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James Beard Award-winning chef Robynne Maiʻi works to make the restaurant industry more livable

Chef Robynne Mai‘i fete hawaii james beard monday 061322
Fête Hawaii
Chef Robynne Mai‘i at The James Beard Awards on Monday, June 13, 2022.

Chef Robynne Maiʻi is putting the tastes of Hawaiʻi on the map. The owner of the Chinatown restaurant Fête received the 2022 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northwest and Pacific Region.

She is the first woman from Hawai‘i and the first person of Hawaiian ancestry to win the award. The ‘Iolani School and Kap‘iolani Community College alumna expressed her gratitude for the recognition.

The James Beard Awards  Chef Robynne Mai‘i
Fête Hawaii
Chef Robynne Mai‘i

“I feel very proud to have gotten the acknowledgment. But I also am very aware that many hands and people have contributed to why this happened,” Mai‘i said. “Most of the time I think about my parents because they’ve worked so hard, and they sacrificed so much.”

Maiʻi knows firsthand the importance of sacrifice.

“You cannot have a life outside of the kitchen,” she explained. “The idea of having any kind of work balance does not exist.”

She began her culinary adventure at 3660 on the Rise in Hawaiʻi. In 1999, she moved to New York City where she gained more experience cooking at Union Pacific and at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

“The hard part was the psychological part, you know, being told that you suck, but then also being propositioned at the same time, all like in the same sentence,” Maiʻi recalled. “You just have so much anxiety — not because of the doing of the food — the anxiety of being yelled at, the anxiety of being sexually harassed, the anxiety of being told that you suck, the anxiety of not having enough money to pay rent.”

As Maiʻi opened Fête, she said she wanted to make a place where people felt good as soon as they walked in.

The restaurant offers its employees paid vacation, something unheard of for an independent restaurant, she said. Maiʻi also hopes to provide her employees with a 401(k) in the future.

“We got you,” Maiʻi said. “We understand. If a child is sick or if you have to take care of a parent. Life happens.”

Maiʻi strives to use the same philosophy when it comes to the food she serves.

“We really really gravitate toward the foods that our grandmothers want to eat,” she said. "I always tell people like, what are you craving? Do you want to eat some pasta today? Would you like to have a nice piece of locally caught fish? So it really is this care. That's how we cook here."

This story was adapted for the web by Emily Tom. This interview aired on The Conversation on June 16, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

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