Kevin Chong, chef de cuisine at Chef Mavro in Honolulu, is up again for Best Chef in the Pacific, the only Hawaii chef among the 20 semifinalists — the other 19 are from California.
The foundation gave two nods Maui’s way, nominating Star Noodle in Lahaina as one of 33 Best New Restaurant contenders and its chef, Sheldon Simeon, as a Rising Star Chef of the Year.
"We’re double-nervous because of it," said Nicky Boskoff. "A team of four of us opened the restaurant Feb. 4 of last year — we just had our one-year anniversary." Boskoff is front-of-the-house operations chief for Star Noodle and sister restaurant Aloha Mixed Plate. Old Lahaina Luau is another sister operation belonging to parent company Hoaloha Na Eha Ltd. Star Noodle serves house-made noodles and Asian specialties, and Yelp.com reviews point to the steamed pork buns as a must-try. Later this year another sister restaurant, Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop, will open in Olowalu, serving sandwiches, pizzas, salads, daily specials and pies, both savory and sweet.
Star Noodle chef Sheldon Simeon is among 31 semifinalists in his category, in which nominees 30 or younger display "an impressive talent and who (are) likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come," according to foundation press materials.
"It’s still shocking," he said, still trying to "absorb" the honor. He’s uncertain how Star Noodle and his culinary chops got on the James Beard Foundation’s radar, but speculates a Los Angeles-based writer who called with a bunch of questions and who also serves on the board of directors might have been the catalyst.
Simeon is a Hilo High School graduate who studied culinary arts at Leeward Community College, did an internship at Disney World — where he met his Maui-born wife — and finished his culinary studies at Maui Community College.
This is Kevin Chong’s third time among the semifinalists for a James Beard Award — and he is among a relative few who have attended the awards gala. "We did a James Beard (house) dinner, and then the same week we went to the awards. It was pretty exciting, like nothing I expected." Chong found himself alongside "all these great restaurateurs and chefs and TV personalities," he said.
He worked in a fine-dining restaurant while attending McKinley High School but didn’t plan a culinary career until right before graduation, when a sous-chef encouraged him. He applied to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., not thinking he would get in. He was accepted and told he could begin his studies in three months or in three years, when another slot would open. He took the former.
Several Hawaii restaurants, chefs and pastry chefs have peppered the semifinalist lists in recent years, causing great excitement — until their names are nowhere to be seen on the final nominee list. Best Chef nominees from Hawaii used to be categorized in the Pacific Northwest region, but in 2007 our best were placed in the Pacific category alongside California’s nominees. Hawaii’s geographic isolation is a factor, given our distance from the highly influential food press.
Whether Hawaii gets snubbed yet again will become evident March 21, when the foundation releases this year’s list of finalists.
Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Advertiser. Reach her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.