PAHOA, Hawaii >> As entire communities were laid waste by the Kilauea eruption that started May 3, a new global food chain opened in Pahoa to little fanfare.
Few in Hawaii may have heard of World Central Kitchen, but hundreds of displaced residents from Leilani Estates, Lanipuna Gardens and other areas in Lower Puna affected by volcanic activity are getting made-from-scratch meals prepared daily by the group’s all-volunteer crew.
“It’s amazing. People just show up and they want to help. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Kristen Alice, 31, of Hawaiian Beaches, who is doing her part by handling volunteer coordination and social media.
Working from a former KFC restaurant in Pahoa, World Central Kitchen has been preparing approximately 830 hot meals a day for three different sites.
|INFO AND DONATIONS
>> On the net: worldcentralkitchen.org
>> World Central Kitchen Puna Hawaii Volcano Response on Facebook: facebook.com/ chefsforhawaii
>> Mail: World Center Kitchen Inc., P.O. Box 392289, Pittsburgh, PA 15251-9289
The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit was founded by celebrated chef Jose Andres in 2010 after a devastating earthquake in Haiti. World Central Kitchen’s Chef Network relies on cooking pros from across the country who are ready to take leave from their own businesses to volunteer on short notice and set up feeding operations in areas affected by natural disasters.
World Central Kitchen served 4 million meals last year. In addition to the Hawaii operation, it has ongoing programs in hurricane- ravaged Puerto Rico and in Guatemala, which suffered its own destructive eruption this month.
“We headed to Hawaii shortly after the eruption,” said spokeswoman Jeanette Morelan in an email. “As with Puerto Rico and now Guatemala, Jose wants to be wherever we are needed as soon as we can be.”
Chef Tim Kilcoyne, who owns Scratch Sandwich Counter, a farm-to-table restaurant in Oxnard, Calif., launched the Pahoa kitchen in mid-May and spent three weeks here before returning to California for three days to cater an event. He said he was planning to fly back to Hawaii, but was deployed to Guatemala, where he has set up two World Central Kitchen operations.
Kilcoyne joined the Chef Network in December and led the organization’s relief efforts during last year’s massive Thomas wildfires in Ventura County, Calif. He said that after arriving on the Big Island, he made contact with the Salvation Army, which was providing food to American Red Cross shelters in Pahoa and Keaau.
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“When I had stopped at the Red Cross shelter at the (Pahoa) community center, breakfast was almost two hours late, but most of the people at the shelter told me that most of the time they end up walking to purchase food from the cafe down the street or walking over to The Hub (relief center run by Pu‘uhonua o Puna), since they don’t usually care for the food or there is never enough,” he said in an email. “I ended up reaching out to The Hub and arranged for WCK to handle breakfast, lunch and dinner each day moving forward.”
The organization is renting the KFC site from Salvador Luquin, who was preparing to open his new Mexican restaurant there after his popular namesake eatery of 34 years burned in a 2017 fire that also destroyed Pahoa’s historic Akebono Theater.
“The community supported me, and now it’s time for me to give back and help them out,” Luquin said.
On Wednesday 310 dinners were sent to The Hub, with an additional 100 meals going to those living in tents and under tarps outside the Pahoa shelter, taking over a feeding effort started by April Buxton, who lost her Leilani Estates home and was spending her own money providing food for fellow evacuees.
An additional 50 dinners are prepared for residents in Kalapana. Those meals are delivered by pig farmer Chad Akiona, who drives up daily to collect food scraps from the kitchen.
About a third of all meals are vegan because, well, that’s Puna for you.
Last week the Bodacious Women of Pahoa, a community-based relief effort in Nanawale Estates, began offering a weekly Thursday dinner of 50 meals prepared by World Central Kitchen, and this week the organization began preparing 45 lunches for children affected by the eruption who are enrolled at the Pahoa Summer Fun program location, which requested the assistance.
This being Hawaii, some adjustments beyond vegan options were necessary to accommodate local tastes, according to Kilcoyne.
“That is also part of what I love about WCK. As a chef we are always learning, and most of the time it is learning from visiting new areas and working with local chefs,” he said. “I went from Hawaii doing lots of white rice and proteins to Guatemala, where we are doing more black beans and tortillas each day.”
Kilcoyne was followed June 3 by Gregg Malsbary, executive chef for the University of Minnesota and a culinary consultant. He said he built on his predecessor’s work, ensuring the Pahoa kitchen was compliant with state Health Department rules and assuming other tasks such as training helpers.
“I worked with the team in culinary technique instruction to the enhance the volunteers’ experience so they’ll come back,” he said.
It may be an all-volunteer staff, but the highly organized Work Central Kitchen in Pahoa runs like a professional restaurant.
Cathy Lam, the first local volunteer, served as volunteer coordinator and kitchen manager until mid-June, when she left to visit her parents on the mainland.
Lam, 56, got her education in electrical engineering but has been working with nonprofit youth and community development programs in her native Vietnam since 2001. She moved to Hilo about 18 months ago from Newport Beach, Calif.
“That day of the eruption, I felt like I wanted to get involved,” she said.
After spotting a Facebook post calling for volunteers, she showed up and was immediately given a big bag of onions to chop. With her background in nonprofits, Lam, a petite woman with a serene, ready smile, became a calm, competent presence in the Pahoa kitchen as the demand for meals quickly grew.
Many who have been helping out lost homes or were displaced themselves and find comfort in keeping busy and helping others.
Sam Gordon, 35, who came to the Big Island in 2015, worked and lived at the Kalani retreat center in Kalapana, which has suspended operations. She was laid off June 6 and has been staying with friends, working at World Central Kitchen a couple of days a week while trying to sort out her situation.
“There’s no other way I could wake up every day and look at what’s in front of me,” Gordon said while chopping cilantro for a salad. “It’s a place to put all my energy and do good and keep it off fear and uncertainty.”
She said she’s also learning how to function in a commercial kitchen, which could prove useful as she looks for employment.
Robert Noll, 21, and his mother, Amberly, also have been helping out. Their home in Kapoho was spared by lava but is inaccessible. Noll, a cook at Kaleo’s Bar & Grill in Pahoa, said he’s been coming to the kitchen every other day for about three weeks “to give back to the community.”
“This is where I grew up and learned to swim as a child. It’s all gone now, it’s just a memory,” he said. “But we’ll get through it and go back.”
During the reporter’s visit, Ainaloa resident Bob Robbins popped in to ask if he could lend a hand. Robbins, 65, is a chef at Island Naturals Market & Deli.
Walking back to his vehicle to retrieve his chef’s tunic and knives, Robbins said he shows up whenever he can spare an hour or two.
Former restaurant owner and private chef Anna Yoshihara of Japan, who was in Puna on a retreat, also answered the call, contributing vegan fare.
World Central Kitchen buys all its food, paper goods and other materials from local vendors, supporting the economy while providing essential relief and job training. The organization also avoids tapping into charity resources needed by local relief groups.
An estimate of how much the group has spent on the Pahoa effort was not available, according to spokeswoman Morelan.
There’s also been a steady stream of donations from other food service establishments, hotels, stores, farmers and fishermen.
Workers with the Goodfellow Bros. Inc. construction company arrived on a recent Tuesday with 200 pounds of ono caught during the company’s annual employee fishing tournament in Kona. The fresh catch required a last-minute menu change and was prepared as baked fish and furikake poke.
The regular menu has included such dishes as barbecue ribs, tofu quinoa, chicken curry, beef enchiladas, Kalapana rabbit stew, kim chee fried rice, loco moco, spaghetti and Mediterranean grain salad.
The dishes are winning rave reviews. In fact, evacuees from the Red Cross shelter in Keaau, and other Puna residents, have been arriving at The Hub to dine as word spreads. The meals are also offered to relief volunteers and first responders.
Jim and Robin King, both 33, and their 7-month-old son, Ocean, are living in a tent on land they own in Kurtistown after lava claimed their Kapoho rental cabin. They said they eat dinner at The Hub once or twice a week.
“It’s really a comfort when there is so much instability — how do we eat and with all the things we have to do — to be able to have this thing,” said Robin King. “The atmosphere is like coming home again.”
And the food?
“It’s better than anything I could cook,” she laughed.
Morelan said World Central Kitchen will continue to evaluate the ongoing response in Pahoa and has not determined an end date for the operation.
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