2019 Hale ‘Aina Award Winners: Sheldon Simeon’s Lineage on Maui Wins Gold for Hawai‘i’s Best New Restaurant
Sheldon Simeon has had some very public ups and downs. The lessons he’s learned from them culminate in his latest restaurant on Maui.
The morning after winning his first Hale ‘Aina awards, Sheldon Simeon is juggling an interview and his four kids. “It was pretty special when we got the news last night,” he says before pausing to help his wife placate the youngsters, whom they’ve promised to take to the pool. “We’re on the cover of Food & Wine Magazine, the first Hawai‘i chefs to be on the cover. We’re on the cover of Southwest Airlines’ magazine, we’re in Bon Appétit. What else? It’s crazy.”
Seven years after rocketing to national fame on Top Chef, in a year crowded with all of the above plus his third James Beard Award nomination, Simeon is the most heralded chef in Hawai‘i. He credits his New York public relations firm, whose clients include fellow Filipino-American Top Chef alum Dale Talde and the nationwide H Mart Korean grocery chain. But Lineage is more than a celebrity chef’s latest restaurant. It’s the sum of Simeon’s life—all the ambitions, successes and the painful derailments that sometimes followed—brought together in the most personal, soulful restaurant in Hawai‘i. And for all that, it’s still a work in progress. “It’s nice to have all this shine,” Simeon says, “but now the real work starts. We have to uphold that shine. We have to be consistent. Just keep doing it and pushing it.”
Its location at Maui’s posh Shops at Wailea notwithstanding, Lineage is an homage to local—Simeon’s simultaneously micro-focused and pan-Hawai‘i version of local. There’s Hilo, first, his hometown splashed on the walls as a map by Sig Zane. Family roots, next, in the dim sum-style pūpū carts made by Simeon’s dad, a retired welder from one of the Islands’ last sugar plantations, and the palaka printed napkins and servers’ bow ties. The pūpū carts themselves are inspired by visits to auntie’s house where snacks appeared immediately: They roll up before you peruse the menu, loaded with pipi kaula, boiled peanuts and kim chee dip to be scooped up with Maebo One-Ton Chips.
— Matt Godfrey, General Manager
And finally, the food. It’s the stuff of Simeon’s childhood in the working-class neighborhoods of Hilo—hekka, smoked meat with lychee jelly, adobo fried turkey tails—but not really. The ginger-green onion topping on Lineage’s cold ginger chicken is tinged with dried orange peel and black peppercorns. The poi mochi he served at the previous weekend’s Kapalua Wine & Food Festival was stuffed with fig mui and topped with shio koji-cured chicken liver pâté and dried aku furikake; it’s on the menu. The saimin, not on the menu, came with Kaua‘i prawns and a dashi béchamel. “I love the idea of using what get and pulling our creativity from it,” he says. “A lot of dishes in Hawai‘i came about because people wanted to eat something but they had to use what had. When I cook pasta I put hondashi and oyster sauce. I put them in a lot of the dishes because that’s how I know for flavor things. How would you flavor that? What is in your pantry that would make this dish delicious? I think that was in our past, too. Just make ’em taste good.”
In culinary territory as diffuse as Wailea, you pretty much have to be Sheldon Simeon to pull off a concept like Lineage. Maui has no cluster of chef-driven restaurants and eclectic eateries, as there are in Honolulu’s Chinatown, Kaimukī and Waikīkī. Nor is there a critical mass of cosmopolitan foodies willing to follow a chef’s explorations of ingredients like marungay and fermented black garlic. But to pull off Lineage, even Sheldon Simeon had to first become Sheldon Simeon.
The early trajectory was straight-forward and stellar. Busboy to prep cook at Walt Disney World. Dishwasher to executive chef at Lahaina’s Aloha Mixed Plate, then opening chef at Leoda’s Pie Shop and Star Noodle, all owned by the same company. It was at Star Noodle that Simeon got his first James Beard nominations—for Rising Star Chef of the Year and Best New Restaurant in the country—and where he was filling in for an absent dishwasher when Top Chef called.
The reality competition series was Bravo TV’s top hit, with more than 1.5 million weekly viewers in 2012. It delivered one of the highs of Simeon’s career: After tasting his elegant renditions of adobo and balut (yes, balut!), head chef Tom Colicchio surmised that the reason Filipino food hadn’t entered mainstream American cuisine was because the country had been waiting for Simeon to come along and cook it. Then in the finale, as millions watched, Top Chef delivered his low point: Confused by Simeon’s roasted quail and pine nut purée with a dessert of white chocolate mousse, the judges wondered aloud. “This isn’t Sheldon,” Hugh Acheson said. “I don’t know what happened,” Emeril Lagasse agreed. Colicchio told him he’d left a part of himself behind—and sent him packing.
Cook from the heart. Be yourself. It was the costliest lesson of Simeon’s life, but at least he learned it. At home on Maui, he went back to overseeing three kitchens—only this time he knew he wasn’t cooking his own food. He never saw his wife, Janice, or their kids. And Janice was pregnant with their fourth child. Simeon quit his job. “Ultimately if you take the food away it’s about the family,” he says. “That’s when I had to take the break. I was moving away from that.”
Lineage is the third restaurant he opened after that epiphany. Migrant, opened at the Wailea Beach Resort – Marriott in 2013 with Maui chef Mark Ellman and investor Shep Gordon, was Simeon’s first culinary statement of who he was. Tocino pork, chow fun with lechon and pipinola shoots, a dish called Bottom of the Plate Lunch with shredded cabbage doused in a warm kalbi sauce reduction. Locals rejoiced, tourists were puzzled, hotel guests looked for burgers and chicken tenders; the restaurant closed when the resort underwent renovations. In 2016 Simeon and his wife opened Tin Roof, a plate lunch spot in Kahului. He had also partnered with Matt Godfrey, the general manager at Migrant, and they were looking for their next step when ABC Stores called.
If that seems strange, consider that the chain of 70-plus convenience stores was already opening its first restaurant, Basalt, in Waikīkī. ABC Stores, owned by the third generation of a family from Pālolo, could offer full benefits plus profit-sharing and had not laid off an employee in its 70-year history—and had a long, narrow space suitable for another eatery next to its Island Gourmet Markets in Wailea. Simeon glimpsed the future when CEO Paul Kosasa, a self-professed gourmand who had never heard of Simeon until Basalt opening chef Kelly Degala suggested him, didn’t even ask to taste his food. “Paul has been so supportive and lets us be ourselves. The reason for their success (at ABC Stores) is they’re so meticulous with their process, but Paul has let me and Matt run the restaurant our way, even though it’s not necessarily the way they do things,” Simeon says. “It’s been amazing to have that freedom.”
Lineage’s food shows how deeply Simeon internalized the lesson of his fall from Top Chef. At his first restaurant, Migrant, nuoc cham steak sauces and Korean fried chicken and waffles showcased pan-ethnic Hawai‘i. “Is this OK?” Simeon seemed to be asking from the restaurant’s open-air perch above the Marriott’s manicured lawns. “Will you eat it?” From Kahului’s Tin Roof, with a menu almost entirely of rice bowls, noodles and a daily house-made furikake, was a confident claim: “I know you’ll like this.”
Lineage opened after his second turn on Top Chef, where a more relaxed Simeon delivered a clear, bold-flavored culinary voice that again got him to the finals. He knew the audience was there. The restaurant debuted with feast-size platters of crispy fried pata pig trotters and bowls of lauya beef shank soup. The menu is still pan-Hawai‘i, with notes of lū‘au, miso, salted black bean and Korean pickles, but it’s within his own heritage that Simeon goes deepest. “We just started a mung bean soup, very Filipino. It’s fully flavored with bagoong, like really funky, funky fermented fish,” he says. “If we were to serve the balatong (the mung bean soup) by itself it would be overwhelming, but paired with adobo it becomes interesting. We use it as a base and since it’s a stew it also becomes a sauce, like the whole bottom-of-the-plate-lunch thing. When you’re all done, the sourness of the [adobo’s pipinola shoot] salad and the sauce from adobo goes into it and the stew is so flavorful.”
It’s all ongoing. The dishes, notes Godfrey, now general manager at Lineage, were pared from 400 ideas the crew scrawled on a whiteboard a year and a half ago and still draws from. Crispy pata and lauya are gone, replaced by a $59 four-course dinner with either-or choices for two starters, an entrée and dessert—a suggestion from servers who were having trouble explaining the menu’s family-style concept to tourists. “We’re in Wailea. There’s a huge culture of people who have been visiting for 10, 15, 30 years and like to feel they’re well-versed in the food and culture of Hawai‘i and they have no idea. They think mac nut-crusted fish in beurre blanc sauce is what we have,” Godfrey says. “The food that we sell is very difficult for especially the Western visitor to understand. It’s a different language to them. Now we are able to get these folks in, put food in front of them, explain it a little, give them the overall experience and make it not unapproachable.”
You can’t help but wonder how things would be if Lineage were in Honolulu. Family-style eating is a hallmark of restaurants like The Pig & The Lady and Mud Hen Water, and urban foodies excited by the evolving scene aren’t put off by fish sauce or pickled seaweed. But the other balancing act at play is Simeon’s family-first mantra, the chief reason Maui is still home. He wants to be the dad who never misses his kids’ recitals and takes them to tumble class and robotics—while juggling two restaurants, a new line of bottled chili pepper water, interview requests and appearances at food and wine festivals. It was bad luck that Father’s Day fell on the last day of the 2019 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado, where Simeon was the only Hawai‘i face among Michelin-starred chefs and culinary icons such as Jacques Pépin and Ruth Reichl. Janice would end up wishing him a happy Father’s Day on Facebook.
But not on this day. After an hour, Simeon wraps up the interview. He’s taking his kids to the pool.