Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Nina Kuna
In the first video, Chef Sheldon Simeon and guitarist Brion James cook up a great jam.
In 2012, Maui’s Chef Sheldon Simeon made it all the way to finalist on Bravo Channel’s Top Chef by showcasing the culinary gold of our Islands. On one juicy episode, he elevated sinigang (a Filipino soup of chicken, seafood and vegetables doused with the sour, pulpy juice decocted from tamarind seedpods) to a foodie must-have. Not only did his recipes shine; the humble local guy with the thousand-watt smile won viewers’ hearts as fan favorite. Food & Wine magazine named him 2014’s Best New Chef — Northwest & Pacific Region. The year before, his Maui peers voted Simeon ‘Aipono’s Chef of the Year, making him the first double recipient of that honor in the ‘Aipono Awards’ eleven-year history.
Nice guy. True professional. In our eyes, that qualified the thirty-two-year-old executive chef and partner of Mala Wailea and MiGRANT restaurants to be MNKO’s 2014 Holiday Test Kitchen chef. He even coaxed business partner Shep Gordon to let us use his South Maui home as the set.
A Plantation-style Feast
We convene at Shep Gordon’s house on a Friday morning, though Gordon himself is off island — his loss! On the refrigerator, Chef Sheldon posts the menu we will prepare over the next four hours:
- ‘ahi poke (Hawaiian)
- kim chee (Korean)
- pickled onion (Portuguese)
- barbequed ribs (Chinese)
- chicken hekka (Japanese)
- ginataan (Filipino, coconut tapioca dessert)(click any name to get its recipe)
Gathered around the kitchen counter, our test-kitchen crew exchange nervous glances at the hodgepodge of ingredients we will transform into six dishes that span as many cultures of Hawai‘i.
As Chef Sheldon hands out the assignments, senior editor Rita Goldman backpedals and says, “I can take notes!” “I’ve got that covered,” I respond. “You make the kim chee,” Sheldon tells Rita. “You can do that. I’ll be right here.”
With the rest of the staff settling in to listen, learn, slice, dice and cook, I perch on a barstool, notepad in hand, and weave my interview questions in amongst Chef’s instructions, beginning with, “Where did you learn to cook?”
“My dad was a mason,” Chef says, “but he loved to cook and cater parties, sometimes for 300 people. Me and my brother would help. My mom suffered a stroke when we were young, so we helped a lot in the kitchen. And my aunt was a terrific cook. We’re making her ginataan today — coconut tapioca dessert.” He smiles a confession: “I’ve never made it before, but this is ‘Test Kitchen,’ right?”
At the kim chee station, Rita peels won bok (Napa) cabbage leaves off the stem, keeping them whole, per Chef’s instructions. “Lomi [massage] the salt into the leaves,” he says. “We want to relax them.” “They’re already relaxed,” Rita replies. “They’re in a vegetative state.” She massages the leaves, then lets them rest, though not the optimal twenty-four hours. We’ve got scant time to prepare and enjoy this meal, so after half an hour, while Chef assembles the chili-garlic paste, he has Rita julienne daikon and toss it with the salted cabbage, then rub the paste through the mix, wearing kitchen gloves to protect her skin against the chili oils. The flavors meld into chili-spiked garlicky goodness.
While Rita has her hands full with a lone head of cabbage, Chef Sheldon has been multitasking: baking a huge Moloka‘i sweet potato for the dessert; boiling water in two separate pots for the large boba tea (tapioca pearls) and small tapioca that will likewise go into the ginataan; and soaking mung-bean noodles, shiitake mushrooms, and dried pepeiao (a black fungus whose Hawaiian name describes its earlike appearance) in hot water to reconstitute them for the chicken hekka.
As he retrieves some kitchen towels from a cabinet, Chef shares a story: “I used to hide my towels in the ceiling at work, so I would always have a stash. One day, the air-conditioner guy came in and said he found a bunch of towels in the ceiling. I grabbed the towels and went on a rant in the kitchen: ‘Who did this?!’” We all break into laughter.
The next tickle goes to the ribs: Chef Sheldon has associate publisher Alix Buchter lomi two meaty racks of pork ribs with his Chinese-influenced dry rub — an aromatic mix of licorice- scented Chinese Five Spice. She wraps the ribs tightly in foil, creating a steam package for the meat, then places them in the oven, where they’ll cook for the next two hours. Sheldon quickly assembles the Asian barbeque sauce for the ribs in the food processor.
Managing editor Lehia Apana is up next at the prep station, assigned to make the Portuguese-style pickled onions. As Chef Sheldon shows her the professional way to core a bell pepper, the rest of us watch with oohs and ahhs. “You want to buy nice, round bell peppers,” says Chef. “Cut off both ends, then rest the pepper on its side and insert your knife with the blade in this direction.” He demonstrates, angling the knife at about five degrees. “Roll the pepper away from you and slice slowly. Take your time.” He and Lehia slice the unrolled pepper into strips of even thickness, then move on to the next task: peeling and slicing onions into wedges along the onion’s length. Chef slaps a Hawaiian chili pepper with the side of his $400 Japanese chef’s knife and adds the crushed vegetable to the onions and bell pepper slices, then bathes the mix in pickling juice.
Early on, we outed publisher Diane Haynes Woodburn as one of the best amateur cooks we know, so when Chef is ready to move on to the chicken hekka, he commandeers her as assistant. First comes a quick demo on deboning chicken thighs. Chef Sheldon shows Diane how to run the tip of the blade against the length of the bone, then cut away the meat. “Oh, I just learned something new,” she says. After deboning six thighs, she cuts them into bite-sized chunks and plops them into a boiling stockpot of homemade chicken broth, along with mung-bean noodles, shoyu (soy sauce), mirin, ginger, garlic and shiitake mushrooms.
While Chef slices bamboo shoots and aburage (a fried tofu product used in cone sushi), he has Diane wash and cut watercress, baby bok choy and green onions, and set them aside. “Traditionally, the ingredients for this dish are simmered all together,” he says, “but when we cook it for the restaurant, we want to retain the fresh look and taste of the vegetables, so we add those later.”
It’s late morning when Sergio, a coworker from Mala Wailea, walks in with a twelve-pound ‘ahi filet, caught the night before, for our limu lipoa poke. Chef explains that the fish is so fresh that it hasn’t had time to “bloom.” “As it sits, the blood redistributes and the fish turns redder.”
Art director John Giordani picks up the filet knife — and is at once impressed with the tool. “I’ve never used a knife this sharp,” he says. “How often do you sharpen it?” “Every day on Japanese stones,” Chef replies, then directs John to remove the blood-red flesh; only the pinkish part of the fish will become our poke.
“I have a $700 Japanese boning knife —used to break down big fish — that I’ve only used once,” Chef Sheldon adds. We all stop to listen as he tells us about what happened on Top Chef. “In the heat of competition, I used it to hack a side of beef through the bones, when I should have used my meat cleaver. It’s serrated now, with notches along the blade,” he sighs. As a chef myself, I can feel his pain.
Following Chef Sheldon’s directions, John dices the ‘ahi, then tosses it with the briny, iodine-heavy limu lipoa, a variety of seaweed harvested off the lava-rock tide pools on Maui’s coasts. Sheldon completes the dish, adding embellishments of ginger, green onions, Hawaiian salt and inamona (roasted kukui nut).
“Okay,” he says. “We are going to make something I’ve never made before: mochi balls.” He empties a box of mochiko (glutinous rice flour) into a bowl and slowly adds water, stirring and kneading until it holds together. Soon four of us stand in a line at the counter, rolling the dough into balls the size of small marbles.
On the stove, the boba tapioca and small tapioca balls have been simmering for nearly an hour. Chef drains and rinses them, then brings the coconut milk to a simmer. He peels the tender, roasted sweet potato, cubes it and adds it to the coconut milk, along with sugar, and gently stirs. The milk turns a light pink as the purple sweet potato infuses flavor into the mix. Soon the rest of the ingredients are swimming in the simmering milk base.
Outdoors, the sun is climbing to noon, as the ribs emerge hot and steaming from the oven. The smells emanating from the kitchen are irresistible. Hoisin barbeque sauce, simmering ginger broth with chicken, and coconut milk mingle in the air and I am transported to the Philippines, Japan, China. . . .
As Chef finishes braising the veggies for the chicken hekka, we retire to the patio, where musician Brion James and restaurant manager Melanie Wicker have set another stage for our dining pleasure. Chef joins us, but instead of grabbing a plate, he picks up his ‘ukulele and smiles. “Every day is a holiday for locals,” he says. We sit, listen, eat and enjoy a feast prepared with aloha.