Cooking Hawai'ian food isn't just chef Sheldon Simeon's passion — it's what brings him comfort

"I was very fortunate to come from a family that puts food in the utmost highest respect," the "Top Chef" star says

By Kayla Stewart
Published June 5, 2021 5:30PM (EDT)
Portuguese Bean Soup (Kevin J. Miyazaki)
Portuguese Bean Soup (Kevin J. Miyazaki)

Every month, join Salon Food columnist Kayla Stewart as she explores the "Tastes of Comfort" that can be found through food.

When Hawai'ian chef Sheldon Simeon thinks about comfort, his mind immediately goes to coming home after a day at the beach. A bowl of saimin  a dish of noodles, broth and spam  warms him up after wading in the cool waters. Sometimes, it's sugary malasada, known as Portueguese donuts, that comfort him, and other times, it's a local soup of stew. Care, simplicity and warmth bring comfort to the chef's life, but like many in his Hawaii'an community, it's not only about the food.

"All of this [food] is all comfort to me, but the biggest comfort is when you're sharing it surrounded by your family and your loved ones," Simeon told me this spring.

Simeon became a household name as he competed on Season 10 of Bravo's "Top Chef." A fan favorite and competition finalist, Simeon has gone on to open award-winning restaurants LINEAGE and Tin Roof. His new cookbook, "Cook Real Hawai'i," tells a myriad of stories about history, family and community through Hawai'ian food.

"We wanted to put the word 'real' in it to really capture people's attention about the depth of our culture," Simeon said. "We're much more than pineapples on pizza or shredded pig in the cooked underground oven at a luau. We are this culture that is based in diversity."

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Born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i, the third-generation Filipino-American uses "Cook Real Hawai'i" as a vivid opportunity to share the diversity and rich history of Hawai'ian cuisine. An immigrant-heavy tropical oasis, Filipino, Japanese and Portuguese culinary traditions heavily influence Hawai'ian culture and food, which is also deeply rooted in indigenous Hawai'ian ingredients and cooking practices.

Sheldon, who is of Filipino heritage, communicates this incredible diversity through recipes like spam musubi, garden poke, loco moco gravy rice and chicken liver mousse. These dishes  and so many others in the book  help tell the story of a state that's often been showcased through aimless travelogues, stereotypical movies and the stories of non-Hawaiian tourists.

"What I hope that we did with this cookbook is that we'll make people dive in deeper and see that we're a lot more than just what you can experience at a resort," Simeon said. "Talk to the workers and talk to the people from the community who are at these resorts, and you'll find that it's amazing and you can go into real depth and almost a grittiness of our history of Hawai'i through its food."

Sheldon's own history is filled with these familial and local stories. In elementary school, he helped his father — a welder by trade and his culinary hero — slaughter four pigs for a 700-person party. They also made pu pu platters of poke, smoked meats, potato and macaroni salad and Filipino desserts. Between helping his family cook at various events and washing down dishes and cooking pits, cooking Hawai'ian food isn't just Simeon's passion — it's what brings him comfort.

"I was very fortunate to come from a family that puts food in the utmost highest respect," Sheldon said. "We cherish anything surrounded by food, and I find joy in that and what I do today."

Though Simeon's career has landed him on TV screens and taken him across the globe, he still loves the feeling of waking up at 3:00 a.m. to cater a large event, as well as working long hours to ensure that every guest or patron is satisfied. A father and family man, the pandemic has disrupted Simeon's usual way of providing comfort and joy to his community — but he's eager for what's next.

"The ultimate comfort is your ohana [family]," Simeon said. "We didn't get to celebrate a lot of these moments together in this last year, but we look forward to the future." 

For Simeon, his slow-cooked, hearty Portuguese bean soup, which he described as "the comfort food of Hawai'i" is bringing him peace. It's a dish that can't be rushed, the base of which is stewing down the ham hocks and the broth. Simeon's enjoyed many cultural iterations, including a favorite from a Japanese friend, and the different variations of the soup represent the diversity and cultural ingenuity of Hawai'i that Simeon loves so much.

Simeon's iteration is rooted in his familial roots, and the Portuguese influence is also especially apparent. The key ingredient? Well, like many of the dishes in Simeon's collection, the best things in life take time.

***

On the Big Island, this "everything but the kitchen sink" soup is one of our favorite rainy day comfort foods (and in Hilo, it rains a lot). The foundation of the dish is smoked Portuguese sausage flavored with warm spices like cinnamon and cloves. Dad always kept a few links stashed in our freezer just in case the weather called for it.

The running joke in Hawai'i is that the Portuguese locals love to do two things: talk and eat. And the only way to keep them quiet is to make a hearty soup with choke (lots of) fillings: beans, potatoes, macaroni, cabbage, etc.

Perfect for a leisurely afternoon cook, this is one of those soups where you throw everything in the pot and simmer until pau (finished). Usually the strong seasoning of homemade sausage is enough to flavor the broth, but if you're using a milder store-bought variety like I often do, you can supplement the warm flavor with a little pumpkin pie spice.

- Sheldon Simeon

Recipe: Portuguese Bean Soup 

Serves 8

  • 2 pounds smoked ham hocks (2 to 3 hocks)
  • 1 tablespoon neutral oil
  • 3/4 pound Portuguese sausage, store-bought or homemade, sliced or crumbled
  • 1 large sweet onion, medium-diced
  • 1 large carrot, sliced
  • 3 stalks celery, medium-diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
  • 1 large baking potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 1 (15.5-ounce) can kidney beans, undrained
  • 3/4 cup elbow macaroni
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal (or teaspoon Morton) kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/2 medium head green cabbage, cored and chopped, or 1 bunch kale, trimmed and chopped

For serving

  • Tabasco sauce
  • Portuguese Sweet Rolls

In a large pot or Dutch oven, combine the ham hocks and 3 quarts water to cover the hocks. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently, covered but with the lid askew, until the hocks start to fall apart when poked with a spoon, 2 to 3 hours.

Remove the hocks from the pot and pour the broth into a separate container (the broth should have now reduced to about 2 quarts; add water if necessary to get to this amount). Once the hocks have cooled enough to handle, pick all the meat from the bones and set aside.

Wipe out the pot you used to simmer the ham hocks. Add the oil and heat over medium-high heat until shimmering-hot. Add the sausage and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir in the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and translucent, about 12 minutes.

Add 2 quarts of the reserved broth, the potato, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, kidney beans (with liquid), macaroni, sugar, salt, pepper, and pumpkin pie spice and stir. Increase the heat and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and cook at a gentle simmer, covered, for 1 hour.

Stir in the cabbage and cook until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the soup sit, covered, at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours before serving. Even better if you let it chill in the fridge overnight. Reheat until warmed through, and adjust the seasoning with more salt and black pepper as needed.

Serve with Tabasco and Portuguese sweet rolls.

This recipe has been reprinted with permission from "Cook Real Hawai'i" by Sheldon Simeon and Garrett Snyder, copyright © 2021. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photography copyright: Kevin J. Miyazaki © 2021.

Like it as much as we do? Click here to purchase a copy of "Cook Real Hawai'i."

 

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Bravo Cook Real Hawai'i Food Global Cuisine Hawaii Kayla Stewart Sheldon Simeon Tastes Of Comfort Top Chef