Hawaiian heritage on the mainland
After seeing him compete on “Top Chef,” Pokéworks connected with Chef Sheldon Simeon and he’s now a chef-collaborator for the franchise.
By Laura Michaels
Sheldon Simeon’s parents made their poké with oyster sauce. “It’s not traditionally Hawaiian but its traditional for my family,” says Simeon, an example that underscores the nuances of Hawaiian cuisine and illustrates the blurring of lines between the many cultures that influence the food of the islands.
“Hawaiian cuisine is a snapshot of history,” continues Simeon. “There’s so many roots with native Polynesians, to the influences of all the people who’ve settled here, from China, from Japan, from the Philippines, all giving their small influence to our cuisine.”
Simeon, a Filipino chef born and raised in Hilo, a town on what’s commonly called the Big Island, keeps these connections in mind when developing menus for his two Maui restaurants, Tin Roof and Lineage. And in his role as a chef-collaborator with Pokéworks, Hawaii’s rich history reminds him there’s no one right way to share the islands’ culture through food.
“In this world now, what is authenticity … that definition is getting harder. We try not to take ourselves too seriously. In the end it’s delicious food and delicious is delicious,” says Simeon, who’s created poké bowls for Pokéworks such as the Coco Bora, using bora, a mild white fish, instead of the traditional ahi tuna, with a Filipino Kinilaw sauce.
“Hawaii is about a sense of place, so these bowls are about being creative in a way that everyone can enjoy,” he says.
There’s also the Lava Bowl with ghost peppers and Thai chili, which Simeon notes is a nod both to the spicy tuna that’s “hugely popular at all the poké shops in Hawaii right now,” and the eruption of the Kilauea volcano last summer.
Sheldon Simeon creates bowls for Pokéworks using approachable flavors “everyone can enjoy.”
It was a chance message on Facebook that served as the catalyst for Simeon’s partnership with Pokéworks. One of the franchise’s co-founders, Billy Chen, contacted Simeon not long after he’d won his second “Fan Favorite” title after competing in season 14 of “Top Chef.” Simeon was intrigued by Pokéworks’ fast expansion—the brand now has 40-plus restaurants in 22 states—and its “fun and hardworking” founders.
“I love how Pokéworks gives me a platform for showcasing poké and Hawaiian food,” says Simeon. “For me as a chef from Hawaii, it’s about spreading our culture and the history of Hawaii.”
Simeon grew up in a family that celebrated with food. If he did well in school, his father would take him out to the restaurant of his choice. And when it came to birthday celebrations, graduations and weddings, “our family always did a lot of the cooking.”
Though he was interested in architecture, Simeon decided a four-year college wasn’t the right fit and, after seeing his older brother succeed in culinary school, he enrolled in Leeward Community College’s program. An internship at Walt Disney World in Orlando followed before he returned with wife Janice to Maui and began working his way up to an executive chef position at Na Hoaloha ‘Ekolu restaurant group.
“I just love it,” he says of being a chef. “There’s so many layers to it that I love, the teamwork, the grittiness, the hard work and the fact that I get to touch people’s lives through the simple act of cooking for them.”
He especially enjoys the constant evolution of creating bowls for Pokéworks. “It allows me to stretch my legs and get creative,” he says, and there’s the challenge component of developing a recipe others can execute at restaurants across the country.
“A lot of chefs, we have so many great ideas, but execution and sourcing are big parts of it,” continues Simeon. Tuna and salmon, the most popular poké proteins on the mainland, come with their own sustainable sourcing challenges, which is one of the reasons Pokéworks uses that wild bora. When Simeon is working on a new dish, “we reach as far as we can,” and then work backwards on the supply chain and execution sides.
The next bowl in Simeon’s chef series will debut on Pokéworks menus this fall, and while he wouldn’t give away the recipe, “I think we’ll continue with something fiery,” he says.
Culinary Q&A with Sheldon Simeon
What’s your first food memory?
My grandfather letting me taste his soup, sinigang, a fish soup. I remember him taking the spoon from the pot and me at his side and him blowing on it before handing it to me. I was no more than 5.
What’s the last thing you cooked at home?
A smoked pork last night. Wild caught boar from Maui, marinated in a sweet soy and smoked for a few hours, then finished in a pan.
What’s your guilty pleasure food?
Wavy Lays potato chips. Original flavor. When I go to the supermarket, if there’s a 2 for $4 special, I’m grabbing two bags. And it’s always on sale (laughs).
If you could only eat or drink three things the rest of your life, what would they be?
Poké would be one, then white rice, just plain ole’ steamed white rice and … beer. That last one really gives me so many options (more laughs).
Who’s a chef you’d like to have cook you a meal?
Chef David Kinch, he owns Manresa in California. He’s one of the chefs I’ve always respected. He has this aura around him and his technique is flawless. He’s definitely a god amongst chefs in my mind. His ‘Mind of a Chef’ episode is amazing, I’ve watched it so many times.
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