Lamont Brown, Chef and Owner of Maya’s Tapas and Wine, on Being Black and Mexican in the Food Industry in Hawai‘i
He also tells us about how he created the Spanish-Mexican menu at his Hale‘iwa restaurant, which celebrates its two-year anniversary this month.
This is the first in a series on perspectives from Black food-business owners in Hawai‘i.
Photo: Kino Carillo
Two years ago this month, Lamont Brown opened Maya’s Tapas and Wine, named after his daughter. It serves Spanish-inspired cuisine and at the time, was the only restaurant on O‘ahu to do so. He says he wanted it to be a restaurant for locals, rather than tourists, which may be part of the reason he was able to stay open for takeout during lockdown. I spoke with Brown on his career and his experiences with racism in Hawai‘i and elsewhere.
HONOLULU Magazine: What’s your culinary background?
Lamont Brown: I did a little bit of cooking here and there before I joined the Coast Guard in 2003. I started off as a boatswain’s mate and then at some point, one of our cooks got sick, and my roommates asked the captain if I could cook. So I started cooking in 2004 and switched from boatswain’s mate to food service specialist, as they call it. They sent me to culinary school in Petaluma, California, and then when I got out, I got stationed here on O‘ahu. I met a chef that used to be the executive chef at Y. Hata. And you know, me and the Coast Guard didn’t get along too well. So I asked him, if I got out, would he help me find a job? And he said, yeah, so I got out in 2008 and just continued cooking all over the island since then.
HM: Why did you switch from boatswain’s mate to cook?
LB: The Coast Guard is really short on cooks across the country—there, nobody really wants to be a cook. It was so bad that when I joined the Coast Guard, there was actually a $10,000 bonus if you went in as a cook. But when I decided to join and told a friend about the bonus, he said, you don’t want to be a cook. It’s not a high ranking position; people frown upon cooks; you want to be either law enforcement or boatswain’s mate, something cool. So I gave up the $10,000. But I was 28 years old when I joined, and it was really hard for me—hanging out with about 16 teenagers on a 110-foot patrol boat. When I decided to cook for that patrol, I realized that they left me alone more—it was like, do whatever you want to do, just have breakfast, lunch and dinner ready. So, when that happened, I was like, this is where I want to spend the rest of my time here—people leave me alone.
SEE ALSO: Maya’s Tapas and Wine in Hale‘iwa Offers Spanish Fare, a Rarity on O‘ahu
HM: What is your ethnicity?
LB: I am half Black and half Mexican: My dad was Black and my mom’s Mexican.
HM: Is there one side that you identify with more?
LB: Being that we grew up in El Paso, Texas, and that's where most of the Mexican side of my family was, I learned how to speak Spanish before I spoke English.
HM: Did that cause any conflict internally or externally?
LB: Oh, yeah. I caught a lot of, for lack of a better word, a lot of shit from the Mexican side of my family growing up. I dealt with it and got through it. And then the funny thing is that when I was around 20, my grandmother on my dad’s side, after my dad passed away, she got sick. I went up to Tacoma, Washington, to spend time with her and help her out. When I went up there I met more of the Black side of my family for the first time, and then I also caught flack when they found out I was Mexican.
I would always tell people, and I still do, that racism is kind of like the weather. It’s never gonna end but you can prepare for it depending on where you're at. And I've always thought that the world will be at its best when it comes to racism when the majority of the world is mixed—then you don't fall for or believe the stereotypes right away.
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HM: So coming to Hawai‘i, have you dealt with racism here?
LB: Oh, yeah. It's something that you deal with no matter where you go.
HM: How is it different here from other places you’ve lived?
LB: I think because it’s such a melting pot, it’s a little bit more accepting because it’s not as derogatory—like everybody makes fun of everybody here. And it's more like joking and laughing. Being that I had been around racism my whole entire life, coming here, I guess it was racism lite.
HM: How does it affect you?
LB: Racism is racism, no matter how you look at it, and it's not good, no matter how you look at it. It hurts and it sucks. But at the end of the day, now having my wife—she’s white—and having my kids—now my kids are white, Black and Mexican—I don't let it affect me because I have to teach my kids better than that. [I watched a YouTube] interview Dave Chappelle had with Maya Angelou: Everything she was talking about, I had always felt, I just never knew how to explain. And she said that it's OK to be mad, it's OK to be angry. There's nothing wrong with that. But the one thing you don't want to do is be bitter. Because once you're bitter about racism, you're trapped. There's no way you're going to be able to get out of it. There's no way to be able to better yourself. I'm not gonna let it hold me back. I want to better myself, and now better my kids.
HM: What kind of racism have you seen in restaurants?
LB: One of the first jobs that I had, my sous chef and my chef were both Filipino. One of the owners was also Filipino, and they kind of took me under their wing, but then, after a while, the jokes started coming out. Both chefs ended up getting fired [for unrelated reasons] and I took their position.
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HM: What kind of changes do you want to see in the food industry?
LB: Now that I have my own restaurant, and ever since I held a chef position, I never really believed in the whole, “this is the way I got treated as a cook, so I’m going to treat you the same.” I've always looked at it differently as “that's the way I got treated, and I want to make sure I don't treat you like that.” It already happened. It's gone. It's past but you need to better yourself. We have to better ourselves in order to better the world.
HM: How did you decide to do Spanish and Mediterranean food at Maya’s?
LB: Being that I grew up with the Mexican side of my family, I wanted to do a Mexican restaurant. But there were so many Mexican restaurants opening up, it seemed like an uphill battle. There’s a lot of the same ingredients in Spanish food and Mexican food. So I thought that I could take a lot of the Mexican cooking I learned at home with my grandmother and fuse it with Spanish cuisine. So even though we say it’s Spanish and Mediterranean, a lot of it is really Mexican cuisine. So we’re a little bit different than your average Mediterranean restaurant.
Like patatas bravas, which in Spain is basically potatoes with a tomato sauce. And growing up back home we used to eat potatoes with Mexican chorizo and me and my brothers and sisters used to put syrup on it.
HM: Like maple syrup?
LB: Yeah, so one of our most popular dishes here is the patatas bravas and instead of Spanish chorizo, I use Mexican, and then local honey, and to balance it out, goat cheese to make it a little bit more savory. We have quite a big following with Spaniards and they love it. It’s not what they’re used to having, but they love it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
66-250 Kamehameha Hwy D-101, Hale‘iwa, (808) 200-2964, mayastapasandwine.com
Read more stories by Martha Cheng