When Eater set out to explore the ways immigrants in the United States maintain a connection to their home countries through its series Cooking in America — chef Sheldon Simeon was an easy choice for host. After its first season highlighted everything from Uzbek to Malaysian cuisine in New York City, Eater tapped Simeon — a beloved Top Chef contestant from the show’s Seattle arc — for the video series’ second season.
The new season would cover cooking in Hawaiʻi, and Simeon — a native of Hilo (a small town on the Big Island) — told Eater producers that he’d only agree to the series under one condition: that the crew would film at his father’s home in Hilo. “Pretty much anytime we’re getting together, we’re cooking together,” said Simeon in his first episode, where he and his father Rei Simeon prepared a feast of baked uhu with Portuguese sausage, poke, oxtail soup, pinakbet, and pork adobo. “I think my food is cooking for the community, because it comes from the community,” said Simeon. “The people who provide for my restaurant are the people I’m cooking for; it comes full circle that way.”
In the following episodes, Simeon showcased the food around the country’s 50th state, including a Vietnamese restaurant, a farm raising pigs in the Japanese tradition, and Senia — the Honolulu destination that skews new American. The Hawaiʻi season wrapped, and Simeon went on to explore the food around Houston, Detroit, Seattle, and New Mexico in the series’ following seasons. This week, Eater premieres the Oakland season of Cooking in America.
“Anything other than Hawaiʻi is so foreign to me,” says Simeon. “I grew up in such a unique place that venturing into these cities always blows my mind.” In addition to witnessing Santa Fe’s dedication to chiles, learning about Seattle’s significance in America’s sushi boom, and visiting Houston’s first Afghan restaurant, Simeon saw a familiar theme in all these restaurateurs: like his desire to represent Hawaiʻi, these chefs and owners were looking for ways to honor their home countries.
“[Opening restaurants is] more of a pride thing than it is a business thing,” he says. “The reason for them to open up their restaurant is to showcase their heritage; we all just want to represent our people in this city correctly,” he echoes.
After each season wraps, Simeon returns to Kahului and his restaurant Tin Roof — another extension of his proud Hawaiian heritage, and as Lesa Griffith wrote for Eater: a “homage to the humble plantation houses in which many of our forebears lived.” This fall, Simeon will open his highly anticipated restaurant Lineage — also in Maui — where the chef will focus on family-style Hawaiian fare. Both names, of course, are an ode to his ancestors and his beloved Hilo.
“It’s pretty epic that I get to represent so many different cultures,” said Simeon referring to Tin Roof on Cooking in America. “We get to cook Korean, Portuguese, Japanese, Puerto Rican, Filipino, Hawaiian, and it’s still one cuisine.”
“Our world is getting a lot smaller,” he says. “And that’s something to be talked about.”