Please don’t ask Robynne Maii about her concept. And don’t ask about her signature dish. The executive chef and co-owner of Féte restaurant on Nu‘uanu Avenue, insists that it’s not about food.
“It’s about you and your family, you and your loved one, you and your pals,” she explains, “or maybe it’s about just you by yourself because you’re having a terrible day and you need a burger and a beer, and a little bit of downtime. We’re in the business of entertaining and providing comfort.”
Robynne looks from Féte’s open kitchen into the dining room and hopes her guests believe that someone is cooking just for them. “My best feeling is when people come to the window and thank us,” she says, “and I can see it on their faces. Their expressions say thank you for the delicious food you’ve made for us, and they’re not just thanking me. They’re thanking the entire kitchen, which is why having an open kitchen is so great for the cooks.”
After graduating from ‘Iolani School, Robynne earned her bachelor’s degree in English and modern dance from Middlebury College. She returned to Honolulu to study in Kapi‘olani Community College’s culinary arts program. “Don’t dog on Kapi‘olani!” she tells some of her staff. “I loved my time at Kapi‘olani. It gives you a really good foundation and you can do anything! What’s happening in culinary education is that because it’s become so expensive and so competitive, all these programs are like, ‘We’re going to teach sushi! We’re going to teach gastronomy! And this! And that!’ And nobody cares. Can you show up on time? Do you know the difference between a sauté pan and a sauce pan? Do you have a good foundation?”
Robynne says the instruction in many of her classes at Kapi‘olani was better than in graduate school, remembering culinary arts program counselor Lori Maehara as “the godmother of everything. She made sure we knew where we were going, and who we needed to see.” Her instructors made as much time for her as she wanted, and she tapped into as much of their expertise as she could.
Now every evening is an opportunity for Robynne and her staff to nurture their customers. She says, “I never tire of it: when I see people take a bite, nod their head and then take another. That’s when we know we did something special for someone. What’s my best dish is such a weird question. We cook what we want to eat and we hope everyone enjoys it. What else can we do except to say, ‘Look at all the cool things we like! Hey, would you like them too?’”