The Secret Ingredient to Being Restaurateurs of the Year

It’s not just the food—Restaurateurs of the Year Robynne Maii and Chuck Bussler are committed to supporting the local industry and workers.


SEE ALSO: 2023 Hale ‘Aina Award Winners: The Best Restaurants in Hawai‘i



Fete Staff

Fête staff. Photo: Olivier Koning


The first thing I notice are the books. Hundreds of them, neatly arranged on a giant bookshelf that takes up an entire wall of Fête’s upstairs office. Worn spines, ripped jackets, yellow Post-it notes sticking out from the pages. Books with titles like Chicken Genius, A Fistful of Lentils and A Love Affair with Southern Cooking.


“It’s organized the way Kitchen Arts & Letters is organized,” says Robynne Maii, Fête’s founding chef. When she lived in New York City, she worked at the popular specialty bookshop as a sales associate. “It was my favorite job ever.”


She points to a section. “Ethnic books here.” Then another. “Cheffy books are here. Here are books about pastry and bread, here are cocktails.” She points to a row smack in the center, right at eye level. “These are all the ladies,” she says, smiling—books penned by such chefs as Julia Child and Alice Waters.


Maii and husband Chuck Bussler co-own and operate the Chinatown restaurant they opened in 2016. Progressive in their support of workers and of sustainable local food production, the couple have been named the Hale ‘Aina Awards Restaurateurs of the Year for 2023, one of only two awards chosen by HONOLULU Magazine editors.


“We are super, super, super proud [of it],” Maii says.  


In addition to running Fête, the couple manage and develop the menus for Heyday, a retro-cool restaurant and pool bar, and The Green Lady Cocktail Room. Both are in the White Sands Hotel in Waikīkī. And Maii and Bussler are working on their next project, a bakery and provisions shop in the space vacated by Little Village Noodle House, a short walk from Fête, expected to open at the end of the year. (It’s tentatively called Mille Fêtes, or A Thousand Parties.)


Maii is also one of about 80 culinary professionals in the U.S. State Department’s American Culinary Corps—and she’s the winner of the 2022 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest & Pacific. That prize makes her the first female chef from Hawai‘i and the only Native Hawaiian to win a James Beard Best Chef Award.  


SEE ALSO: Foodflash: Fête’s Robynne Maii Wins Hawai‘i’s First James Beard Award in 19 Years


Maii and Bussler’s commitment to supporting local agriculture comprises everything from sourcing whole chickens from J. Ludovico Farm on O‘ahu to specialty greens from Hirabara Farms on Hawai‘i Island. Fête alone gets ingredients from more than 20 farms, ranches and food producers across the state. It’s not easy, but for Maii and Bussler, it’s worth it: More than 80% of Hawai‘i’s food is imported, leaving Hawai‘i’s food system susceptible to natural disasters, climate change and economic shocks like dock strikes and pandemics. “I grapple with this,” Maii says. “We’re trying our best to keep thinking about food security.”


SEE ALSO: How Can Hawai‘i Establish Food Sovereignty?


Fete Tartare Credit Sean Marrs

Steak tartare: local grass-fed beef, béarnaise aioli, crispy shallots, chives, Fête toast with anchovy butter. Photo: Sean Marrs


Right now, she’s worried about Hawai‘i’s beef supply, after the announcement in June that beef from Parker Ranch’s Paniolo Cattle Co.—the largest statewide local beef brand—was being replaced at Hawai‘i Safeway stores by a brand owned by an Idaho billionaire. Maii is considering treating local beef the way she treats local fish, meaning use it only when she can get it locally. 


“You can’t assume if you come to the restaurant there will always be rib-eye or tenderloin,” she says. “We may not have it. … We just need to ask people to trust us and bring everyone back to the reality of what the food supply is in Hawai‘i.”  


The couple is also committed to creating an environment that makes work-life balance a priority. Workers at Fête receive competitive wages and full medical coverage, paid time off and the option to participate in a 401(k) plan that the company pays 3% into regardless of any employee contributions—a rarity in restaurants. “We both left the industry [in New York City] because it sucked,” Maii says. “When we decided to open Fête, we thought about all the things we wanted.”  


“It’s not only about the right thing to do,” says Bussler, who runs front-of-house and oversees the creative in the bar program, “but it’s about taking the anxiety out of the situation so your employees can really thrive.”  


When Emily Iguchi started working at Fête in December 2016, she had just found out she was pregnant. She was worried Maii and Bussler would change their minds about hiring her. “Without hesitation, they said it was not an issue and they would adjust to make a schedule that would work out for me,” says Iguchi, who was recently promoted to executive chef. “At that moment, I knew I could trust them. … Whether it’s a vacation or a time to exercise or just downtime to see friends or family, they are open to scheduling changes in order to help the staff enjoy life.”


Maii runs a more fluid kitchen than most restaurants. There’s no “this is my station” mentality. Everyone can slot in for anyone, at any time, allowing for more flexibility in scheduling.  


Iguchi calls the employee benefits a game changer. “Many of these things were not offered to cooks in the past in this industry,” she says. “To not have to worry about going to see a doctor or dentist, to know there’s a small retirement fund growing, it’s been a huge relief. … Chuck and Robynne have really taken a leap to invest in the livelihood of the staff.”  


The books in Maii’s office tell her story. The O‘ahu native graduated from the culinary program at Kapi‘olani Community College and worked at 3660 On the Rise and Padovani’s Bistro and Wine Bar in Honolulu, then Union Pacific and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel’s pastry banquet kitchen in New York City. She left cooking to work at Gourmet magazine, teach at Kingsborough Community College and develop a culinary degree program for City University of New York. She’s been a cookbook judge for the James Beard Foundation Awards since 2004. Her books are a visual representation of everything she’s learned, all the food she loves, all the culinary greats who have influenced and inspired her.  


Ziti, the couple’s goldendoodle, heads to the bookshelf and tugs on a cookbook. “It’s the soup book,” Maii says. “It’s the only book he wants.” She doesn’t stop him from chewing the book jacket. Instead, she pets his furry golden head.  


She’s already picked her battles.  


Fête, 2 N Hotel St.,, @fetehawaii