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‘We Need to Feed People — Thousands of People’

Weeks after the Maui fires, Hawaiʻi chefs continue to cook for displaced people while trying to keep their own restaurants afloat

Volunteers filling takeout containers with chili
Chef Hui has prepared more than 100,000 meals out of Maui’s culinary school kitchen.
Brendan Smith/Chef Hui

On the morning of August 8, chef Isaac Bancaco rode his bike to Pacific’o on the Beach, the upscale Pacific Rim restaurant he helmed on Front Street, on Lahaina’s historic waterfront. The wind was up, and the power was out. Bancaco taped “do not open” notes to the fridge and freezer doors, then zigzagged around the neighborhood to see how far the outage went. Up the hill, he saw smoke from a distant fire, but county officials declared it “100 percent contained.”

That afternoon, his dad called: The fire was not contained. Bancaco drove to a vantage point and watched the fire devour the town where he had once spent weekends with his grandpa learning to holoholo: to fish for enenue, or sea chub, in the early morning. “It looked like a tornado came out of Kaua‘ula Valley and picked up the flames and threw them over the highway,” he says. “I just thought, The power is out, everybody is home and these houses are like matchboxes, just going up in flames.”

The fire became one of the most devastating in U.S. history, the deadliest in the past century. At least 115 people were killed, hundreds are missing, and more than 2,200 buildings — most of them residential — were destroyed. Bancaco made it safely out of Lahaina that night, but Pacific’o and his rental home were incinerated. In the days that followed, smaller fires continued to burn in Lahaina and elsewhere on the island, including in Kīhei and Kula — in Kula, volunteers and firefighters fought flare-ups for weeks.

Across social media, Lahaina residents expressed feeling that the government did not respond properly to the devastation. Grassroots community support, however, poured into Lahaina and Central Maui, where thousands took refuge in shelters. Airbnb owners gave free housing, local business owners donated everything from hygiene products to headlamps, and the culinary community got to work cooking 50,000 meals in six days for people affected by the fires, many of whom were grieving or in shock. Nearly a month in, chefs and organizers are working to keep those same people nourished while keeping their own businesses afloat.

The morning after the fire, Jennifer Karaca, founder of Common Ground Collective, a Maui nonprofit dedicated to increasing food security by supporting local farmers and producers, woke up to a phone call from Nicholas Winfrey, president of Maui United Way. “He said, ‘Jen, it’s really, really bad, we need to feed people, I mean — thousands of people,’” she recalls.

At the same time, in Honolulu, O‘ahu, Amanda Corby Noguchi and her husband Mark Noguchi, founders of the nonprofit Chef Hui, awoke to an email from World Central Kitchen, the José Andrés-founded organization that provides meals in response to humanitarian and climate crises. WCK was mobilizing, and it needed to connect with people on the ground. The Noguchis built Chef Hui in 2018 to strengthen relationships between Hawaiʻi’s chefs, farmers, and food producers and the community at large, and during the pandemic, it organized efforts to feed vulnerable communities. Corby Noguchi sent out a mass text to the Chef Hui community and made plans to fly to Maui.

When Bancaco walked into the culinary school kitchen at the University of Hawaiʻi Maui College (UHMC) two days after the fire, a major relief effort was already underway: Common Ground Collective had joined forces with UHMC, Chef Hui, and the Salvation Army (the latter’s kitchen had burned down) to prepare thousands of meals. Chef Sheldon Simeon, of Tin Roof and Tiffany’s, chef Taylor Ponte, who teaches a catering class at UHMC, and a handful of other experienced local chefs were running a kitchen of up to 50 volunteers. They cooked the gamut of Hawai‘i comfort foods, including traditional lūʻau food and local-style plate lunches of barbecue pork with sweet potato.

In an industrial kitchen two men stir large vats of food with two other kitchen workers in the background.
Sheldon Simeon (at right center) and his father Reinior Simeon.
Brendan Smith/Chef Hui

Other renowned Maui chefs showed up to cook, including Madame Donut of Donut Dynamite, Perry Bateman of Mama’s Fish House, and Lee Anne Wong, whose restaurant Papaʻaina in the historic Pioneer Inn burned down. From August 9 to September 1, the coalition (with help from other organizations, including World Central Kitchen and the Red Cross) provided 128,000 meals and 3,000 produce boxes to people affected by the Lahaina and Kula fires. Karaca implores fire victims seeking food assistance to contact the Salvation Army, regardless of where they are being housed.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, access to Lahaina was restricted, and those who stayed were without electricity, water, gasoline, or cell service. (The cell towers burned.) According to Bancaco, there was nowhere to buy food between Mā‘alaea, the sparse harbor stopover 16 miles south, and Kapalua, the small resort town nine miles north of Lahaina. People came on boats, Jet Skis, and — when officials allowed — in caravans of pickup trucks piled high with supplies. Bancaco drove in equipped with gasoline, headlamps, and hot meals from UHMC to find those who’d hunkered down to protect their property — with a dearth of information, rumors of looting had spread. For the first two days Bancaco went door to door looking for people in need and building trust. “That was our function: spread information, make people feel at ease, and then feed them,” he says.

Four days after the fire, chef Kyle Kawakami of Maui Fresh Streatery showed up in Kelawea Mauka, a neighborhood directly above the burn zone, in his “big red food truck.” He opened his windows, put on some music, and started handing out mahi-mahi, shrimp tempura, and bentos. “Word spread, and it became like a mini block party,” Kawakami says. “It was young people, old people, people who’d lost their homes and were staying with family in the area, people that had lost loved ones and were just looking for a little bit of comfort food.”

Recently, Simeon joined him and they cooked balatong, a Filipino mung bean stew with chicharon and rice, and chicken adobo with tomato relish for the neighborhood’s large Filipino population.

Donations of Native Hawaiian food have streamed in from across the state: ‘ulu (breadfruit) from Hawaiʻi ‘Ulu Cooperative, poi from Manawaiulu Community Food Processing Hub, and kalo (taro) from Kualoa Ranch on Oʻahu. Meanwhile, Karaca of CGC said Maui Nui Venison and Maui Cattle Company have contributed massive amounts of local protein.

Many chefs struck out on their own to provide relief efforts, starting GoFundMe pages to cook for people in Lahaina and Kula, including Joey Macadangdang of Joey’s Kitchen and Macadangdang and Zach Sato of Havens. Sato says he plans to keep going for as long as he can afford to. On day 18 after the fire, he was headed to Lahaina to cook at one of the ad hoc distribution sites run by Native Hawaiian families from West Maui that had sprung up in the absence of immediate government support. Sato hadn’t taken a day off yet. At first, the camps received an abundance of nonperishable food donations, but with chefs like Sato coming in and local produce box deliveries being routed throughout the island, quality has shot up. The previous evening, Sato cooked bone broth saimin — classic Hawai‘i comfort food. Steak fried rice, Japanese curry, and chicken papaya soup would be on the menu that night.

Back at the UHMC kitchen, weeks of 17-hour days resulted in a shared album of pictures of Ponte and Simeon sleeping in the UHMC kitchen. Ponte, who put his business, Kamado Maui, on hold for the foreseeable future, said he believes that if they take care of the community now, it will take care of them later. “I think that 100 percent of what chefs do is nourish people and bring them together — bring them happiness with their friends and families,” he says. “If we put our businesses on hold and work towards that, as a community, I think we can build the foundation and continue the traditions and the culture we have here, and everything else will follow.”

However, Corby Noguchi and others in the nonprofit community want to make sure that the U.S. government takes care of Maui’s food industry, too. Tourism has dropped off dramatically since the fire, and chefs can only divert their attention away from their restaurants for so long.

Sato says revenue this month is down 30 to 50 percent from last August. Corby Noguchi, drawing on experience and lessons from the pandemic, is working on transitioning to a more sustainable model that doesn’t rely on volunteer chefs and food donations. Chef Hui and Common Ground Collective have set up sourcing systems connecting chefs, local farmers, and distributors, and Corby Noguchi is working to ensure that those systems are maintained by federal and state funding.

Chef Hui is now paying Maui restaurants like Tin Roof and Havens to cook for fire victims. And in the past two and a half weeks, through Chef Hui, Corby Noguchi purchased $250,000 to $300,000 of food from local growers, many of whom relied on business with Lahaina restaurants. Common Ground Collective has bought approximately 100,000 pounds of local produce and proteins that have gone into farm boxes and prepared meals for displaced families.

“We really need to be stimulating our local businesses with funding that comes in so that they’re still there at the end of this, because emergency feeding centers eventually go away,” Corby Noguchi says. “We don’t want our local restaurants to go away.”

As for Bancaco, working with his food industry community to keep people fed is the glue holding him together. “Honestly, if I wasn’t doing this work, after losing my house and job and restaurant ... [it’s] the feeling of taking my profession and experience over the last 25 years and applying it to this situation to help people — that’s keeping me sane.”

Viola Gaskell is a writer and photographer based in Honolulu, where she writes about food, our interaction with the natural world, sustainability, and design.