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Sheldon Simeon and Local Dishes with a Twist
June 20, 2014 - Ray Tsuchiyama
Migrant Maui Restaurant at the Wailea Marriott Hotel & Spa
Elected “Fan Favorite” by national viewers of Season 10 of Bravo's "Top Chef" television show, Sheldon Simeon* is still quite a humble, down-to-earth chef – in fact, he defines how to be a culinary perfectionist and local Maui guy all in one.
Aligned to the contemporary post-1990s Hawai'i foodie trend of returning to one’s Hawaiian family cooking and the “plantation past”, Sheldon remembers his childhood, the “good times’ among his family and friends, and especially his grandparents' native Philippines – and applied these memories to his new food dishes.
Of course, there are all the other cultural foodie influences in Hawai'i: Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Portuguese. (Why there isn’t a Portuguese cuisine restaurant on Maui with dishes from the Azores and even Portuguese wine, port, and sherry? I even went to a Portuguese restaurant in Brazil – you would think with so many Portuguese on Maui there would be a cultural center/restaurant.)
Interestingly, Chef Simeon is not from Maui, although it seems that way; instead, he was born and raised in Hilo, and later attended a culinary program in Honolulu. For some Mainland experience, he toiled in a family-style restaurant in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
In 2002 – barely a dozen years ago – the future chef Simeon was a dishwasher at Aloha Mixed Plate restaurant in Lahaina, and after attending classes whenever he could, he graduated in 2003 from a culinary arts program. He then began to do exciting creations revolving around noodles (especially Asian) at the now-iconic Star Noodle restaurant (where branding and noodles and a “cool” atmosphere all combine in an unusual setting in an industrial zone overlooking Lahaina). This role was a his “break” to synthesize his learnings in perhaps the most experimental Maui restaurant of the last decade.
His bubbling ideas about cooking and presentations began to expand after trips to New York and San Francisco. He was simultaneously honing his technical skills as a two-time James Beard semifinalist, so he was no longer “just” a local Maui chef, but one who could compete one-to-one with chefs from Boston or Los Angeles in a wide range of culinary styles, not just “Asian” – he matured in technical skills and mastered delicate nuances of traditional French and American cooking, as well.
After appearing on the "Top Chef" television program last year, Simeon decided not to depart for the Mainland (he would have been a hit in Seattle or Vegas), but to remain on Maui – for family reasons, as he wanted his children to grow up on Maui.
With investors’ backing, Simeon opened “Migrant Maui Restaurant” at the Wailea Marriott resort and unleashed a combination of his childhood/family dishes and modern Bay Area techniques, like Filipino-inspired tocino, strips of sweetened pork shoulder topped with guava jelly and pickled Kula onions – my family and I enjoyed this very much – the sweet guava flavor deep in the pork and a “back” taste of slight vinegary onions – I could eat just this with rice and mixed vegetables and call it a meal.
Although our waiter Victor, a nice energetic young man, recommended the Hibachi Hangar Steak, served with a Vietnamese nuoc cham (dipping sauce) of fish sauce, white vinegar, garlic, mint, lemongrass, pickled shallots (and more) – we did not order it, but we do look forward to it next time.
We liked a dish with Filipino-Chinese roots, the pancit noodles (again reminding me of my Kalihi-Palama neighborhood), with pork belly, shrimps, garlic, and chopped vegetables. The chow fun was not the salt-and-peppery chow fun at the Maui County Carnival booths (or standing in the long line at the Wailuku Hongwanji Bon Odori festival ) – the noodles were huge, plump, with chopped pork and a grated Parmigiano Reggiano topping that at first we thought was a radical departure from the dish, but it did work, in a “fusion” way, a bit beyond Star Noodle’s more traditional noodle creations.
Next time we will order the Korean fried chicken wings, with a peanut sauce and the Kale salad with the Shiro Miso Dressing. We had the Shaved Kula Head Cabbage with warm Kalbi Dressing, and this was the only dish that we thought was too simple and rather un-inspired compared to his other inventive dishes.
Finally, we liked the pineapple cake with vanilla ice cream for dessert – nicely done with a sugary spun “dish” for the whipped cream (which I like).
The sunset view from the Migrant Maui balcony is fantastic, and we saw many other groups trying new dishes. Perhaps this is the key to the value of restaurants like Migrant Maui: keeping Hawai'i’s unique food and cultural history alive for visitors, local people, and especially for future generations.
*Our waiter Victor took us to meet Chef Sheldon (with whom we have many mutual friends) in the back kitchen and he was very cordial and friendly with us.
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