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Chefs prepare meals for Maui fire victims, ask other islands to send frozen food

Yuki Iwamura/AFP via Getty Images

(LAHAINA, Hawaii) — Without taking a beat, the culinary world sprang into action to help survivors on Maui in the wake of the deadly wildfires that tore through the historic harbor town of Old Lahaina, and with it, lives, businesses and homes.

As restaurant owners, chefs, food truck operators, suppliers, farmers and others asses the damage from the fifth-deadliest wildland fire in U.S. history that displaced thousands, they have quickly tapped into what comes as second nature in hospitality: serving others.

Culinary community on Maui mobilizes to help feed fire victims

Local food nonprofits, culinary programs and restaurants have pooled their resources to continually prepare food and distribute meals to those in need.

Chef Hui, a Hawaii-based group of local cooks and food service providers throughout the islands, set up a food and meal distribution hub at the University of Hawaii Maui College (UHMC) Culinary Arts facility in Kahului with volunteers from World Central Kitchen, Common Ground Collective and local chefs, some of whom lost their own restaurants in the wildfires.

After “an overwhelming response” to the Chef Hui Maui Wildfires Emergency Relief Volunteer Form, the group said on Instagram that it collected contacts who are “on the ground in Maui and those of who would like to help on neighbor islands and outside of Hawai’i, as well, with plans to aggregate responses and call on you when we are ready to activate.” It also set up a Chef Hui Maui Hospitality Relief Fund “to directly aid restaurant and hospitality workers and their families,” the group said.

Celebrity chef Lee Anne Wong, who moved to the island in 2019 to open Papa’aina at the Pioneer Inn, was among those to announce the tragic news that she lost her restaurant to the flames on Wednesday.

“Heartbroken. There are no words for the devastating loss and tragedy that is unfolding on Maui,” she wrote alongside before and after photos on Instagram. “Thank you to all who have reached out to me personally and to @papaainamaui. Historic Lahaina has been my place of business for the past three years and the Pioneer Inn became my second home on Maui … My culinary community, my friends, my people, I know you all want to help and there is already movement and response from several organizations, as soon as I find out more will share. Stay safe out there.”

Since then, Wong has mobilized to help cook at the UHMC culinary facility and has posted numerous updates on her Instagram Stories to help spread the word on what’s needed, from containers and supplies to volunteers, and other helpful information for those on the island.

On Sunday, Wong shared a video to Stories in the kitchen with fellow Maui-based chef and restaurateur Sheldon Simeon, owner of Tiffany’s Maui and Tin Roof Maui, giving a glimpse behind the scenes as they prepared large-format meals and shared updates for other chefs and vendors to get involved.

“I know all of our friends and ohana on the other islands want to see how they can help,” Wong said in the video alongside chef Simeon. She reminded followers they do not want new visitors to come to Maui in an effort “to save all of our available space and housing for those who have been displaced,” but did ask “chefs, farmers, vendors” to help from afar.

“Go ahead and make food over there on your islands in your kitchens, freeze ’em and ship ’em right here to the college,” she said. “We are looking for hearty, nutritious [foods] like stews. Things that we can heat and serve.”

The “Top Chef” Season 1 and 10 alums, respectively, have continually posted local resources on their social pages for followers to support Maui during this time of need.

She also requested supplies from businesses and restaurants “on this side of the island” when they ran out of food containers and hot cups at Maui College, reminding those who could drop off or donate materials that “anything counts.”

Chef Robynne Maii, a Honolulu native and owner of Fête Restaurant, encouraged diners to come for “lunch, snacks or dinner” on Wednesday, Aug. 16, when they will donate 100% of the entire sales that day to the staff at Wong’s former Lahaina eatery.

“Our hearts are heavy with the destruction on Maui… Like so many in Lahaina, our good friend, Chef @leeannewong lost her restaurant @papaainamaui. Her staff lost not only their jobs, but most lost their homes,” she wrote on the restaurant’s Instagram. “This Wednesday, the 16th, we will be donating 100% of our entire sales of the day to the staff @papaainamaui.”

As chef volunteers continue to spread the word on social media, the message for support has stretched far beyond the Pacific islands.

The Southern Smoke Foundation, a crisis relief organization for people in the food and beverage industry, chimed in on Instagram to announce its support for Hawaii and help get funding for those in need on Maui.

“We’re here to help. Tens of thousands of Hawaiians employed in the food and beverage industry are at tremendous risk as a result of the wildfires devastating the island,” the foundation wrote on Instagram. “If you are in F+B and impacted financially by wildfires, please apply for emergency relief funding through Southern Smoke Foundation. Whether you have experienced displacement, property damage, have medical needs, or another financial issue because of the fires, please do not hesitate to reach out to us for assistance. We offer an anonymous process, provide no cap on funding, and can send funds as soon as possible. And we are here for you now and during rebuilding.”

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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