One of life’s many great joys is to see people have their dreams come true. I’ve been fortunate in my life to share that joy many a time with family and friends. Recently, while on Maui, I had another chance to experience it.
MiGRANT, the “dream come true” for Chef Sheldon Simeon, opened in early January in the Wailea Beach Marriott in Wailea, HI on Maui. The cozy atmosphere, with communal tables, a welcoming bar, and a lanai that looks out over the beautiful blue Pacific draws you in. This isn’t your average hotel restaurant. No, now you are entering someone’s personal space for food reminiscent of big family gatherings.
Chef Sheldon has garnered quite a bit of attention over the past year or so. In early 2013, he competed on Top Chef: Seattle, finishing in the top three and earning the “fan favorite” award. He has also won the Rising Star Award from StarChefs.com for Concept Chef in 2012, was nominated to be both Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation in 2011 as well as Best New Chef – People’s Choice, Northwest & Pacific by Food & Wine magazine in 2012. Formerly, he worked at Star Noodle on Maui’s West Side.
I had the amazing opportunity to sit down with Chef Sheldon and talk about his cooking and this dream come true: MiGRANT.
HH: Chef, according to your bio, your cooking is influenced by “island flavors, your grandma’s cooking and Hawaii Regional Cuisine.” Would you tell me more about those influences?
CS: “I grew up in a huge family. My mom had eleven brothers and sisters. My dad had nine. For both sides of my family, ours was the house where family gathered. My mom had a stroke when I was young and so dad became the main cook in the family with me and my older brother (of three years) helping out. My dad is still the best cook who isn’t a chef that I know. Also, I was the taster for my grandmother when she would cook. She would hand me the big spoon and make me taste things for seasonings. I still do that – use a big spoon and taste what I cook to make sure it’s seasoned right.”
HH: So, how did you decide to actually become a chef?
CS: “Part of it was helping out my dad and grandmother. My older brother went to culinary school. So, when I was a senior in high school in Hilo, I decided to mimic him and follow that same path.”
HH: Very cool. One of the things you stress at MiGRANT is that it’s modern local cuisine. Talk to me a little about the “local” part and how you source locally.
CS: “It’s really important for me to source locally. This is the norm these days. If you’re not sourcing locally as a chef, you’re kind of out of touch. I also try to take it a step further by really building a relationship between the fishermen who provide the fish I cook. We work with Tropic Fish Maui, LLC to supply our seafood and we serve what is available. For our produce, we get a lot of things – beets, kale, carrots, spring mix, turnips, arugula, leeks – from Kumu Farms in Wailuku.”
HH: What makes you happy about doing what you do?
CS: “I love the opportunities to meet people. Food is one of the most powerful things. I love to see the joy people experience. I’m super excited to showcase local food. There’s really a good energy about Hawaiian cuisine right now.”
HH: So, do you share your recipes?
CS: “Ummmm.” (Big smile)
HH: Just saying, your kale salad is the best I’ve ever had. I really hate kale. Also, your magic peanut butter that you serve with the bibingka dessert is amazing!
CS: (Silence and the continued big smile).
Just to let my readers share in the joys of some of MiGRANT’s food, here are some photos and comments. After all, MiGRANT’s pitch is “Come my house. Eat.” And so we did.
When in Maui and watching a beautiful sunset, one should really have a tropical drink in hand.
Thanks to mixologist extraordinaire, Nui (aka — “Good for Nothing”), my husband Chris and I were well outfitted with the most amazing mango mojito I’ve ever had. When asked how he made it, I got what appears to be the universal island polite sign for not immediately answering – a big smile. After another, he quietly told me he uses mint, simple syrup, mango fruit puree, and mango-flavored vodka. Then, (drumroll please!) he tops it off with Prosecco rather than soda water or Sprite® to balance the sweetness. Lovely, I say!
Accompanying the mojito, were Chef Sheldon’s homemade chicharrones (fried pork rinds) served with rice vinegar and Hawaiian chili peppers. Delish!
Next, came that unbelievable Kumu Farms Organic Kale Salad. Not bitter. Tender. With just the right amount of a lovely shiro miso dressing, namasu, pumpkin seeds, and nori. Chris and I couldn’t get enough.
We stayed veggie and ordered The Bottom of the Kalbi, a joke of Chef Sheldon who apparently ate this and only this when he was learning the culinary trade. Essentially, it’s a big bowl of shredded head of cabbage with a warm kalbi dressing. “Kalbi” generally refers to a variety of grilled dishes in Korean cuisine that are made with either marinated beef or pork short ribs in a Korean soy sauce. The cabbage has the drippings/sauce of the marinated short ribs poured over it. Delectable beyond description!
Then, there is the magic peanut butter sauce. Tapping into his Filipino heritage, Chef Sheldon prepares a mean bibingka (a rice cake made with coconut milk from the Philippines) served with a sweetened “magic” peanut butter. Big, darn yum!
The island of Maui is one of our favorites and, we feel, extraordinarily special. Our trip was made so much better by finding such good local cuisine from a star in Maui’s culinary landscape. If you are on Maui, go to MiGRANT. It’s special, delicious and yes, a dream come true.