‘Top Chef’ Sheldon Simeon Talks Tired Food Trends And Gives Us His Butterfish Technique

In our Top Chef recaps this year, Vince has nicknamed Chef Sheldon Simeon “Shel Chillverstein.” After chatting with Simeon last week, I can confirm the accuracy of that handle. On the show, the Simeon comes off as an ace cook who dodges the drama. In person, he seems like the sort of chef you’d love to have as your boss: kind, supportive, and a little more mellow than chefs in the famous Marco Pierre White era. Hell, there’s even an “other grinds” section of his menu at Tin Roof, in Maui. It doesn’t get much chiller than that.

That doesn’t mean Simeon isn’t a striver though. His cooking both on TV and IRL has been lauded for sharp plating and a commitment to telling a story with each dish. In fact, he says that seeing how judges reacted to his traditional Filipino and Hawaiian food on the show has led him to push even further in that direction.

Below, we speak about appropriation, trends, and Chillverstein’s take on my favorite “first date dish.”

First of all, what’s cracking with your back? Are you … I mean, it seems like in the season, you’re in quite a bit of pain.

Yeah. I’ve dealt with it the whole season. It just kept on getting … It was something that was always there that I had to deal with. I’m still not … I haven’t got it fixed or anything. The other week I was stuck in bed. I don’t know. My schedule’s kind of crazy right now, but I know at some point that I have to take some time off and actually go get it fixed. Do the surgery or something.

Do they shoot you with cortisol like a baseball player to keep cooking?

That’s exactly it. I felt like Mark McGwire, man. No calling in sick, Chef. That’s what it is.

Do you feel like you’ve really been able to reflect your cooking to this point? That your cooking has and your philosophies have been able to show up on the plate?

Yeah. This time around has been a totally different experience than the first time around, you know? Now, I think a big thing is that I’m not working for anyone. I have my own restaurant and I learned just to be myself and every single challenge that I go through, I kept that in mind. Do your food. Do your food. Express yourself. Try not to be something that you’re not. I think my dishes read that way throughout the whole season.

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Absolutely. I think your vibe kind of reads that way too. You seem like a guy who knows enough about who he is to back off a little bit and not always have to put himself front and center in a lot of ways.

I think Richard Blais put it the best is, to go on Top Chef, you have to be kind of crazy. You know, after the first time around, I really enjoyed it, but the part that was kind of crazy is everyone always tries to think of the challenge, but you got to remember the reason why you went on Top Chef is your love for cooking. I always just took each challenge one by one and just remembered to have fun with it and enjoy the moment and enjoy everything that’s happening around. Try not to be all caught up with the drama because … The drama’s gonna be there because it’s super stressful, but I always try to think of the positive side of how great of an opportunity it is to continue just like showcase my food and just to be able to feed people.

We’ve seen food culture over the past couple years get, kind of, driven or at least to some degree it’s being steered by trends. Are there trends that you want to see die? Are there things that you’re completely done with?

Oh, man… Poke. Brooke is gonna kill me. — she just opened up a poke shop, but … When people do things that have meaning, like meaningful dishes and it becomes a trend, that trend is supposed to be representing that dish and it’s nowhere close to what that dish originally started from. Those are the type of trends that need to go out the window soon. It’s good that people are understanding and learning about poke, but they’re getting educated wrong.

We’ve seen the poke thing in Los Angeles for a long time now. It seems like somehow poke … It hasn’t transferred with its full effect in a lot of the places on the mainland.

It’s turned into something that’s totally different from where what it started. The number one thing, poke is supposed to be marinated and tossed in a sauce, but everyone’s made it into a salad or whatever. I don’t know. It’s a hard subject to talk about because here in Hawaii, we want to just get Hawaiian food out there and it’s good to see all of these places be inspired by Hawaii, but then when it’s represented wrong then it kind of sucks on the other hand.

We’re starting to see a little bit of a musubi thing happening, on the West Coast at least.

Brooke does that, too. At the Da Kikokiko, she does musubis, poke, and shave ice. Yeah, musubi is awesome. I would make musubis for the other chefs on the show and then I’d bust it out at certain times and just surprise them.

It’s funny that Brooke never had a musubi in her life before I gave her one in Seattle and now she has a musubi restaurant.

Do you feel like cooking shows are something that you want to be a part of? Do you want to be in front of the camera or do you want to be in the kitchen? Or do you want to be developing properties?

I’ve enjoyed doing Top Chef. I just did a video with Eater and they’re gonna have another twelve episodes coming out on YouTube. I just love sharing and I love learning. That gives me an opportunity to do both. It lets me travel to places where I would never have been able to go and then it showcases a little bit of myself. I get to share a little bit of Hawaii, my Filipino background, all of that. I love that aspect of being on television because it gives me those opportunities to learn and then educate.

I think it’s pretty fascinating how shows like Top Chef and even Chopped have allowed more and more people to know about food. Do you find that there’s a baseline, more savvy diner these days?

I think it’s a double-edged sword. I think because food media is so much out there, everyone comes almost with an expectation almost. Everyone becomes just mental instead of sometimes learning about … not learning but enjoying the fact of just eating. People go on vacation to go and eat now. They go to restaurants and I think a lot of restaurants have to up their standards, but it also makes it difficult that diners are coming in with an expectation of, “I’m here. It’s not to enjoy my meal and enjoy it with my friends, but I’m coming here so I can judge these people.”

That’s like the Yelper on South Park, one of my favorite episodes ever.

Literally every chef that I know loves that episode and talks about it quite a bit. I don’t know a chef who doesn’t harbor some secret love for that.

I think Chef too… that moment of going into the dining room. That’s epic. I mean, I would never go out into a dining room and do it myself, but I’ve definitely thought about it.

It’s a fun fantasy for sure. Do you have cooks right now who influence you where you’re constantly thinking of them and what they’re doing and it feels exciting and innovative?

I have a small staff of just six guys, but these six guys have been with me for the past five years now. They have all come out of culinary school and are now coming into great chefs of their own. I’m excited to continue to try to build places so that they have opportunities. These young kids, man, they have like this creativity behind them that I could never imagine. It’s awesome that I gave them the foundation — they’ve taken with that foundation and just skyrocketed. Just the creativity.

As far as who influences you, I know David Chang was a big influence for you, is he still someone you really admire?

I loved what he did. When that whole Momofuku thing came on, I was like, “Man, that’s the type of chef I want to be.” You know, he’s cooking food that you didn’t even see anywhere around. Lately what I’ve been doing is going back and going back into the roots of my heritage. I just recently got back from a trip to the Philippines. That was eye-opening to see that. I’ve been collecting all of these old Hawaiian cookbooks and cooking with old Grandma’s and Aunties here in Hawaii and just taking the opportunity so that recipes don’t start to fade away. I want those legacies to keep on going.

My first date recipe is always misoyaki butterfish. You have any secrets that you can give me for that?

Everyone thinks you should marinate it for a few days, you know, overnight or whatever. I like to do it only for four hours and then I like to cook it as low over charcoal as possible until it gets to this certain point where it’s almost flaking and then hit it with the highest amount of heat that you can for just that last thirty seconds. Then you have the contrast of it. Butterfish is so fatty, so you want it to be unctuous. Cooking it slow like that lets that fat almost melt into itself. Then adding that last char that you need…

Where do you think the food scene is heading right now? How you feeling about it? Are you excited about the way that the scene is going?

We’re seeing this change in all of the guys who can do fine dining — those are going to continue to kill it — but a lot of these chefs with fine dining backgrounds are opening up spots that are more approachable to the consumer. I think the consumer is benefiting from that.

The farm to table thing and cooking from your surroundings and all of that. If you ain’t doing that right now, you shouldn’t be a chef, because you should be. That’s not enough, it shouldn’t even be a trend. You should be connected to your farmers and connected to your community. That’s just how everyone should think.

Then, a lot of dishes. I think chefs are learning the history of dishes before they start creating a recipe, they find out the exact roots of it. Where it came from and really learning that dish as a whole. How it’s supposed to be and then doing it instead of saying, “Oh, look at that dish. I can make a version of that …”

Almost like a cultural immersion on that dish. Is that what you’re saying?

Totally. People who want to open a Chinese restaurant are spending a whole lot of time in China, immersing themselves in actually cooking Chinese food instead of, “I kind of … I know I’m a good chef, I know I can cook Chinese food and make good food using Chinese flavors.”

So, people are actually going to places and learning about it and they really want to do food justice of where it came from.

Do you think that that helps to make people a little more bulletproof from the argument about food appropriation?

I think there’s no denying it. I think if the customers who come and eat at the restaurants and that’s their heritage and they taste something and it reminds them of home … That’s what I want to do. When somebody eats my dishes, even though it’s not from my culture or whatever, and it’s from theirs and they taste it and it brings them back that memory, I think we’ve done our job. That’s all we try to do when we’re cooking is try to bring back memories for people. It might bring up something that they’ve tasted in the past.

Chefs are being much more respectful to that, to our ingredients, to the food that we cook. We don’t want to be called out on it. We have a responsibility that we want to be… Instead of riffing on it, we want to celebrate its heritage.

Okay, last question… hash browns or home fries?

Can we throw in white rice? I barely ate potatoes growing up. It was a privilege whenever I got to eat potatoes. I would choose home fries if I had to choose between both of them.