Top Chef’s Sheldon Simeon on finding his voice and cooking with his heart

Top Chef’s Sheldon Simeon on finding his voice and cooking with his heart

We let the cat out of the bag early and asked Filipino-American Chef Sheldon Simeon how he felt about the last season of “Top Chef,” the one that had its finale earlier this month in Mexico.

“It was disappointing to be eliminated. When I went back to the show, there was only one thing I wanted, to go till the end and be called ‘Top Chef,’” the Hawaii-born Pinoy chef expressed. “I showed my feelings during the whole season and in the end, I am a winner because I got to be myself and I was able to share a lot of my culture. It would have been nice to be called top chef…”

A consistent fan favorite even during his first season, Sheldon was able to endear himself to “Top Chef” viewers because of his demeanor, work ethic and how he kept on producing dishes that wowed the show’s judges – Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons.

When Sheldon received the call asking if he wanted to be a part of the show’s upcoming season, he had one thing in mind: redemption.

Little did he know, half of the chefs cast were also gunning for the same thing.

It was a few weeks later when he realized that the show was going to mix veterans and rookies because he heard that a few chefs who were also returning.

A quick refresher course: Sheldon was a fan favorite in the first season he joined. Unfortunately, he was the last chef eliminated before the finale, which saw the first all-female showdown between Kristen Kish and Brooke Williamson. Kristen, who was eliminated during the Restaurant Wars episode but won all her Last Chance Kitchen challenges to return to the main competition, was declared “Top Chef” that season.

This season: Sheldon is still the fan favorite and won $10,000 for it. In a similar three-way battle for the finale, he was unfortunately eliminated. The same spot where he was four years earlier.

Fans took to social media to express their dissatisfaction over this decision that same evening that Sheldon got the boot.

“The fans have been nothing but supportive and I have gotten so many nice messages from the community. It wasn’t my best cooking. For every single challenge that I was on top, I felt good about it. This was one challenge that I didn’t really feel good about,” he shared. “Ultimately, it sucks as to how it ended but I was okay with whatever the outcome was, knowing that it was not one of my best showing.”

James Beard House

Chef Sheldon was in New York City recently to fulfill one of the items in his bucket list: cooking at the revered James Beard House.

He earned the right to cook there when he won a Quickfire Challenge in the show.

“It was an overwhelming feeling. It was almost surreal as I stepped inside the James Beard House. A kid from Hawaii, and a Filipino, and to be in a place of such prestige,” Sheldon said, still a little high from the euphoria that enveloped him.

For him, it was about finding his voice and staying true to his culture, one among many life lessons he learned from joining “Top Chef” earlier.

“Season 10 was not only a lesson of ‘Top Chef’ in general but in life, don’t be someone that you’re not. For me, Hawaii is so unique. Being Filipino in America is so unique. Let’s celebrate that. Let’s be proud about our culture. That was what I wanted to do in the show, just be myself,” he shared proudly.

Thus he cooked with his heart out and served Filipino dishes and Filipino ingredients whenever the opportunity presented itself.

He fed Tom, Padma, Gail and guest judges with Filipino flavors. For him, the cuisine in general can be shown through so many different styles and flavors.

“From kilawen, pinakbet, okra – a lot of my sauces all had patis and bagoong sometimes. It just goes to show a lot of people still do not know what Filipino cuisine is. To have those kind words from Tom that he enjoyed the food is a win for all of us Filipinos,” Sheldon said.

When he won the right to cook at the Beard House, the judges heaped praises on the dish he served – home-made chow fun noodle made with Carolina gold rice topped with pork belly, pea shoot salad and annatto seed jus – and the components and techniques he used to come up with the dish.

“Being humble is great but at some point, you will take your place amongst some of America’s greatest chefs,” Tom Colicchio declared, anointing Sheldon as the next great American chef.

“I am still processing it,” Sheldon told us about the unexpected accolade.

“He messaged me a few nights ago, directly following my elimination. To be able to call chef Tom a mentor, and now a friend, is amazing. I have utmost respect for him. It is a win for our culture. My grandparents worked so hard and took the sacrifice coming over from the Philippines with nothing but the clothes on their backs,” he added.

Sheldon is undoubtedly inspired by the perseverance and hard work of his grandparents who came from Ilocos Norte to Hawaii to become plantation workers, and the way they made something for themselves given this opportunity.

“I am cut from that same cloth and to celebrate that on national television is amazing and to have that recognized by chef Tom is great and beautiful,” he said.

And during his elimination, the judges didn’t hide their emotions either. Padma even defended Sheldon when they were deciding on who to eliminate.

“Padma is stunning, she is beautiful and sweet. She cooked delicious food for us. Two seasons of ‘Top Chef,’ we go through a lot of stuff together and with all of the judges, we get to connect on that level,” Sheldon shared. “To see Padma tearing up as I left is a little heart-wrenching. It goes to show how powerful food is in making connections with people and I am happy that I got to share with them our cuisine.”

Life After Top Chef

Sheldon and his wife Janice own Tin Roof, a small restaurant in Maui that they opened three days after Sheldon said yes to appearing in “Top Chef” again.

“It’s 500 square feet, six seats, that’s it. We just feed the community. By the end of this year, I will be opening Hala, Hawaii-style food with a lot of Filipino influences,” he shared.

Tin Roof is inspired by his upbringing in Hilo, “which is a rainy town,” he said.

“And like many Filipinos, we don’t cook in the house, we cook outside, like a dirty kitchen. That was our gathering spot. When it rains, the tin roof always reminds me of Hilo and the moments my family shared,” he added. “We wanted a spot to feed the community. I had a restaurant in a hotel in a resort area but the feeling of being able to feed my community in this small place is much more rewarding than I could ever imagine.”

Janice herself made it to “Top Chef,” in a Quickfire Challenge where the cheftestants had to work alongside another person without seeing them.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better partner there. She came out at the right moment,” he said. “It was a long season already, that was near the tail-end and the energy of being around her was exactly what I needed to continue and I believe that that was one of the biggest reasons why I won the challenges (after) because I was able to hug her and hold her and get that energy back.”

Appearing in two seasons of the Bravo hit show has provided Sheldon with a few life lessons, whether it is about cooking on open fire using only traditional Mayan utensils or soldiering it on despite painful back pains that almost led to his early departure from the show.

“‘Top Chef’ has taught me not to be too serious about everything,” he said. “Life is about enjoying the moment and celebrating those moments that you share with each other even if it is just over a bowl of food, that is a blessing in itself.”

As for the back injury, he is thankful to the two Charleston doctors who helped heal him so he can go back 100 percent into the competition.

We concluded the interview with a question on what his personal vision is for Filipino cuisine in America.

“My dream is to have Filipino food represented and looked at like Japanese food Everyone knows what sushi is, ramen, sashimi. Why not adobo, why not pancit and be comfortable with that,” Chef Sheldon said.

He admits that it is going to be a long journey but the more important thing is that we are on our way.

“We have mountains to climb but Filipinos in America are persistent so we’re going to continue to dream big and get it out there,” he said.

And his biggest learning – aside from being true to himself – is about cooking with his heart.

“I tried to show how we cook with our hearts. Everyone gravitated to that and saw that Filipino food is soulful. You cannot beat any ingredient other than your heart that’s going to be more delicious,” he said.

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