Meet the Inspiring Woman Behind the Dishes That Whisk You Away at Fête
Any way you slice it, chef Robynne Mai‘i is talented, creative and beautiful (we have the pictures to prove it). Here, she dishes about the amazing ladies who have influenced her life, her favorite food to make and eat, and her go-to Zippy’s order that she goes bananas for.
Photos: Harold Julian
Robynne Mai‘i’s smile is sweet as pie. But don’t be fooled. Behind that smile is a fierce culinary boss who hustles six days a week from the crack of dawn to last call in one of the city’s popular eateries. Fête, which Mai‘i owns with her hubby, Chuck Bussler, has become a Honolulu hotspot that attracts business professionals by day and everyone-and-their-grandma at night. Why? Mai‘i leads the way in creating revelatory menus that are rich in flavor, passion and thought.
Something else to sink your teeth into. The ‘Iolani alum is proud to lead an almost all-female staff and takes pride in mentoring her employees, from thirsty recruits to seasoned sous chefs. And, because we could only fit a sliver of Mai‘i’s interview in our March print feature about badass women, we thought it only fair to share with you all the ingredients that make up this gin-drinking trailblazer right here.
StyleList: How long have you been a chef?
Robynne Mai‘i: I’ve been cooking professionally since 1996—more than 20 years in different capacities.
SL: What inspired you to be a chef?
RM: Several things. I grew up with parents who loved to cook and entertain. We were always in the kitchen for simple and elaborate meals. We hardly ever dined out. Anything food-related fascinated me, but it wasn’t until my senior year in college that I really started thinking about attending culinary school. By that time, my all-time inspiration was Julia Child.
SL: Who are a few of your role models?
RM: Julia Child, Edna Lewis, Judy Rodgers, Alice Waters, Gabrielle Hamilton, Barbara Lynch, Deborah Madison and Paula Wolfert. All of these incredibly strong, intelligent and forward-thinking women helped shape how I think about food.
SL: What’s your education background?
RM: I had the great fortune of attending incredible schools and I thank my hard-working parents who sacrificed everything to secure excellent education for all of us (my two siblings and me). I attended Punahou from kindergarten through sixth grade, then transferred to ‘Iolani where I graduated from high school. I completed my joint degree in English and Modern Dance at Middlebury College in Vermont, then returned home and completed the culinary and pastry AAS at Kapi‘olani Community College. Lastly, I moved to New York City in 1999 and obtained a Master of Arts in Food Studies from NYU.
SL: What do you love about cooking?
RM: I love the visceral and physical nature of cooking. I love that it is largely communal—in the preparing and the eating. But, I even enjoy preparing a simple meal for myself and making sure I sit down at a set table to properly eat!
SL: What was the first dish you made?
RM: Hah! Don’t laugh. It was scrambled eggs in melted whole butter when I was 4 years old with my Grandma Kim. We pulled a chair over to the stove and I got to crack my own eggs and whisk them with a fork. It was so simple and delicious. And it left a very profound impression on me.
SL: What’s your favorite dish to make now?
RM: Tough question. It varies from day to day—how I am feeling, what the weather is like, how tired I am, what’s in season. But I can safely say I do eat a lot of eggs! I probably eat sunny-side eggs over white rice with shoyu a few times a week.
SL: And to eat?
RM: My favorite go-to is pho. It’s always a treat because it’s not something I ever make.
SL: You’ve hired an almost all-female staff, some with little experience. Why?
RM: We think of ourselves as a learning restaurant. Our current Chef de Cuisine, Emily Iguchi, is also female and she and I are very similar in that we love teaching people how to cook. We constantly talk about cooking being dynamic and different every day. You can’t sleep walk through cooking even if you’ve done it 1000 times before. And also, we try and teach people to be nimble and adaptable. If they can learn this alongside all the zillion other things, they will do well.
SL: How many dishes does Fête turn out on the daily?
RM: Oh! This is a tough one. We run a full lunch, snack, dinner and dessert menu six days a week. For a little restaurant, we churn out a lot of food. One of the funniest things the cooks say is, “But we just made it yesterday or the day before yesterday.” Emily and I laugh. Yeah. And all these people came in and ate what you prepared. We crack up every time.
SL: What is the one ingredient you can’t live without?
RM: Aside from kosher salt? That’s tough. Right now, I’d have to say eggs and avocado.
SL: What’s your go-to Zippy’s order?
RM: Chili burrito plate with extra banana peppers.
SL: How do you unwind after a long work week?
RM: On Sundays we eat breakfast at Sweet E’s, with our dog Cheddar and cook dinner at home.
SL: Beer or hards?
SL: What’s on your kitchen playlist?
RM: Odesza and ’80s hip-hop.
SL: Who would you like to have over for dinner?
RM: Barack and Michelle Obama.
SL: What would you want as your last meal?
RM: Brisket and rare beef pho with extra greens.