Sheldon Simeon on Top Chef: Any regrets?

Photo courtesy of Bravo TV

Chef Sheldon Simeon, Top Chef's first Hawaii contestant, made it all the way to the final three, by cooking local and Filipino food (He was even gutsy enough to present balut, duck embryo!). But, this week, he was eliminated for his dishes: spot prawns with radish and sea beans, quail on a pine nut puree and white chocolate mousse with apple and fennel. Quite a departure from his previous cooking. In preparation for the finals*, Simeon staged at Vintage Cave to pick up new techniques. But, in addition to picking up new techniques, he also learned new flavor profiles, and the judges criticized him for not cooking the food that got him this far. Emeril Lagasse said Simeon had been brainwashed, and Tom Colicchio lamented that Simeon had ditched his "signature style."

[*Note, added 2/27: Top Chef is filmed in two parts. The season up until the finale airs, and then the finale is filmed after that. So Simeon staged at Vintage Cave in the break between the season and the finale.]

Colicchio argues you can recognize great artists such as musicians and painters by their work, but is it possible that chefs are more like actors, some of whom are praised for their range? One of the hottest restaurants right now is Next, by Grant Achatz. The menu changes completely every few months, from Thai to Kyoto cuisine to vegan. Still, I suppose these sorts of places are few and far between, just as Daniel Day-Lewis is a rarity.

We caught up with Simeon to get his take on the last challenge, and whether he regrets his change in course.

Biting Commentary: So you're back at Vintage Cave right now?
Sheldon Simeon: Yeah, I'm back this weekend to do the dinner with Blaine Wetzel and Baruch [Ellsworth] and Chris Kajioka.

BC: What have you learned from Vintage Cave?
SS: Being alongside chef Chris, I love the way he thinks about food. His flavor profile is beyond what I've ever witnessed up close. Technique-wise, it's straight, solid technique that I learned at Vintage Cave. It's unreal.

BC: For the last challenge, do you think you were trying to do too much Vintage Cave instead of your own kind of food?
SS: Yes and no. As a chef, you continue to evolve, and you continue to learn new things and explore. That's one of the reasons I contacted chef Chris. Throughout the season, I watched myself and I didn't want to be that guy from Hawaii who only cooks Asian food. I wanted to show I was much more capable to do other things. I wanted to brush up on technique and new styles and come into the finale with every single tool up my sleeve.

BC: Colicchio said that, in doing so, you didn't cook your own unique food. Do you agree or disagree?
SS: In the end, it's still my own food. Maybe it wasn't what they were accustomed to eating (from me) throughout the season. But I cooked from my heart at the moment. At that moment, that's what I felt. In my heart I stand behind those dishes. I feel that those dishes—they may not have been my flavor profile that I did throughout the season—but they are solid dishes. They were are all delicious. Technique-wise it was great, it looked great on the plate. I guess the judges didn't feel the same.

BC: You think maybe you were typecast then, as the guy who cooks Asian food?
SS: Yeah, I might have overthought it, that I needed to be something else, but I really believe that, as a chef, you need to continue to evolve. That's the mark of a great chef, that he can go out of his comfort zone and not be afraid to try new things and learn.

BC: Any advice from Colicchio that stands out?
SS: At the judges' table at the end, he told me I'm at that point in my career where I need to figure out a style, what is Sheldon going to be known as. I'm on to something with the Filipino and Hawaii cuisine. I got some really great and encouraging words from chef Tom. It's so cool to see that he's super supportive of what I'm doing.

BC: Did you ever feel that Filipino food wasn't strong enough to carry you through the win?
SS: Yes and no. I showcased that I can do Filipino food and that I can cook Hawaii food. I felt, going into the finale, that I needed to showcase something else. The other contestants have shown that they have versatility. So I went into the finale thinking of doing something else. Again, I've been staging at the Vintage Cave so maybe that was an influence on what I cooked. But I don't know. I'm going to stick behind my dishes that I did. That's what I felt at that moment.

BC: Can you talk about some of the opportunities you have in front of you?
SS: Nothing set in stone, but there are definitely offers to open some restaurants. There's some stuff around the Islands, and then maybe some opportunity on the Mainland. It's coming in from all types of different angles right now. In the end, it's whatever is best for my three girls, and what's going to be best for my family, that will ultimately make my decision.

BC: Do you have an idea yet where it would be?
SS: [Laughs] No idea. No, I can't say nothing yet. It's too close. Just keep a close eye on what's going on with Sheldon Simeon.

You can still vote for Simeon as fan favorite, for a $10,000 prize.