Volunteers load pallets of supplies and aid donations flown in from the Hawaiian island of Kauai into pickup trucks at the Kahului airport cargo terminal in the aftermath Maui wildfires in Kahului, Hawaii on August 13, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Kahului: When the devastating wildfire ripped through Hawaii’s Lahaina community last week, some of the archipelago’s most renowned chefs sprang into action to help as best they could: in the kitchen.

“We know that food is medicine,” Sheldon Simeon, a Maui-based chef known nationally as an ambassador of Hawaiian cuisine, told AFP.

“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,” he said at a bustling center in Kahului cranking out thousands of fresh meals a day.

“Hopefully it’s the start of a little bit of healing.”

Lahaina, a historic tourist town of about 12,000 people on Maui’s west coast, was decimated by a raging fire last week, leaving at least 96 dead and thousands homeless.

Authorities believe the death toll will continue to rise as teams continue to comb the charred area.

Over 1,400 residents who lost everything are now in shelters, staying with relatives or spending the nights in their cars.

As criticism mounts over what many have termed a slow official response, communities have been launching their own initiatives to cope with the tragedy.

hawaii maui fire
Destroyed homes and cars are shown, Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Image Credit: AP

In the kitchen at the University of Hawaii culinary school in Kahului, about 50 kilometers north of Lahaina, the pace is frenetic.

Dozens of trays of food disappear in minutes, with an endless row of volunteers filling small containers, which are then placed in coolers.

Simeon and other culinary stars - such as fellow “Top Chef” contestant Lee Anne Wong, whose restaurant was razed in the fire - are now working in three shifts to feed the homeless and those who remain in Lahaina.

“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,” Simeon said.

9,000 meals a day

The team of chefs and dozens of volunteers prepare and package about 9,000 meals every day.

“I’ve worked in high volume restaurants and kitchens my whole life and I’ve never seen the sheer mass of this food,” said private chef Taylor Ponte.

“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.

Menus are tailored based on what’s available, but are always prepared with a local touch.

Lunch on Sunday, for example, was a Thai curry with local mahi.

Dinner was macaroni and cheese, with bolognese and tomato sauce.

“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,” Simeon explained.

Members of the Salvation Army and other volunteer networks pick up the food, which arrives at shelters and in Lahaina still warm.

They’re hardly done with lunch when it is time to start dinner.

And while the arrival of more volunteers has guaranteed additional hours of rest for the chefs, the shifts are still long.

Ponte, in his blue apron, doesn’t complain.

“We’re just tired. These people (the survivors) are tired, hungry and homeless,” he said.

“You know as chefs, we never really sleep anyways.”