Chef Robynne Maii

Chef Robynne Maii

We sat down with Chef Robynne Maii, to learn more about the connection she has to Hawaiian heirloom bracelets including her own HIE bracelet. Maii is the Chef Owner of Fête, a beloved Chinatown neighborhood restaurant with local roots, island flavors & cooking methods from many cultures that all lead to simple, delicious cuisine. In 2022, Chef Robynne became the first Native Hawaiian woman to win a James Beard Award, accepting the honor of Best Chef for the Northwest and Pacific Region.

 

 

Q&A with Chef Robynne Maii

 

What does the Hawaiian bracelet mean to you?

For me, Hawaiian bracelets represent family, a real tie to the islands and to Hawaiian culture. I love that even if you're not ethnically Hawaiian, it's still a tie to this special place. I often reference Carol Burnett who famously wore Hawaiian bracelets, because she loved Hawai ʻi so much. I thought it was incredible to see a little glimpse of Hawai‘i on such a well-known female icon!


This is going to sound funny, but I treat my Hawaiian jewelry like armor, meaning whenever I feel nervous, if I'm going to an event or into a hard meeting or traveling, I wear my bracelets for protection. When we lived in New York City for 15 years, essentially, if I wasn't working in the kitchen, I would wear my bracelets all the time and think of home.

 

Tell us when you received your first Hawaiian bracelet?

I received my first bracelet when I was 16, and it was the bracelet that my mother had made when I was born, featuring my first and middle inscribed on it.  My second bracelet, which is the one that I'm wearing with my HIE bracelet, I got when I turned 18 features my middle name, and I always pair them together. I also inherited a bracelet from my maternal grandmother some time after she passed away, and I mention that because all three of these bracelets were all made by the same gentleman named Mr. Hiramatsu, and he did everything by hand.

 

What is your earliest memory of a Hawaiian bracelet?

I started hula at the very young age of four with Auntie Maiki (Aiu Lake). Auntie was such a force, and her lineage is carried on in many, many different hālau; her style inspiring to many.  After my mother begged Aunty Maiki to take me in (as Aunty typically only took students after the age of five) I remember going to the hālau and instantly noticing all of the hula aunties wearing Hawaiian bracelets, and it was such a natural encounter that made me wonder when I’d get my first bracelet. It was an iconic moment and since then, I can’t help but love the sound of multiple bracelets on a wrist. I love hearing aunties come through the restaurant, or any space really, with 20 bracelets on each arm – a sound that is so uniquely Hawai‘i.  I’m honored to be able to wear Mele and Noel’s beautiful HIE bracelets and carry on this tradition.

Which bracelets from HIE do you have and why?

I really like the simpler design of the ‘Uluhe. The story behind this ‘Uluhe fern is, in part, why I chose it. I love that this formidable plant provides structure for the rest of the ecosystem by preventing soil erosion. I love this picture because it ties into so many aspects of my life. Everyone wants to talk about sort of the culture of Fête, and for us, it's always foundational, whether that’s physical foundation, proverbial foundation or philosophical foundation. So, I thought it was perfect.

 

What woman in your life inspires you?

A woman in my life? There's so many. In the culinary space, I gravitate to Alice Waters, Gabrielle Hamilton, Suzanne Goin, Julia Child, Dory Greenspan, Paula Wolfberg and Claudia Roden. I can just go on and on and on. There are so many amazing women in food. 

 

When I think about the women in politics, I have to share my love for (Ruth Bader) Ginsburg, of course, and Michelle Obama. I also love Hillary Clinton because these are all women that spark inspiration in terms of breaking glass ceilings. I feel like when people say inspirational, the answer is more often than not, a woman. That's not to say that there are men that are inspiring, too, but it is mostly the women behind the change and also behind the scenes making things happen. With that said, I love that Mele and Noel have gone on this venture together, because I think it's hard to do anything that's design related and personal; so I must include them to say that they too inspire me as a working woman in Hawai‘i.

What is your life motto?

When it comes to work, Chuck and I always say, 'we have to take care of the house first' and what that means is that we have this very firm belief that if we don't take care of the physical house of Fête and all the people that work here first, then we have no hope. 

I think my life motto has evolved since we're getting older and since the pandemic, the small things just don't seem to matter as much. I think that my motto is 'enjoying'. Enjoying each other, enjoying each other's company, good friends, loved ones and family because I think sometimes we can get too serious.

 

What is your superpower?

The first thing that popped in my mind was bringing empathy into a space. I think that as humans, we're all very complicated. We're complicated and we're unique, and I think it's really easy to sign people off without hearing their story. 

 

I had a mentor when I was a new young manager, and at the time I was just frustrated about working with people because of their individual complications. He told me that my job was to bring out the best in that person and that the hard thing is that it's going to look different for every single person. Everyone's best is different and my job as a manager is to suss that out and then bring out the best in them. I continue to do that to this day. In fact, it’s part of my philosophy to foster the next generation of the culinary industry so that we can reinvent the industry. We aim to cultivate a roster of talented cooks who are empowered to build a better future for our industry and the  greater community. I have a background in education and I constantly remember the advice of my mentor and so, I think that empowering those around me to be my superpower. 

 

Anything else you’d like to share?

I feel like I'm halfway through my life – I will turn 50 later this month. This may come across as a little bit morbid, and I don't think I'm preoccupied by death, but I am becoming more aware of time. When I spend time with people or when I look at the material things in my life, I see a number. For example, like our fine china. I think 'I'll probably only use this dish ten more times in my life' or this piece of jewelry,
I’ll only wear this ten more times'. I am trying to move away from this mindset and I want to enjoy more. I want to use that China more, I want to wear that jewelry more.

 

Beyond that, I also think about these things that I cherish, and where they are going to go after I am gone. I think about passing these things on to people I love, in a very light hearted way. It's not heavy.

 

I think I grew up in a culture where I constantly heard my parents or relatives say, ‘oh, we have to save the nice china for a special occasion, or we can't wear the nice jewelry because we might lose it or we might break it’ and I am like, no, you have these beautiful things and they're meant to be used and worn because they make you feel awesome or they remind you of a moment or they remind you of a person.

 

I want to embrace that more than feeling scared over the thought that I might lose or I might break it. Precious items like fine China and heirloom jewelry for example are not meant to be kept in the box, or in the cabinet all the time. They are meant to be seen, have their own breath – their own life. Heirloom treasures have Mana in them, and I believe them to me so much more than a material object. It's sort of like an extension of you.

 

 

All photos captured by: Nani Welch Keliʻihoʻomalu

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