Still in the running for the title on the current season of "Top Chef," Hawaiian chef Sheldon Simeon first found notoriety when he came in third on the 2012 season of the popular cooking show.
In the years since his first appearance, Simeon has opened and closed more than one restaurant, but has always stayed rooted in Hawaii.
He is also hosting the current season of the YouTube show "Cooking in America" produced by Eater, with each episode focusing on a different aspect of Hawaii's culinary tradition.
"I wanted to showcase a side of Hawaii that people don't normally see," Simeon said. "I want to highlight individuals that I felt are portraying Hawaii in a cool and different way."
Simeon, 34, was born in Hilo and graduated from the Maui Culinary Academy. He started his culinary career as a dishwasher at Aloha Mixed Plate in Lahaina before working his way up to executive chef at Aloha's sister restaurant Star Noodle. After "Top Chef" in 2012, he was a James Beard Award finalist and garnered numerous recognitions.
In April 2016 he opened Tin Roof, a casual lunch spot serving Simeon's own take on traditional Hawaiian meals in Kahalui. At the same time he shuttered his more upscale restaurant at Wailea Beach Marriott, Migrant. Tin Roof only serves lunch, but Simeon says he has plans to open up a new restaurant more similar to Migrant's inventive Filipino-Hawaiian fare.
"The opportunity sort of presented itself, where it was this spot that fed the community for 25 years," Simeon said about Tin Roof. "It was a Japanese bento shop that was closing, and it was disheartening to see this mom-and-pop shop close down, so I decided to jump in. It was a family-and-friends effort, we had everyone pitching in."
Simeon, through his deep connection to the Islands and his job hosting the Hawaii season of "Cooking in America," knows the food scene inside and out. He offered some advice for culinary tourists, and some bites not to be missed.
"Go out and there and explore," Simeon said. "If you go with one style, resort restaurants, mom-and-pop places or just independent restaurants, you won't see the true diversity that Hawaiian cuisine is all about. It's amazing. Go check out the local farmers market, and ask those farmers where they go to eat and where they sell their vegetables. That's a good source to find the best restaurants around."
Chef Simeon's recommendations
Poke bowl from Suisan Fish Market, Hilo: Simeon starts with a spot in his hometown serving poke bowls the classic Hawaiian way. "Poke is on fire right now with places popping up all over the mainland, but it's a misinterpretation of traditional poke. Suisan only uses the fresh fish from right there. It is the perfect representation of the most Hawaiian poke you can get."
Charred cabbage Caesar at Senia, Honolulu: On the opposite end of the dining spectrum, Simeon is excited about this newcomer to the dining scene, which opened to much fanfare in December. "The ingredients are super humble, but the technique and flavor combination are genius. What Chris [Kajioka] is doing there is amazing."
Ying Leong Look Funn Noodle Factory, Honolulu: This factory tour in Chinatown offers an inside peek at how look funn, a broad, flat rice noodle, is produced. The factory, which also offers tastes during the tour, makes the noodles served in more than 100 restaurants around Oahu. "It's based off a Chinese noodle, but Look Fun is unique to Hawaii. And that's all they make at this place."
Mochiko chicken at Tin Roof, Kahalui: Finally, at his own restaurant, Simeon said the runaway favorite is his sweet mochiko-batter fried chicken marinated in ginger sake shoyu, topped with su-miso sauce and gochujang aioli, and served with rice. "I wanted to take local food and not necessarily turn it on its head, but use different flavor combinations. So everything is based on familiar Hawaiian flavors, but the combinations are a little different.
UPDATE: This article has been revised to include an updated description of the Tin Roof's mochiko chicken.