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Top Chef, Hawaii Edition

Meet the chefs who are reimagining Hawaii’s dynamic food scene after last summer’s devastating Maui fires. Jen Murphy reports on how they’re drawing inspiration from local heritage—and preserving traditions and flavors for future generations.

If you think Hawaiian food means pupu platters and poke bowls, you’re in for a surprise. The fact that 11 James Beard Award finalists were from Hawaii this year is a testament to the creativity and talent of Hawaii’s restaurants. Honolulu’s food scene rivals those of cities like San Francisco or Boston, and across the islands you’ll find chefs returning to their roots and dreaming up mind-blowing menus.

BIG ISLAND

Brian Hirata of Na‘au | Hilo

“Food is more than sustenance,” says chef Brian Hirata. “It connects us to the land—and tells us where we come from.” A fourth-generation Hawaiian, Hirata grew up in Oahu but spent much of his childhood hunting, fishing and foraging with his cousins on Hawaii Island. Ingredients like limu-kohu, a red seaweed, and opihi, a limpet found on rocky shorelines, were staples of family meals. While teaching culinary classes, he was shocked to learn most students hadn’t tasted, let alone heard of, many of the foods he grew up eating. In 2019, he started Na‘au, a pop-up devoted to preserving native foodways. Hirata’s dream is to have his own restaurant. For now, his reservation-only dining experiences are hosted at local farms. Seven- to 10-course dinners marry European cooking techniques with wild ingredients. Many dishes are rooted in memories: Hawaii’s Rainforest incorporates hō‘i‘o and hāpu‘u, native ferns he foraged for with his grandparents near their farm. His riff on PB&J is regional sweet bread stuffed with burnt miso chicken-liver pâté and a jam made from akala, an endemic fruit similar in flavor to raspberry. His menus are more than just a celebration of local ingredients. “Food can help us tackle food security, revitalizing cultural knowledge and sustainable practices,” says the James Beard Award semifinalist. “Cooking can be a vehicle for educating and improving the community.”

OAHU

Jason Peel of Nami Kaze Hawaii | Honolulu

Shrimp and waffles, lobster with silky egg custard—outrageous combinations? All it takes is one bite to trust that chef Jason Peel is a culinary genius. “Creating is my passion, but so is breaking the rules a little,” says the Kauai native. “There are no boundaries. That’s why I love cooking.” Peel trained under some of Honolulu’s biggest chefs, including Roy Yamaguchi, and curated talent for the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival. His knowledge of Hawaiian producers and growers combined with his exposure to international talent and technique primed him to open Nami Kaze Hawaii, in 2022. Within one year, the always changing, izakaya-inspired dishes—like Vietnamese spice-braised short ribs with green bean relish and ahi loco moco (a traditional breakfast staple) topped with sous vide eggs and a savory dashi sauce—have earned Peel accolades from the James Beard Foundation and Eater. Pastry chef Beverly Luk is the sweet yin to Peel’s savory yang (she’s also his wife). Save room for her desserts, like a decadent brownie drizzled with caramel laced with gochujang, a Korean pepper paste with just the right bit of heat.

Andrew Le of The Pig & The Lady | Honolulu

Hawaiian-born chef Andrew Le’s earliest food memories involve the aromas of pungent fish sauce and fragrant pho broth wafting from his childhood kitchen. His parents were Vietnam War refugees and through food, his mother, Loan Le, connected her children to their heritage. Her recipes inspired Andrew to launch a tasting-menu pop-up in 2011. This first iteration of the Pig & the Lady evolved into a farmers market booth where Andrew and his mother sold updated takes on traditional dishes, like a Pho French Dip banh mi stuffed with 12-hour roast brisket, Thai basil chimichurri, and sautéed bean sprouts and topped with a pho jus. But the mother and son butted heads on how much liberty he was taking with her recipes. Andrew took a job at San Francisco’s Rich Table and returned home to restart his pop-up dinners. People went nuts for his crazy flavor combinations like spiced lemongrass Bolognese. In 2013, the family reunited to help Andrew open a brick-and-mortar version of the Pig & the Lady in Chinatown. Older brother Alex Le came on as general manager, and Mama Le (aka the lady) helps oversee the classic dishes still sold at the farmers market. Her home cooking forms the soul of the Pig & the Lady’s menu, but Andrew has made the recipes his own with French techniques and local ingredients. While he’s racked up numerous James Beard nominations, more satisfying is knowing some of Hawaii’s most game-changing chefs have cut their teeth in his kitchen.

Robynne Maii of Fête | Honolulu

Anyone who lives in Honolulu has most likely dined at Fête. Chef-owner Robynne Maii opened the brick-and-reclaimed-wood space in 2016. In the heart of Chinatown, the restaurant’s cool urban farmhouse vibe and seasonal, farm-to-table ethos earned a loyal following. “We cook things that we crave and remain faithful to classic flavor pairings and classical cuisine,” says Maii. “If a dish calls for kumquats, we wouldn’t bring them to Hawai‘i. We’d use calamansi instead. Similar to how immigrants approach cooking when moving to a new country. We adapt.” Maii’s exceptional cooking and devotion to local sourcing (90 percent of the restaurant’s produce, and 95 percent of its meat and dairy, come from Hawaii) earned her national recognition in 2022 when she became the first female chef from Hawaii to win a James Beard Award. Reservations are now a must if you want to experience Fête’s raved-about coconut Kauai prawns and Korean bavette steak.

Keaka Lee of Kapa Hale | Honolulu

When deciding on a name for his first restaurant, Keaka Lee kept returning to the Hawaiian art of making kapa (bark cloth), and how different colors and patterns tell a story. Every plate is like a blank piece of kapa—ingredients woven into a meaningful tale. The Honolulu-born chef worked his way up from fast-food kitchens to Michelin-star restaurants, including Benu in San Francisco and Gramercy Tavern in New York, before joining the all-star team at the Pig & the Lady. Despite opening mid-pandemic in 2020 at an address known for doomed restaurants behind Kāhala Mall, Lee’s debut solo venture was an instant hit. Kapa Hale has become a James Beard Award–nominated destination dining spot known for wildly inventive dishes showcasing local ingredients and Hawaii’s melting pot of Pacific and Asian influences. Menus highlight area purveyors and producers like Parker Ranch (don’t miss the grass-fed burger topped with anchovy garlic aioli) and Small Kine Farms (their portobellos are on the sensational ’shroom melt topped with a sunny-side egg). Global flavors also appear in dishes like I Love You a Laksa Risotto, a Malaysian coconut curry spiked with clams and Kauai shrimp, and Where’s da Beef?, a homemade tagliatelle pasta mixed with cauliflower Bolognese. It’s a truly original twist on Hawaiian regional comfort food.

 

MAUI

Sheldon Simeon of Tin Roof, Kahului & Tiffany’s | Wailuku

The fan favorite of Top Chef seasons 10 and 14, Sheldon Simeon could be helming a high-profile restaurant at one of Maui’s luxury resorts. But the humble, Hilo-born chef prefers to cook deceptively simple food in unassuming locations. Tin Roof, the lunch-counter joint he opened in 2016 near the Kahului Airport, almost always has a line out the door. Rice and noodle bowls riff on Hawaii’s classic plate lunch (meat, two scoops of rice and macaroni salad) and feature rich proteins like flat iron steak wok-fried with garlic and scallions or deep-fried pork belly. Last year, he and his wife Janice took over Tiffany’s, a beloved, no-frills sports bar in Wailuku. The menu highlights “true Hawaii classics” and continues Simeon’s mission to promote the diversity of “Hawaii cuisine.” A third-generation Filipino-American, Simeon preaches the distinction between Hawaiian and Hawaii food: the latter reflects immigrant influences of Japanese, Filipino, Chinese and other migrants who now call Hawaii home. It’s comfort food and pub fare, with dishes such as “sticky icky” chicken wings lathered in sweet Thai chili caramel and house fried rice with eggs, bacon and Spam. And Simeon has maintained some of the original menu items, like the crispy fried shrimp with toasted walnuts and candy-sweet mayo. Hefty portions and shareable plates make the experience feel like the potluck meals of Simeon’s childhood.

SPOTLIGHT: LEE ANNE WONG

Chef and James Beard Award Finalist

The fires that swept across west Maui this summer destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, including Papa‘aina, a new restaurant helmed by Lee Anne Wong. A 2023 James Beard Award finalist, Wong recently kicked off the Love for Lahaina pop-up series hosted by the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea with a menu of Papa’aina favorites like guava barbecue chicken with miso slaw. The resort will host a benefit dinner by Maui-based chefs every Sunday through year’s end and all proceeds will benefit local chefs and farmers. Wong says the best way to help the island is to visit areas of Maui that weren’t impacted by the fires. “The island is on an economic cliff,” she says. “Small businesses rely on visitors.” She encourages travelers to shop at farmers markets and to dine out to help Maui.

To learn more about how you can help, go to hawaiicommunityfoundation.org and chefhui.com/maui-relief.

Lee Anne’s Maui Picks

Marlow, Pukalani: “Husband-and-wife-owned spot known for wood-fired sourdough pizza.”
Umi Maui, Wailuku: “Casual, chef-run spot with pristine sushi.”
A Saigon Café, Wailuku: “Excellent Vietnamese food.”
Havens, Kihei and Kahului: “Chef-owner Zach Sato’s smash burgers have a cult following..”
The Upcountry Farmers Market, Kula: “The season’s best produce, plus tasty food stalls.”
Lineage, Wailea: “Filipino and Hawaiian flavors—and great cocktails.”

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer for assistance planning a trip to Hawaii. Our team can match you with the hotels that are right for you, as well as advise on all our favorite activities and restaurants.

– Jen Murphy on December 1, 2023

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