By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Big Island Candies celebrated the opening of its new 17,000-square-foot warehouse on Wednesday with a special lunch catered by Hilo-born chef Sheldon Simeon, a finalist last season on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef.”
Smiles and laughter were the order of the day as the company’s employees and a few guests enjoyed the local-style cuisine, which featured a perfectly roasted 100-pound pig with crispy skin, warabi (fiddlehead fern) salad, mussels with sweet chili sauce, pancit and, of course, plenty of rice.
The only course not made by Simeon was dessert, which was Big Island Candies’ own fuji apple pie with buttery crust.
The lunch was held in the new warehouse, which is next to Big Island Candies’ Hilo factory and retail store.
“This is for the employees,” said Allan Ikawa, Big Island Candies’ president and owner. “What’s really nice is a lot of (Simeon’s) relatives work for me. I was trying to figure out how they could taste Sheldon’s cooking, so I figured this is a perfect venue.” Ikawa said that Simeon’s late mother, Juanita, also worked at Big Island Candies.
Asked what he thought about Simeon’s food, Ikawa replied: “The best. ‘Top Chef.’”
Food for the shindig was provided by KTA Super Stores. Derek Kurisu, a KTA vice president, said there’s a reason Simeon is a top chef.
“Everything he has there is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted,” he said. “I’ve always thought that pork and peas is just pork and peas, but his pork and peas is out of this world.”
Tribune-Herald food columnist Audrey Wilson pronounced the fare “excellent.”
“Everything has a little different touch to it,” she said, noting that Simeon’s potato-macaroni salad was elevated by the addition of tuna.
Simeon, who now lives on Maui with wife Janice and their three daughters, Chloe, Peyton and Quinn, worked the serving line, pausing from time to time to talk story or pose for pictures with old friends and star-struck fans. Working alongside him were his father, Reinior, who Simeon said inspired him to become a chef, and his brother, Jeremy, a trained chef who worked at the Hyatt Waikoloa and now cooks at Hawaii Community Correctional Center.
“Whenever I cook with my dad and my brother, I have a good time,” said Simeon, a 2000 Hilo High School graduate. Simeon said the food was all prepared at his dad’s home, with the pig roasted in an oven that his father, a welder, built himself.
“Top Chef” is Bravo’s top-rated program and is the most watched cable show among adults ages 18-49 in its time slot and he said that his time as a cheftestant changed his life.
“Being on ‘Top Chef’ was amazing,” he said. “I got to represent Hawaii and meet some great people along the way. That’s the best thing, just meeting everybody. Everyone’s been so supportive.”
After the show aired, Simeon left his job as executive chef at Star Noodle and Leoda’s Pie Shop in Lahaina “to enjoy this summer with my girls.” He said that he hopes to announce the opening of his own restaurant on the Valley Isle “by the end of the year.”
Asked if the cuisine would be modern Filipino like the food he served during the “Restaurant Wars” episode of “Top Chef,” he replied: “Not totally Filipino, but that’s my influence, so that will shine through in the food. I think it’s time for Filipino food to shine.”
Simeon said that he now spends much of his time on special appearances and events throughout the islands. He and fellow “Top Chef: Seattle” cheftestant Joshua Valentine will be among the celebrity chefs featured at the 3rd annual Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, Sept. 1-9 in Honolulu. Simeon said he, his dad, and Valentine will be serving goat.
“My dad’s way of preparing it is almost a tartare,” Simeon said, and flashed his trademark smile.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.