Robynne Maii along with partner Chuck Bussler bring a combined 30+ years culinary experience to Fête, their warm and inviting Downtown Brasserie. Taking inspiration from crave-able dishes of many cultures, Fête’s menu celebrates seasonality and culinary tradition in tandem.
Could you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your background?
I grew up in Honolulu. I was lucky enough to be raised in a family that cooked a lot. Not fancy food, since my parents were always on a budget we always had home cooked meals. Maybe we went out to a restaurant a couple times a year, so I grew up eating a lot of good food. Both my parents cooked.
What kind of food would you eat at home?
It’s interesting since both my parents lived on the mainland for a little bit, we grew up eating everything from local style food, like chili, and kalbi, and beef stew, but then we also had things like cacciatore, shish kabob, and lamb, lamb chops, stuff like that. Things that were definitely not in the normal local repertoire. Sweet and sour spare ribs, stuffed cabbage, very eastern European style. The rule at our house was we had to eat everything that my parents cooked. This idea of boycotting just because you didn’t like something, my parents were really strict. I had a smart mouth, so I’d say I’m gonna eat cereal then, and we weren’t even allowed to do that. It was either go hungry and sit at the table with us, or you’re gonna eat what I prepared.
All three of us, my siblings, we love food. We’re not picky eaters.
What was your path to professional cooking?
My first memory of cooking was making eggs with my maternal grandmother. I just love the idea of making my own food. In college I started thinking about it more, but it was very taboo for a profession. Your asian parents, they want you to do something that makes you a lot of money, is super stable, so you can have a family, buy a house, and do all that. When I announced to my parents that I wanted to go to culinary school, they weren’t very pleased, but the deal was since they put us through college that I had to pay for my own culinary education. I quickly realized there was no way I was gonna be able to go to one of the fancier culinary schools, because I just couldn’t afford it, so I came home and went to KCC. [Kapiolani Community College]
Then you went straight into cooking professionally. Tell us a little bit about your background?
I did it in an untraditional way. I cooked for a little bit and thought I wanted to get out of the kitchen, and thought I wanted to do food writing, so I got my masters degree from NYU in food studies. I got my dream job. I went to Gourmet Magazine and worked there for two years, but while I was there I got offered a job in culinary education to run a culinary program, and so I spent over 10 years in culinary education.
How did Fête come to be?
Outside of restaurants, I think people thought we were crazy, because as far as opening up a restaurant we were old, Chuck and I. We were both in our forties, and we had been out of industry for a number of years. We worked for some good people, but we didn’t have a continuous pedigree to woo people with, so it was really difficult. But in that time frame we did a lot of cooking and we entertained a lot. We went out to eat a lot too. For us, Fête was born out of this idea of bringing people together, which is very common, but we saw this trend happening in restaurants where it was less and less fun to eat out. I think that’s why we were driven to entertain more at home, because it was more relaxing.
We have this constant dialogue of having a place where the food is the foundation for the guest’s occasion. We don’t want the food to lord over the table. We want it to support everybody.
Any ingredients that you’re excited about right now in Hawaii?
Right now Mahi is running, so we get that. Mahi was never a favorite of mine because it was from the supermarket and had this grayish color and my mother always prepared it the same way and I was just never really impressed with the fish. Then we started buying fish from Local I’a, which is owned by Ashley Watts. She only sources from day boaters in Oahu waters. It completely changed my mind about Mahi. I think Mahi is one of the most glorious fishes you can have, and when we get it it is this beautiful cotton candy pink. Super fresh.
I think we had a great Ahi dish on the menu last time we ate here.
Yes, Ahi, which is also caught from Oahu day boaters. A lot of people ask us what’s the grade of the Ahi. I don’t know a lot about how they grade, I just know because our Ahi doesn’t go to auction, it’s ungraded, but all of it is fresh. The grade has to do with the oil content, and its texture. It’s an opportunity for us to explain to the guests why it’s different. The color, sometimes it’s very, very red, pinkish, translucent, sometimes it’s very dark and ruby. They’re really captivated. They like it.
Any favorite tools or techniques?
Favorite tools? Chubo knives! Come on.
That’s very kind of you to say that. Other than knives are there any other tools you’re using in the kitchen right now or techniques that you guys like to use?
Emily Iguchi who is our chef de cuisine and I, I like to think of ourselves not as simple cooks. That doesn’t explain it. — We like cooking, so we tend to stay away from gadgets. There’s a lot of knife work in this kitchen. It’s very labor intensive. You can see Louis toiling over here with some knife work. Our food is rooted in very traditional methods, with a strong French and Italian grounding, and Emily is Japanese. There’s a lot going on in the food. We like to reduce things. We like to strain things. We like to make things extra nice for everyone. In the end it has to be tasty. Really sharp knives and a good pair of scissors.
Do you cook at home? When you have time.
Yes, I do cook at home. The cooking is much simpler. On Sundays, Chuck and I are off, and it usually involves roasting something, or putting something in the oven, we have the veggies, a one pan sort of affair. We miss entertaining at home, and Chuck says, “yeah but we entertain every single night,” but it’s different. We love that people come in, but we miss sitting and breaking bread and drinking wine with our dear friends.
Favorite places to eat in Honolulu or anywhere in the world?
Right now, if it’s a special occasion we like Gaku Sushi. It’s pricey and worth every penny. We have such little time off these days that we don’t go out to eat as much as we’d like. We love Senia. They’re very good friends of ours.
Helena’s Hawaiian food is a favorite on the island. In the world, in New York City, I love Prune. It’s one of my favorites. I love Pearl Oyster Bar, because it is still fantastic. Yeah. I always go back there, those two places.