New York has classically greasy pizza, Texas has heaps of smoky barbecue and Hawaii has plate lunch: the traditional, comforting, calorie–laden go–to that keeps locals full all day long. The formula is simple: a few scoops of white rice, a side of creamy macaroni or potato salad, and a large portion of protein like chicken, beef or pork, all served up on a generously full platter. While the lunch staple is undeniably delicious, it often results in the necessity for a long afternoon nap.
Enter chef Sheldon Simeon. Born in Hilo on the island of Hawaii, Simeon competed on Top Chef season 10, where he was a finalist and won Fan Favorite, then competed on season 14 as one of the eight returning competitors. Today, he can add one more impressive title to his resume: reinventor of the Hawaii plate lunch.
After his first stint on Top Chef, Simeon says something clicked. He wanted to focus on local Hawaii food, and plate lunch was only the beginning.
"I spent that whole first season trying to impress [the judges] and thinking about what someone else would want me to make instead of what I wanted to make,” he says. “I realized I should have just been proud of my heritage. It's really special to be born and raised in Hawaii."
After that competition, Simeon left Maui restaurant group Star Noodle and took time off to focus on his family and assess what he wanted to do next. Before long, an opportunity fell into his lap, and three days after agreeing to compete on Top Chef for a second time, he opened his dream spot.
"It's every chef's dream to open up a small place where they can just chill: a local spot where they know their customers and make the food they want to make."
That spot was Tin Roof, a casual lunch counter in Kahului serving elevated versions of local Hawaii classics, including plate lunch. Although he’s a fan of the traditional version, Simeon wanted to take things to the next level.
Photo: Chef Sheldon Simeon via Facebook
The result is a revamped, redefined plate lunch that puts flavor first, from fatty and indulgent pork belly to chimichurri–topped chop steak to creamy mayo–covered poke, all paired with rice, noodles or kale. The standout favorite, though, is Simeon's out–of–this–world mochiko chicken, marinated overnight in spicy gochujang, fried twice, and topped with miso and salty furikake.
A classic Hawaiian plate lunch.
"We wanted to highlight flavors that people around here would recognize but wouldn't normally think to put together," Simeon says. "What we're doing is new Hawaii Regional cuisine. It's community–driven food: the ingredients come from the community, and our specialty is feeding the community."
Though some of the locals are hesitant to change their old ways, the revitalized plate lunch has already captured the hearts of Tin Roof’s loyal customers, who go back day after day. Now, Top Chef isn’t the only reason Hawaii residents are rooting for Simeon.
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