Celebrity Chef Sheldon Simeon on Weeknight Dinner Strategies, the Importance of Pre-Dinner Snacks, and His Favorite Hawaiian Dishes
You’ve likely heard of Sheldon Simeon from his two stints on Top Chef, the long-running chef competition show. The Hawaiian chef came pretty close to winning (he landed in the top three both times), but more importantly, he won the hearts of viewers and took home the Fan Favorite Award. The awards have rolled in outside of reality TV, too. Simeon, who is the chef and owner of Tin Roof in Maui, was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs, and was also nominated for two James Beard Awards.
Despite his accolades and recognition, he’s extremely humble and gentle. In fact, he’s a lot like you and me: trying to juggle a family of four while working full-time during a pandemic. And yet, in the midst of it all, he also wrote a cookbook — Cook Real Hawai’i — which puts the spotlight on real Hawaiian cuisine, which includes Filipino, Japanese, Portuguese, and indigenous influences.
Sheldon was gracious enough to chat with me for a bit about his passion for Hawaiian food, his weeknight cooking routine, and how his family has influenced his cooking. He also shared some recipes from his new book, so all of us can bring a taste of real Hawai’i home.
So, chef: How does your typical day start? I know you’re so busy with the restaurant. What is your day like?
Oh, man. Well, I try to get up as early as possible, and that’s usually around 4:30, 5 a.m. My life’s been all over the place just because of the pandemic, but I’ll give you a couple of different scenarios. When I’m being dad, I wake up early and try to clean up the house before all the kids wake up (that’s a chore in itself, in trying to keep the place tidy). They’re 14, 11, 9, and 7; that’s four kids getting up for school and eating breakfast. It’s usually something super quick, whether it’s a piece of toast with avocado on it or pre-made açaí bowls or yogurt with fruits. I drop the kids off to school and then head to the restaurant and start prepping. I’m at the restaurant most of the time.
And then for a long time I would trade off with my wife, Janice, and she’d relieve me at the restaurant. Then I’d go pick up the kids, which was my way of leaving the restaurant. I’d drop the kids off, hang out, have a snack. And then I’d go back to the restaurant and get ready for nighttime service (which is done at 10:30, 11), and then home, wind down around 12:30 or 1, and then wake up at 4:30 again.
I’m exhausted just thinking about that. I did a brief stint in restaurants in New York City, so I know how hard it is to juggle that life with having a family. Speaking of family, how does your family weeknight cooking happen?
Janice does most of the cooking because I’m away at the restaurant, and I’m lucky if I can get one or two nights a week to have dinner at home. Prior to the pandemic, we’d always have sit-down dinners at home. Lately, we’ve been getting food from our friends’ restaurants to support them. But she cooks. It’s very Filipino-based, so a lot of vegetable stews, like pinakbet. And then we have the monggo beans [mung beans].
Oh, I love monggo.
Monggo and then a lot of soups — that’s something that you can pretty much put on the stove and be done. So sinigang and fish soup is there a lot, and Lauya. Lauya is Ilocano, like bulalo, kind of just whatever soup bones, whether it be pork necks or beef shank or whatever, thrown in with some cabbage and some potatoes and flavored with sea salt and black pepper and bay leaf and just let it get soft, and it’s food on the table — that’s it.
I cook the same way at home. I don’t want to cook a meal every night, but I’m happy to cook a meal every few nights and let everybody eat some leftovers.
Yes. Leftovers are key. You know what’s been a great hack? We’ve been able to have a few hibachi and barbecue sessions on Sundays. So I buy as much meat as possible, and since I’m starting up the grill, I’m grilling so much meat, but that feeds me for the rest of the week because I could turn it into something, whether it’s steak sandwiches or chicken and rice or something like that; it just sets me up.
What misunderstanding do people have about Hawaiian cuisine?
I think a lot of people think that it’s very tropical, and everything is laced with tropical ingredients — papayas and mangoes and sweet sauces and all of that — but it’s a lot more layered and a lot richer because of all the different influences from the different cultures that made Hawai’i their home.
So what does Hawaiian cooking mean to you?
Hawaiian cooking to me is based and rooted in utilizing what is available. That goes all the way back to the Hawaiians, right? Their dishes are very simple. They used what was around them. And then there are the Hawaiian recipes from all the different ethnic groups that came to Hawai’i. They had to make do with what they had, so that’s why a lot of the traditional recipes that you’ll find in Hawai’i are tweaked from what you’ll find in the motherland. I think of Hawaiian cuisine as having these layers and moments of influence from each other’s culture and making it one whole thing called Hawaiian cuisine.
I know you come from a family that likes to cook and they were a big inspiration for you. There are videos of your dad foraging. What was it like growing up in your family? Did you grow up cooking on the weeknights with them? Did you help out?
Yeah, and when we were really little (I’m saying elementary school still) it was always cooking and having dinner together. We’d always sit down as a family, and me and my brother would learn how to set the table with cups and napkins and forks on the left, and then waters forward, and all of that. So we learned from a young age to do that.
Unfortunately, my mom got sick. She had a few strokes, and with that, my dad had to work. He worked three jobs at one point. And for a long time, it was just me and my brother and mom. Our dad would come home super late, so me and my brother would be in charge of cooking meals. And we cooked full-on meals and learned how to cook for the family.
Would you say that those years where you and your brother were responsible for the home cooking was maybe the start of your love for cooking?
I think … I’ve been asked this question before, and food has just always been a part of our lives. Even before that, when we were kids, we were constantly around food. It was a reward and discipline, right? It’s like, “Oh, you better do your chores, or you’re not going to be able to eat dinner.” Or, “Maybe you can have a snack.” There are so many moments in my life that I look back on that influenced me as a chef and influenced my love for food. And yeah, those dinners were definitely a huge part of it — of me and my brother arguing over what we’re going to cook for the week or how to make something. We both learned from our father or our mom, but we have our own little ways of doing it.
How do your kids help out? Do they help your wife cook those weeknight dinners?
They’re all very involved. The thing is that, at the beginning they’re very involved, but as the cooking continues they start to drop off — except for my oldest daughter, Chloe. I’ve always said that, knowing how much I sacrificed and the amount of time that I’ve put into becoming a chef and the grueling time of being away, “I never want my kids to become a chef.” But then I look at them and I see their natural ability — especially my oldest daughter and how much she loves cooking. When her friends are coming over, she’ll say “Oh, I’m going to bake a cake.” Who does that?
So she has a natural ability. She’s my wife’s sous chef. Most of the time, she’s the one that’s actually finishing the whole dish. So she’s in the kitchen. My youngest daughter, Quinn, she’ll cook anything and everything. She’ll make the kitchen crazy messy. She doesn’t care, but she’ll be up in the morning cooking her own breakfast — mixing pancakes, making sunny-side-up eggs and avocado toast, all of that.
What is their favorite dish that you make for them? What are they like, “Dad, you have to make this. This is my favorite thing.”
Yeah, it’s taco night for us. We go pretty hard when it’s taco night at the Simeon residence.
Do you lay out a smorgasbord, and everybody can build their own? Or they get their tacos plated?
No, they all have their own way of making it. And the way that I come up with proteins has a Mexican influence in mind, but I’m going to make lechon kawali for the pork in the dish. In a way, I stir-fry it instead of roasting it. So it’s crazy because it’s this weird kind of blend of Mexican flavors, but through a Filipino lens.
Speaking of lechon, you’re sharing that recipe with us, along with kamaboko dip, poke, chicken hekka, and andagi. Why did you want to share those specific recipes?
I’m always thinking of a meal, of being busy or how it’s going to be. First, I got to make something that’s quick that I can eat while I’m still cooking. I’ll make the kamaboko dip first so that people, my family, we’re eating before we’re actually sitting down for dinner. There’s always snacks out before dinner. “You’re going to ruin your appetite.” I never understood that; no, we’re eating all the way up to the dinner. That’s the big finale. That’s how it is. But kamaboko dip is something super fun and easy; my kids love it. And it’s something that you find, again, only in Hawai’i. I don’t know, maybe they have it in other places, but it’s very significant to Hawai’i. Everybody loves kamaboko dip.
Do you have a personal connection to all of the recipes that you chose to share with us?
I think they’re a very a great snapshot of Hawai’i, pulling from all these different cultures, all coming together. Kamaboko dip is kind of American cream cheesy, but it has Japanese layers to it; it has a sushi-esque kind of mindset behind it.
And then having an indigenous host culture that was amazing: the Hawaiians. If everybody could have that mindset, our world would be perfect because these Hawaiians thought of everything, and they had a perfect society before we all showed up to Hawai’i. And I’ll showcase that in the poke. Hekka, again, it’s something that you only find in Hawai’i, although it has Japanese roots. Hekka is distinguishably Hawai’i.
Lechon kawali, again pulling from my Filipino roots, which are so dear to me. And I can be Filipino, but I am equally Hawaiian, living in this place. But that’s one thing about the residents here. I struggled a little bit in the past about thinking I’m not Hawaiian, but in recent years, I’m like, I am Hawaiian. I will never be Kanaka, which is rooted in Hawai’i, indigenous, those guys. But this guy, the Prince, he’s an activist here in Hawai’i. Put it this way: “Nobody here will be Kanaka if you have to have the blood, right? But me and you can be Hawai’ian. If you love these islands, and you respect these islands, and you love this land as much as I do, we both can relate as Hawaiians.” And that’s the way I think of it. We can celebrate our own culture that everyone wants to celebrate with you, too. So that’s why I chose to put a Filipino dish in there.
And then the andagi. Okinawans have a special place in Hawaiian history, but they always get overshadowed by and included as part of the Japanese. But yeah, they have a distinguished influence.
And andagi, man. I think of all the fried donuts, and andagi is right up there. If it’s done right it has the crispy exterior and then gooey, but cake-y interior. It has all these different textures, which makes it super, super rad for me.
Is there one recipe in the book that’s closest to your heart?
Oh, man. I guess miki noodles is one close to my heart because it reminds me of my mom, and whenever I have significant moments in my life, whether it’s coming off of Top Chef or James Beard awards or this cookbook, I’m always missing my mom so much because she was such a big influence in my life. And I wish she was here to see it off. I’m just trying to make my mom proud. She was always my biggest cheerleader, and the miki noodle dish is the dish that reminds me of her the most. I took some creative liberties with the miki noodle dish in the book, but the soul of the dish is directly from my mom. And if I could have a day of her cooking that again, that’d be amazing.
And what is one recipe in the book that you want everyone to make?
You know what? It’s sardine pupu, actually. And a lot of people have been actually reposting and doing that. It’s so fun. As I mentioned before, people show up to our house any time of the day. We were always surrounded by food, so we had to come up with these dishes that, sit down, let’s eat, put something there. I always have sardines or something in the cupboard. That’s how my my parents always looked at it. And this was something that was super fun to always eat and just have something delicious. So yeah, sardine pupu: canned goods and an onion and some chili pepper, water, and you’re set.
In the book, I shared a technique of slicing the onion super, super thin, and then washing it in ice water. Having that pungent, strong sardine flavor with crunchy sweet onions on top of it is yummy to me, for sure.
Sheldon Simeon’s Weeknight Hawaiian Recipes
From a beginners’ guide to poke to tips for stocking a Hawaiian pantry, Sheldon’s collection of recipes and inspiration will help you make Hawaiian food part of your weeknight cooking.