Robynne Mai‘i, owner of Fête, Honolulu (fetehawaii.com), has won the 2022 Best Chef: Northwest and Pacific (AK, HI, OR, WA) James Beard Foundation Award, becoming the first woman of Hawaiian ancestry to win the honor. We checked in with the beloved chef, who’s delighted us for 26 years, on her recent win and her labor of love.
James Beard Award winner chef Robynne Mai‘i. PHOTO BY SEAN MARRS PHOTOGRAPHY
When did you first know you wanted to be a chef? I first realized that I wanted to be a chef after college. I went to culinary school after I completed undergrad [at ‘Iolani School], because I couldn’t see myself sitting behind a desk. I knew that I wanted to do something physical and something that I loved. [Mai‘i earned her culinary and pastry arts degree from Kapiolani Community College and a master’s degree in food studies from New York University.]
One of Fête’s fresh pasta dishes. PHOTO BY SEAN MARRS PHOTOGRAPHY
What did it mean for you to be named a James Beard Award finalist? It’s a big, big honor to be named a finalist for the James Beard Awards Best Chef category. When you work so hard, you kind of feel like you’re in a vacuum. When you have some external body recognize your hard work, you feel like, ‘Oh, OK! It’s nice to not always be in your head about things’ and feel seen.
Top three dishes served at Fête? The most popular dishes from our regular menu at Fête are the Korean chicken sandwich, the carbonara and the Korean bavette.
What do you recommend when people ask, ‘What should I eat tonight?’ I usually steer them to try something that we typically don’t have on the menu. This is typically a dish that incorporates our market fish, because it changes weekly, or one of our fresh stuffed pasta dishes, because they also make sporadic appearances, so you really have to get it while it’s happening.
Your favorite dish at Fête? Our Kaua‘i coconut prawns is a dish that was born out of the fact that I love cookbooks and am constantly reading them, coupled with the fact that I also love eating what people’s grandmothers are eating. So I found this recipe from Kerala in the south of India, which incorporated much of the same ingredients: coconut oil, curry leaves, black pepper, toasted coconut and lime. Guests love this dish because they find it simply delicious, and what makes it special is that it’s very heavy on the fresh cracked pepper.