By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Philip “Ippy” Aiona didn’t win the eighth season of “Food Network Star,” but his recently completed stint as a cheftestant on the Food Network show made him a celebrity.
“It’s funny, because I’d be with the whole cast and people would come up straight to me and go, like, ‘Ippy!’ They didn’t even recognize the other cast members,” Aiona told the Tribune-Herald on Thursday. Laughing, he added: “The other cast members would get all frustrated and I’d be like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know.’ I didn’t have a Twitter; I don’t keep up with social media.”
The 23-year-old Aiona, executive chef at Solimene’s Italian restaurant in Waimea, was the youngest cheftestant on the show, which rewards the winner with a job as host of a new Food Network show. Aiona, an online fan voting favorite, was eliminated in the cut for the final four, by the judges, Bob Tuschman, Food Network’s general manager and senior vice president, and Susie Fogelson, the network’s senior vice president for marketing.
“Bob Tuschman told me, after that finale episode, that’s he’s been getting hate mail ever since he eliminated me. He said, ‘Ippy, do you realize how huge of a fan base you have?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t even realize,’” Aiona said.
Despite glowing feedback all season on his food, Aiona said he “wasn’t that upset” about his exit from the show.
“I kinda had a feeling,” he said. “I’m kind of surprised that I made it that far, with me constantly telling them when they wanted me to do certain things, ‘No, I’m good the way I am.’”
Aiona returned to New York a couple of weeks ago to tape the July 22 finale, which crowned 27-year-old Brooklyn chef Justin Warner, the self-proclaimed “rebel with a culinary cause,” the season’s winner. With his catchy nickname, flowing locks, aloha shirts, winning smile and laid-back local boy demeanor, Aiona found himself frequently recognized in the Big Apple.
“I was so surprised,” he said. “People were buying me and my girlfriend dinner. We got upgraded to suites at hotels. I didn’t expect it. In Waimea, I get a lot of people who notice me, and a few who talk to me. But it’s Waimea, and most of those people already knew me.”
Aiona is half-Hawaiian, half-Italian. His dad, Max, was born and raised in Hilo, and is a first cousin of Hilo car dealer Pat Aiona and former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona. His mom, Robin, is originally from New York, and Solimene’s is a family restaurant that bears her maiden name. His girlfriend, Jenna, is a pastry chef, whom Aiona gladly admits “works harder than me.”
“I would never want to do that — ever, ever,” he said.
Back in Hawaii, Aiona found his dance card filled. In addition to his restaurant duties, he’s been in demand at special events and has made the rounds of Honolulu’s early morning TV news-chat shows.
“That was fun, definitely enjoyable,” he said. Asked if he received the star treatment, Aiona replied, “Naw — well, kind of.”
“They were, like, ‘We’ve never had a chef come in and be so good on camera before,’” he said.
He’ll team up with another camera-ready chef, Sam Choy, to judge Don the Beachcomber’s $10,000 Mai Tai Mixoff on Saturday, Aug. 18, at the Royal Kona Resort. Other scheduled appearances include Mealani’s 17th annual Taste of the Hawaiian Range on Friday, Sept. 21, at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, and the 14th annual A Taste of Hilo event on Sunday, Oct. 23, at the Honpa Hongwanji Hilo Betsuin Sangha Hall.
Asked about his plans, Aiona said he’ll soon open his own restaurant called The 3 Fat Pigs in the Waikoloa resort area.
“It’s gonna be a gastropub,” he said. “It’s gonna be, like, old-school English food, pub food — like head cheese, pates, pot pies, bangers and mash, fish and chips. A lot of charcuterie, but taking it to a fine dining level.”
Asked for a timeline, Aiona replied: “TBA. It’ll be relatively shortly.”
Aiona said he’s received a couple of television offers, but none yet from Food Network or it’s sister cable network, Cooking Channel. He added that he’s hired a manager to sort out possibilities, but he’s still under a one-year contract with Food Network.
The recognition he’s gained and people’s response to him have been gratifying, Aiona said.
“I really did my best to represent Hawaii and our culture,” he said.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.