Part local boy, part culinary rock star, Chef Sheldon Simeon’s rise as one of the best chefs working in Hawaii has been meteoric. Inventive menu creator for popular restaurant Star Noodle; top three finisher on America’s Top Chef; Rising Star Award from StarChefs.com for Concept Chef in 2012; winner of Food and Wines Northwest Pacific Division People’s Best New Chef Award; and owner/head chef of Tin Roof. Not bad for someone barely out of his twenties.
Migrant’s menu is based on the local-style food that Simeon grew up with on the Big Island, infused with his unique brand of flavor combinations. Although known for injecting unexpected elements into familiar dishes, according to Chef Simeon, you have to be careful when doing this. “It has to have a meaning and why it was put on the dish. Otherwise, the dish becomes almost fake, it loses its soul”. He continues, “Simple foods are the hardest to make. You cannot hide the flaws, each ingredient has to be perfect.”
Chef Simeon’s belief in sustainability led him to hire Haleakala Solar to install hot water and photovoltaic solar systems in his home. His electric bill before the solar installations ranged from $500-600 a month. In summer days when the Simeon’s were running several fans to fight off the hot Lahaina days, a bill could be over $700. Today it is less than $20 per month.
We wanted to find out more about this culinary wunderkind and decided to have a sit-down interview session. During our meeting, we learned a few interesting things including how sustainability adds meaning to a dish, other food arenas he wants to explore and who is the greatest cook he has ever known.
Haleakala Solar: Who cooks at home?
Chef Simeon: My wife. I’m never home. The only time I cook is when we have get togethers. When we do, we get down. The table is ridiculous. This weekend was my brother’s baby party. That’s all we did was eat and sleep and drink (laughter). Was so good, so good man.
HS: What’s the weirdest ingredient you ever cooked with?
CS: The Geo duck (pronounced goo-ee duck)
CS: Geoduck is this surf clam, Hokkigai surf clam. It’s a huge surf clam and you’ll see a big trunk that comes out of it.
HS: Is that the part that attaches itself to the rock?
CS: Actually into the sand. The shell is like this and the trunk goes up.
HS: Was that on the show?
CS: That was our very first challenge. And we won.
HS: How did you know how to cook that?
CS: I’ve had it. And it was so pristine… anything pristine from the sea, I try. You can eat it raw. So we just made sashimi.
HS: Sustainability. What does that mean to you?
CS: Sustainability is taking care of your neighbors. Taking care of who’s surrounding you. Relationships, that’s what I care about more. To me, if you’re not buying local… that’s supposed to be almost second hand to me.
HS: So that relationship, knowing the farmers, fishermen, knowing what they put into it adds to the…
CS: Exactly. Adds meaning to the dish. When we see a dish, we only see the face value. Totally organic. What does that mean? When there’s a bug infestation, he’s out there covering it with plastic bags, every single piece of fruit…
HS: Do you have a favorite type of dish?
CS: I love anything raw. Like poke‘. I can eat poke’ and sashimi every day. I love oysters. And I can drink about a hundred beers with it (laughter).
HS: Do you have a favorite beer?
CS: Aw, man. Not really. I always tell ‘em I drink Samoan beer.
HS: Samoan beer?
CS: You ever have Samoan beer?
CS: Whatever’s on Suh-lay.
CS: Whatever’s on “sale” (big laughter).
HS: Okay, I had Samoan beer. Especially growing up.
HS: Are there dishes, things you’ve never tried before that you want to try?
CS: Something that’s intriguing me is charcuterie. The art of making preserved meats. Making it from scratch. It’s all the things Hawaii doesn’t have. Charcuterie. Cheese. There’s no cheese culture in Hawaii. And then baking and pastries.
HS: Have you baked before?
CS: I can bake to get by.
HS: Baking is almost like a science, yeah?
CS: Yeah, very precise, but I think the guys who do it best, they’re very educated in the science part, but they don’t make it look and feel and taste that way… so it still got soul to it.
HS: You keep pushing out the boundaries…
CS: The way I look at it, it’s really about relationships. That’s why family is so important to me, friends are so important. That’s beyond anything else. If the food makes you happy and I build a relationship I’ve done my job. I don’t need to get paid, that makes me very satisfied. (talking about his dad who was the cook at their gatherings) I always wondered why my dad didn’t eat. Growing up when we had parties… he’d be the last to eat… barely munch on anything. Why isn’t he eating anything… but he’s fulfilled, what makes him full is watching everyone eat and seeing how happy they are. That’s more than enough nourishment and nutrition for himself.
HS: So, dinnertime, your dad was the cook in the house?
CS: WE were the cooks, me and my brother. When my mom got sick very young, my dad had to work doubles. So we learned how to cook. I remember cooking from the first grade. But birthday parties, no matter what, it was my dad that did all the cooking. Family gatherings, Thanksgiving, New Years, Christmas… our house.
HS: You have heroes? People you look up to?
CS: My dad. My dad was the best cook I’ve ever known. My grandparents, my mom. All these chefs too, Roy (Yamaguchi), Alan Wong. They paved the way for us.
HS: You think Roy and Alan were the main ones?
CS: Yeah. Harry’s Kitchen (laughter). I watched that EVERY weekend. ‘Fishing Tales’ on Saturdays, ‘Let’s Go Fishing’ and ‘Harry’s Kitchen’ on Sundays. I would never miss it. I would be so mad if I missed it (laughter).
HS: How did you come up with the name Migrant?
CS: Being in probably the most isolated place in the world, everyone had to somehow migrate here. It was also my way of saying I was branching out, migrating from Star Noodle (Chef Sheldon’s former employer). We started to create the food and the menu and then we felt we were celebrating our grandparents and celebrating the food of the immigrants that came here.
HS: How would you describe Migrant?
CS: Our motto is “Come My House. Eat.” and that’s what I want you guys to feel as if you’re coming into my house and I’m feeding you. The food is influenced by my upbringing in Hawaii… I’m Filipino so there’s a lot of Filipino influence in it. We’ve modernized it, but not to the point where it’s stylized.
HS: When I saw that on your website, “Come My House. Eat”. It was so cool, so local.
CS: My aunty, before they say hello, you walk indoors, it’s like, “Go eat! You hungry?” (laughter) That’s Hawaii… our culture. That’s what we want when you come into this place, where you don’t have to worry about anything.
We loved our visit with Chef Simeon. Talented and successful yet down to earth and humble, it’s not a surprise to us why he keeps winning awards, both for his food and personality.