
“Next time you go to a house party, just sit back and count the amount of cultures on the table,” Simeon says. “I was just in Hilo this past weekend, and we had beef stew on the table, poke, ‘opihi, kimchi stew. There’s this whole randomness of it, and to us, just felt natural. … Even though I’m not Korean, I associate kalbi as part of my culture. Even though I not Chinese, chow fun is still part of my culture.”
I’m just trying to preach the concept of Hawai‘i cuisine, [for people] to hear it from the horse’s mouth.
Growing Up Around Food
Simeon, who is full Filipino, attributes his philosophy on Hawai‘i cuisine to the plantation towns of Pepeʻekeo on Hawai‘i Island, where his grandparents on his dad’s side worked. He recalls biking through the Chinese and Korean plantation camps, looking for “roof lemons” to slingshot down.
“The workers would take lemons, salt and sugar them—everybody had their own way—and put them in these gallon mayonnaise jars and ferment it on the top of their roof,” Simeon explains.
With a large family on both his mom and dad’s sides, large parties naturally followed. His dad, a welder, would fix old stoves and fashion pig roasters and other cooking implements, sizzling dishes like his famous pork guisantes (often called “pork and peas”) in cavernous outdoor woks.
“My mom, my dad, all my aunties, everybody always brought over food, and as young kids we were taught to always help out, clean the table, wash dishes. If uncle’s beer is halfway full, you grab him another one before he even asks,” Simeon recalls.
Though he initially wanted to be an architect, Simeon watched his older brother breeze through culinary school (those adolescent days honing their knife skills at family parties, butchering chickens for soups, even a neighborhood goat or pig for large celebrations, paid off).
While enrolled in Leeward Community College’s culinary program, Simeon got an internship at Walt Disney World in Orlando. There he met his wife, Janice, who was interning in the same program. But the work, as a busboy in a Mexican restaurant (“You should have seen my costume,” he says), proved uninspiring. He ended his internship early, completed two more semesters at LCC, then followed Janice home to Maui, where he would work his way up the ranks at Na Hoaloha ‘Ekolu restaurant group, first at Aloha Mixed Plate, then as the chef of Star Noodle.
Dealing with Stress
But after 10 years of grueling 17-hour work days with Na Hoaloha ‘Ekolu, Simeon was burnt out.
“I wasn’t always just cooking, it was stressing a lot of time,” Simeon says. “I was just tired.” With no other opportunities in sight, Simeon walked away and spent the entire summer hanging out with his kids. “It was like the first summer we actually went to the Big Island to cruise,” he says.
As it has since small-kid times, family has been what informs Simeon’s culinary narrative and has contributed to some of the proudest moments in his career. Despite his hectic schedule and the multitudes of people vying for his time, Simeon spent the weekend cooking for his best friend’s baby’s first birthday party in Hilo.
“To me, that’s the highest regards of cooking, the highest honor,” he says. “To cook for someone’s first birthday, I’d pick that over the James Beard House any day, to tell you the truth.”
Not that he hasn’t held that honor, either. In February 2017, after winning one of the challenges on Top Chef, Simeon found himself standing in the prestigious James Beard House serving his favorite plate lunch fare of mochiko chicken, rice, and ʻulu mac salad to New York’s culinary elite. It was a redemption of sorts for the chef, who failed to impress the judges in the finale of Top Chef season 10 after departing from his Filipino-inspired cuisine and cooking what he describes as “fancy food.” But for Simeon, the time-honored Hawaiʻi tradition of a baby’s first birthday is a rare chance to feed his entire family.
The same applies to Tin Roof, that unremarkable joint tucked between an island gift shop and a Money Mart.
“Tin Roof has been the most rewarding restaurant for me, of all the restaurants I’ve ever done, because it’s a chance to feed my community,” he says.
In all things, Simeon is proud to represent Hawai‘i and Filipino foods, what Anthony Bourdain declared as “the next big thing” in 2017—a declaration that sits uncomfortably with Simeon.
“I like that Filipino food gets a shine, but … food is tied in as personal to a nationality as it can be,” Simeon says. “Food and language and skin color is on the same level. Maybe a dish, that can be a trend, or a cronut, that’s a trend! I’m a Filipino, a culture is not a trend.”
To cook for someone’s first birthday, I’d pick that over the James Beard House any day, to tell you the truth.
Instead, food should simply be a celebration of cultures. Simeon hopes to expand on this with the opening of Lineage in August at The Shops at Wailea.
“Yeah, it will be a fancy restaurant,” Simeon says sheepishly. “I guess it’s chef-ego driven … but this is a moment that I can … express myself fully.”
Though the fare might be fancier, the menu remains inspired by Simeon’s mixed-plate upbringing. It will feature an appetizer called the “pūpū line,” a celebration of all the foods one might find as pūpū for a baby’s first birthday party, including pa‘i ‘ai, pohole fern, ‘opihi, and smoked meat. He’s also doing the classic Filipino noodle dish, pancit, but his version is finished with roof lemons.
“I think when the food is honest, that’s the sweet spot. It needs to be inspired by a moment, or connect to a story,” he says. “That storyline is an ingredient that nobody can replicate, no matter if they get the same ingredients, the same recipe.”
Tin Roof is located in Kahului at 360 Papa Pl. For more information, visit tinroofmaui.com