Within a day, he and fellow chefs were working out of a hub in a culinary-school kitchen and a converted food hall at the University of Hawaii Maui College as part of relief efforts by nonprofit organizations, including the Common Ground Collective and Chef Hui (hui is “group” in Hawaiian). Farmers offered their crops; ranchers called to say they had pounds of meat ready to go. “It was the mystery box,” Simeon says, referring to the unknown ingredients handed to contestants on cooking shows like “Top Chef,” on which he was voted “fan favorite” in 2013 and 2017. He and his colleagues would stand in the walk-in and calculate: How many portions of venison could they eke out? How many of fish? “At peak,” he says, “we were making 10,000 meals a day, plating up to 2,000 meals at a time.” He would go home for a shower, get some rest, wake up a couple of hours later and head back.
Among the volunteers at the college were three Mexican cooks. They had to abandon their food truck in Lahaina and showed up from the shelter still wearing the chef’s whites they had on when they fled the fire. Celebrities humbly took their places on the line, too, including Roy Yamaguchi, a pioneer in the 1990s who, when much of the food on Hawaii’s tables was imported from the mainland, championed the islands’ natural bounty and cuisine. “What do you need me to do?” he asked Simeon, and Simeon said, “Rice, please.” So Yamaguchi cooked rice for seven hours straight, measuring the grains and water into hotel pans and shifting among four industrial steamers. “He had this crazy technique,” Simeon marvels. “Every batch came out perfect.”
In the five months since the fires, Maui’s economy has still not recovered; in resort areas, occupancy was as low as 25 percent for the holidays. At Simeon’s other restaurant, Tin Roof in Kahului, a takeout-only rice-and-noodle shop that relies on tourist traffic, sales are down by half from the year before. But at Tiffany’s, a longstanding local haunt that Simeon and his wife, Janice, took over in 2022, “we’re surviving,” he says. “We’ve a lot to be thankful for.”
This may be in part because Tiffany’s feels as if it belongs to the people who dine there. It’s their place, with their food: pickled cucumbers to be dipped in a quick shoyu mayo, the kind — kine, if you’re local — that mom used to whip up for a snack; fried chicken in a shattery mochiko (sweet glutinous rice flour) crust; slabs of artisanal “spam,” sugars breaching the surface and shining.
For a dish of hamachi sashimi, Simeon begins with a ponzu sauce, mixing shoyu — the name for soy sauce in Hawaii, a legacy of the Japanese immigrants who sailed to the islands in the 19th and early 20th centuries to work the sugar and pineapple plantations — with kombu, bonito flakes and citrus. It’s a classic flavor combination, but when Simeon was first experimenting in the kitchen, he wanted to make it more local. A CHamoru chef from Guam who saw kinship in their island cuisines had told him about the condiment fina’denne’, which the CHamoru poet Craig Santos Perez has described as “holy water” for every CHamoru celebration: a blend of soy sauce, vinegar or citrus, onions and chiles. In homage to that recipe, Simeon adds sweet onions to the ponzu and ginger in lieu of chiles, for a gentler kick, then shiso for “some effervescence,” he says.