Maui Part I: Take Five with Chef Sheldon Simeon of Star Noodle on Life Post-“Top Chef”
To say that life has changed for Chef Sheldon Simeon would be an understatement.
After placing third in this season’s “Top Chef’’ competition on Bravo TV and winning over viewers to be named “Fan Favorite,’’ business has doubled at his already popular Star Noodle restaurant on Maui. Fans, tourists and locals alike now brave as much as a two-hour wait to get into the out of the way restaurant that serves creative pan-Asian street food such as Vietnamese crepes, and all manner of ramen, soba and saimin noodles – 100 pounds in total hand-made every day on site by one tiny, elderly woman whom Simeon affectionately calls “auntie.’’
The crowds at the other restaurant he oversees, Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop, aren’t too shabby, either.
When I visited Maui earlier this month as a guest of the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau, I had a chance to sit down with Simeon at Star Noodle, where in between answering questions, he’d graciously accommodate the many diners who wanted to pose for photos with him. The 30-year-old chef, husband and father of three young daughters who was born on the Big Island, chatted about the impact the television show has had on his career that began humbly enough as a restaurant dishwasher.
Q: Why did you want to do “Top Chef’’?
A: I could see the opportunity it brings. It’s been overwhelming at times, but also a blessing. It was a chance for me to represent Hawaii. I wanted to test myself.
Q: What was the hardest part about doing the show?
A: Every challenge was hard. As a chef, I work alone on a dish. If I’m not satisfied with it, I don’t put it out. But on the show, I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m serving this to Wolfgang Puck!’
Q: Did you practice in any way to prepare for the challenges?
A: No. I was so nervous. I didn’t know how I was going to stand up to the other competitors. I was a “Top Chef’’ fan even before going on the show. In fact, last year, when Paul Qui won, we went to Austin to eat at his restaurant. I was so star-struck. To be among those guys was an honor.
I went into the show wanting to win. I didn’t want to settle for anything less. I wanted to go all the way. Third place felt good, though. That’s more than I could ever have asked for.
Q: Do you regret going outside your comfort zone in that now infamous challenge, in which you made quail with pine nuts?
A: I guess I should have cooked my food. But I didn’t want to be the Asian guy from Hawaii who only cooked Asian food. I cooked my heart out, so I have no regrets.
Q: What surprised you most about doing the show?
A: The long, dreadful hours, constantly being watched, working 18-hour days back to back. You had to ask permission to go to the bathroom. You couldn’t talk to the crew because they didn’t want anyone to get any type of advantage. There was no TV, no phone. I spoke to my wife all of 5 minutes total in three permitted phone calls.
Q: Who was the most intimidating judge?
A: Chef Tom (Colicchio). He’s the man. The show wouldn’t have as much credibility without him.
Q: Did your fellow competitor Josie (Smith-Malave) drive you crazy like she seemed to do with the rest of the cast?
A: They magnified it on TV. Her character is bigger than life. She’s a little different. (laughs)
Q: Of all the competitors, whose food would you most want to eat now?
A: Hands down, it would be Brooke (Williamson, who lost in the finals to Kristin Kish) because of her California style and raw talent in using ingredients and combinations of flavors I’d never think of. I have been to her place in Los Angeles. And I invited Brooke and Josh (Valentine, who came in fourth) to the Hawaii Food and Wine Fest in September.
Q: You and Josh really bonded on the show? He even sported a Star Noodle baseball cap on several episodes.
A: Nobody knows what you are going through except other competitors. We both came from the same line-cook mentality, and we were constantly cracking jokes and doing practical jokes on everyone like jumping out of closets. He was working in Dallas as the executive pastry chef of FT33, but moved to Oklahoma to open a modern steakhouse.
Q: Wait, Josh is a pastry chef? On the show, they kept referring to him as the pork guy.
A: That’s how TV is. But he’s a great pastry chef. You should see the things he created at FT33. They were amazing.
Q: How did your career start?
A: I was 18 and needed a ride home. My buddy said he would drive me, but first, he had to go to an interview for a job in Florida at Epcot. Afterward, the recruiter came out, saw me in the car and said, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about going to Florida?’ I hadn’t, but I thought, ‘Why not?’
I was hired to be a busser at La Cantina. I had this sparkly beaded vest to wear and I had to clean up soda spills and fill the ketchup dispensers. I’d do my work fast so that I could go help cook onions and mushrooms on the grill.
The woman who became my wife was working at the Main Street ice cream parlor. One day, we were both catching the bus, and you know how it’s easy to recognize people from Hawaii? So, we started talking. It was the day after Valentine’s Day and my buddy and I had cooked a luau for everyone in our apartment complex. I had leftovers and she basically invited herself over when she heard that. The power of food! I was 18 then. If not for leftover food and no ride home, my life might be very different today. (laughs)
When I got back to Hawaii, I asked for an application at Aloha Mixed Plate. They called the position ‘prep cook,’’ but 85 percent of the time it was dishwasher. Maybe they’d let you cut up an onion here and there. Over five years, though, I worked my way up to be chef.
Q: Do you come from a family of good cooks?
A: My Dad is an amazing cook. He’s the best cook I know to this day. We’d cater weddings, luaus, birthdays – not as a business but for our family celebrations. As a kid, I was always prepping food. My Dad is a welder by profession. He’d make his own grills to roast whole pigs.
I wanted to be an architect. I took mechanical drawing in high school. But then I saw how my brother, who’s three years older, goes to culinary school and breezes through. I thought, ‘I’m going to do that.’ So, I went to cooking school.
Q: Is your brother still cooking?
A: Yes, he used to cook at a lot of resorts. But now, he’s the cook for the state correctional facility.
Q: Will we ever see you open a real Urbano, the restaurant you created in the show’s ‘restaurant wars’ challenge in honor of your grand-father’s Filipino heritage?
A: If the opportunity presents itself, yes. But I wouldn’t open it in Hawaii. I don’t think it would translate as well here, where people would think of it as too high-cuisine.
Q: Why do you think Filipino food has yet to find the popularity that so many other Asian cuisines have?
A: It’s only a matter of time. It’s such a peasant cuisine. Maybe if you could find a niche food like lumpia or adobo wings that everyone can relate to, it would become more popular.
Q: Do you have any new projects in the works?
A: A lot of people approached me with opportunities after ‘Top Chef.’ If I was a single bachelor, it would be different. I have to think long-term for what’s best for my family. But yes, I’m negotiating terms for gaining a piece of the business here at Star Noodle.
Q: What’s the one ingredient you can’t do without?
A: Fish sauce.
Q: What chef – living or dead – would you most want to share a meal with?
A: I’d like a night out on the town with David Chang. It would be nothing formal, just us trying to get slaughtered. (laughs)
Q: What food trend do you wish would disappear?
A: Nostalgic desserts like cupcakes. They’re just so frilly.
Q: Your favorite junk food that you hate to admit liking?
A: I will put away Quarter Pounder after Quarter Pounder after Quarter Pounder. I love McDonald’s.
Q: When you’re away from Hawaii, what’s the one food you miss most?
Q: What dish is most like your personality?
A: The Filipino ‘bacon and eggs’ on our menu. We cut scraps of pork off when we make our pork buns and as chefs, we would eat that as staff meal. It’s rustic and good. I thought, ‘Let’s put that out there on the menu.’ And it’s been one of the most popular items.
It speaks to my whole family and my philosophy of ‘If it’s delicious, that’s all that matters.’
Q: What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
A: I’m very soft spoken. There are some things I should speak up more about. I’m always afraid to ask people things. On the first episode of ‘Top Chef,’ I was a wreck. But then, I realized I had nothing to lose, that you just have to put yourself out there.