Robynne Maii Is First Female Chef From Hawaii to Win James Beard Award

·7 min read

Chef Robynne Maii of Hawaii's Fête did not anticipate being nominated for a James Beard Award, let alone winning it. In fact, there was a time in her life when she had gotten up from the table completely.

But on June 13 at Chicago's Lyric Opera House, Maii took home the 2022 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest & Pacific.

It's the first time in 19 years the prestigious award has been bestowed upon a Hawaiian chef or restaurant since George Mavrothalassitis of the former Chef Mavro restaurant won the regional best chef award in 2003. Maii is first woman of Hawaiian ancestry to ever receive the honor.

"It’s all the cliché things that everyone says when they are awarded something. It was a totally surreal, out-of-body experience (and) felt fast and slow at the same time," Maii told TODAY Food. "It’s sort of that moment where you realize, 'Holy s---, now I have to walk right to the stage.'"

Maii beat out fellow chefs Thomas Pisha-Duffy of Oma’s Hideaway and Carlo Lamagna of Magna Kusina in Portland, Oregon; Mutsuko Soma of Kamonegi in Seattle; and fellow Hawaii-born chef Sheldon Simeon of Tin Roof in Kahului, Maui, in the category.

Chef Robynne Maii and Emily Iguchi. (Sean Marrs)
Chef Robynne Maii and Emily Iguchi. (Sean Marrs)

Early days

After graduating from Middlebury College with degrees in English and modern dance, Maii turned down a job offer to return to her island home so she could pursue Kapiolani Community College's culinary program.

"I just knew from a very young age I wanted to do something that made me happy," Maii said, adding that the prospect of culinary school excited her.

Maii had graduated and was working with an award-winning pastry chef in Hawaii, when she moved to New York to pursue a master's degree at New York University.

Chef Robynne Maii. (Sean Marrs)
Chef Robynne Maii. (Sean Marrs)

"The whole point of going to grad school was so I could stay in the food industry but not be in a kitchen, per se," Maii explained, adding she worked at Gourmet magazine for two years during her time in the city. "I also had the opportunity to run a culinary program at the Art Institute of New York City, so that’s what I decided to do and I was there for five years. Then, I had an opportunity to develop a culinary program at a community college in Brooklyn, which is part of the the City University of New York."

In those roles, Maii was able to get back to doing more cooking — not just sweets — but she and her husband, Chuck Bussler, had grown weary from the "churn and burn" of city life.

The couple had also endured a grueling battle with infertility.

"The stress of trying to get pregnant," Maii said, sharing the couple did seven rounds of IVF. "That was enough for us and and then sort of dovetailing with that, is that we really loved entertaining at home. We loved going out to eat, for sure, but we found ourselves really just wanting to linger over the table longer that you can’t really do that in New York City restaurants."

Fête is born

After careful consideration, Maii and Bussler planned their move back to Hawaii.

“We thought, ‘You know what? We can do this. We know we can make good food,'" Maii said, adding that her husband is very knowledgeable in spirits and cocktails. “So, that’s when we decided, ‘Hey, let’s go home.'"

The couple opened Fête in Oahu's Chinatown neighborhood in 2016, affectionately calling the establishment their "hapa baby." ('Hapa' is a Hawaiian word for someone of mixed ethnic ancestry.)

"We wanted to create a place where we wanted to go," Maii said. "Fête is a restaurant where we make food that we crave and that basically gives us the liberty to make whatever we want. In the beginning, it was difficult, because no one knows who you are and everyone wants to put you in a box. Like, 'OK, you're a Chinese restaurant, or a pizza place.'"

Today, Maii sources from local, sustainable partners.

Fête's Steak Tartare: Kua’aina Ranches beef, Mahiki veal, béarnaise aioli, crispy shallots, chives, and toast with anchovy butter. (Sean Marrs)
Fête's Steak Tartare: Kua’aina Ranches beef, Mahiki veal, béarnaise aioli, crispy shallots, chives, and toast with anchovy butter. (Sean Marrs)

"It's essential," Maii said of supporting farm-to-table initiatives that help local farmers, but added that in the beginning she had to start small because she didn't know anyone.

"Our burger was grain-fed, factory farm meat that came from a beef company," she said. "It was delicious."

The James Beard Award winner recalled a time when a customer inquired about where the restaurant sourced their beef.

"Our server said 'What should I tell them?' and I said, 'You can tell them it came from a factory farming campus,'" Maii said. "She said, 'Are you serious?' and I said, 'Well, if you don't go out there and tell them that, I will. It's the truth.'"

Maii said it's not uncommon in the industry for people to lie.

"They'll say they have a local burger, but it's only 50% local beef and the other 50% is from Australia," she explained. "But no one's going to tell you that."

But embellishing isn't a practice Maii subscribes to.

"It's not that we're this holier-than-thou entity, it's that we feel very compelled to tell the truth," she said, adding that sometimes it means popular menu items get 86'd. "If Julius Ludovico doesn’t have chicken, because something happens on the farm, we don’t supplement, so no one gets fried chicken, but that’s OK, because we have other things for people to eat."

Fête's deviled eggs topped with smoked trout roe and chives. (Sean Marrs)
Fête's deviled eggs topped with smoked trout roe and chives. (Sean Marrs)

'There is no straight path'

Maii's steadfast farm-to-table approach — one that does not compromise quality for convenience — has paid off.

"Guests really appreciate it," she said, adding that eating with the seasons means understanding what is, or is not, available. "Maybe they’re disappointed because they’re like, 'Oh, we saw the chicken online.' But then they get it (because) we’re telling them a story. It’s like a real story."

When asked how she would describe Fête in her own words, Maii said her "sweet spot" is to execute food, service and drinks in a very consistent manner.

"If I had to sum it up, I think that we make delicious food," Maii told TODAY. "But I just want people to know that there’s a lot of care that happens when you sit down in our restaurant and take a bite of food."

Maii credits — and took care to thank in her acceptance speech — Fête's chef de cuisine, Emily Iguchi, for making the restaurant's day-to-day run so smoothly.

"She's a mother, so we have completely rejiggered how we structure the kitchen because she’s married to a chef, as well," Maii said, emphasizing the importance of accommodating women and mothers in the industry. "Other industries make it work for working mothers. Why can’t hospitality and independent restaurants do the same?"

Emily Iguchi. (Sean Marrs)
Emily Iguchi. (Sean Marrs)

Despite all her success — and a growing waitlist to score a reservation at her restaurant — Maii remains humble.

"There is no straight path," she said. "Being born and raised in Hawaii and being Asian specifically, I think there’s this idea that you need to have this tried-and-true path, because it’s safe and because it's practical. And I think it should be celebrated, that people find their own way, their own path."

3 quick questions with chef Maii

If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Mango.

Most popular menu item at Fête?

Korean chicken sandwich: Served with Asian pear slaw, garlic-sesame aioli, brioche bun.

Maii said the most popular item on Fête's menu is the Korean Fried Chicken Sandwich. (Sean Marrs)
Maii said the most popular item on Fête's menu is the Korean Fried Chicken Sandwich. (Sean Marrs)

What would you order off the Fête menu?

Korean bavette: Grass-fed grilled Kua’aina Ranches bavette, Tutu’s kochujang sauce, ginger scallion fried rice, sunny local egg, Asian pear slaw.

"It’s an ode to my mom’s side of the family who are Korean and then also it has a local egg, local beef, and this addicting ginger fried rice," Maii said.