The culinary community of Maui springs into action and mobilizes to help feed fire victims and contribute as much as they can.
Lahaina is a historic tourist town with a population of about 12,000 people on Maui's west coast. On August 8, 2023, it was destroyed by a raging fire, leaving at least 96 people dead and thousands homeless. When this terrible wildfire ripped through Hawaii's Lahaina community, some of the most famous chefs there decided to help in the way they best could: in the kitchen.
Without wasting a minute, the culinary world sprang into action to aid the survivors of Maui. This fire did not just destroy the whole town of Old Lahaina, but also the homes, businesses and lives it had. While many restaurant owners, food truck operators, suppliers, farmers and chefs have taken a moment to access their losses—they have quickly gotten back to doing what is second nature to them: hospitality and food for anyone and everyone who needs it. This fire was easily the fifth deadliest in the United States to this date.
Sheldon Simeon, a Maui-based chef known nationally as an ambassador of Hawaiian cuisine, told AFP, "We know that food is medicine. For these people to be able to give them a hot meal it's something that connects them with Hawaii instead of something that's, you know, out of a can. Hopefully, it's the start of a little bit of healing," while at a bustling center in Kahului cranking out thousands of fresh meals a day.
The pace is frenetic in the kitchen at the University of Hawaii culinary school in Kahului, which is about 50 kilometers north of Lahaina. Dozens of trays are vanishing within minutes. There is an endless row of volunteers who are filling small containers and then placing them into coolers. Lots of great chefs have come forward to help. There's Simeon and other culinary stars such as fellow "Top Chef" contestant Lee Anne Wong, whose restaurant was razed in the fire. Despite personal hardships and losses, they are now working three shifts to feed the homeless as well as the population in Lahaina that decided to stay back.
Simeon said, "Some of our chefs have lost their homes (in the fire) and they're right here right alongside us cooking for their community. Just gives you a sense of what the 'aloha' spirit is."
Every day, about 9000 meals are prepared and packed in total by a team of kind chefs and a dozen inspiring volunteers. Private chef Taylor Ponte adds, "I've worked in high-volume restaurants and kitchens my whole life and I've never seen the sheer mass of this food."
"We just got 2,000 pounds of salmon coming over from Alaska. People are dropping hundreds of pounds of local watermelon. It's a very, very massive amount of food," he added, taking a short break from the intense day. Despite the menus being tailored based on what's available, all things are prepared with a local touch. An example would be how they made Thai curry one day but with local mahi. They got macaroni and cheese for dinner but with bolognese and tomato sauce.
Simeon explains, "I know that's a lot to crank out anywhere from 7,000 to 9,000 meals a day and you get kind of creative with what you got." The food arrives at shelters and in Lahaina still warm, after being picked by members of the Salvation Army and other volunteer networks. Despite the additional volunteers coming in, the shift hours are still quite long for the chefs. After all, you get to start prepping for dinner almost as soon as you are done with lunch. Irrespective of this, Chef Ponte does not complain. He just says, "We're just tired. These people (the survivors) are tired, hungry and homeless. You know, as chefs, we never really sleep anyways." It's people like him and all the chefs, as well as volunteers, that make the world a better place.