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Sheldon Simeon On Ohana And Prioritizing His Own Community

Sheldon Simeon is chef and owner of Tin Roof in Maui, Hawai’i, best known for their kau kau tin lunch offerings. Previously, he was a fan favorite and finalist in both Top Chef: Seattle (season 10) and Top Chef: Charleston (season 14). Until early 2020, Simeon was also executive chef of Lineage, which was named Bon Appetit’s Top 50 best new restaurants in 2019. His first cookbook, Cook Real Hawai’i, was published in 2021 and named one of the best cookbooks of the year by the New York Times, Washington Post, and New Yorker.

When I decided to leave my partnership at Lineage and focus on Tin Roof, it was fully about my family. I was about to come out with a cookbook talking about these memories of hanging out and cooking with my father and all those happy times, and I was just working at the restaurant too much. I was being a hypocrite. Now I have a balanced life. There will be time to open up more restaurants. I just had to take a step back and assess everything. I love that I get to spend nights with my family and sit down around the table, and everyone has their responsibilities.

My wife, Janice, runs the restaurant, and I tag along. We both have learned to respect what we’re good at. We always ask each other’s opinion on things, but we understand that to be successful, we trust in each other’s decisions. It’s great that we get to spend time together. We get to be mom and dad of our staff. I’m excited to see my staff grow. These guys are hungry and passionate, and they’re going to get their opportunity to go into these higher-responsibility roles. It gives me the opportunity to do other things. I want to see them succeed.

chef sheldon simeon stands in front of his restaurant, Tin Roof
Photo: Ryan Siphers.

Tin Roof opened up a spot that was originally a bento called Ko Ko Ichiban Ya. They fed the Maui community for 20 years. We’ve become very good friends with that ohana, that family. I went there for 10 years eating and seeing how they connected with the community. When I had the opportunity to take over the spot, I wanted to continue that. I always joked around with the family about taking over the space, but when the opportunity presented itself, I definitely thought about continuing to provide for our community the same way they did.

The easiest way to describe the food of Hawai’i is by splitting it into two parts. One being Hawai’ian cuisine from the first settlers, the Kanaka, the Hawai’ians. Food items like kalua pig, and traditional items like poke and laulau. Hawai’i is the most isolated landmass in the world, smack dab in the Pacific Ocean. The Hawai’ians had a very simple cuisine that they gathered, foraged, and hunted. Their cuisine was mainly seasoned with salt, nuts, and seaweed, and cooked over fire.

The second part is influenced by all the different immigrants that made Hawai’i their home, particularly those that came out during the sugar and pineapple plantation days. Those cultures would be Filipino, Japanese, Korean. Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Chinese and so on. They brought ingredients with them—different soy sauces, different vinegars, different styles of preservation. All of these families were cooking recipes that they brought with them from their homelands, using what was readily available on the islands.

chef sheldon simeon works in his restaurant, Tin Roof in Maui.
Photo: Ryan Siphers.

All of those different cultures coming together and blending becomes Hawai’i cuisine. So in Filipino cuisine, you’ll see me using Japanese soy sauce. You’ll see me using American vinegar because there wasn’t any coconut vinegar.

This past summer after the tourists came back was one of the most overwhelming summers that we’ve had. And also during the holidays, a lot of international travel wasn’t happening, so Hawai’i was a huge destination. There were some tough times and long lines. We had to figure out how to keep our staff safe and motivated through it all.

We had a month where we were wide-open busy, and we decided to close two days of the week. It was not worth our staff coming into work and feeling defeated every day. Our mental health is the priority. There’s no sense in being so driven and so passionate about something if you’re not going to be able to enjoy it in the end.

At first people were kind of taken aback that we closed for those days. But I think they saw that the quality in our product and the happiness in our staff was worth it. We can’t service our people to the highest standards while feeling exhausted and overwhelmed.

We closed for a week at the beginning of this year for the safety of our staff. We felt that that was the right thing to do, so we took five days off and let everybody go home. We’ve got a long year ahead of us. We had a moment to take some time for ourselves and get ready for it.

It’s tough. I don’t know how many friends had their restaurants close over the last few weeks. I’ve got four kids in three different schools. But that’s the world that we live in. I’m in the same boat as everyone, just trying to keep the ones around me safe.

Chef Sheldon Simeon stands behind the counter in his restaurant.
Photo: Ryan Siphers.

I’ve been very lucky to have a restaurant and style that actually works for a pandemic. It was already a takeout restaurant with a small footprint. We were already doing delivery, and we were already taking online orders. All these things were in place, and we just had to maneuver around a few tabletops. The first few months when there were no tourists, there was no one coming to the restaurant, so we relied on our community, the locals, and we were able to make it through.

Running a business in Hawai’i, the impacts of tourism are definitely something you have to think about. When there were no tourists, that’s when we fed as many people as we could in our community. What everyone was concerned about was our limited resources. Living on an island, there’s only so much to go around. When someone is visiting and they get first priority, that’s when things are questioned. We understand that we cannot survive without tourism, but we try to keep a healthy balance by taking care of our neighbors first so that we can then service everyone else who comes to visit.