Several years ago four students of Kupu Hawaii were considered rather unsavory elements of society, but are now paid culinary staff workers, helping to churn out 1,000 meals every weekday to feed needy families impacted by the coronavirus crisis.
Chef Eddie Mafnas, who heads the culinary initiative for the nonprofit, said it has been “awesome to watch” how far the four young men have come in giving back to the community they once harmed.
“They just needed a chance. … They were menaces to society, and they finally found something they loved to do by putting creative things on the plate,” instead of defacing buildings with spray paint, selling drugs or stealing. Mafnas added, “They’re learning a craft, and finding the passion of learning what they want to do.”
The program works out of the commercial kitchen in the newly renovated Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Ho‘okupu Center in Kewalo Basin, and has trained 16 students since it started in 2018. A new class of 10 begins this month.
Kupu Hawaii was founded in 2007 to educate and train at-risk youth, 16 to 24 years of age, who had either dropped out of school or were unemployed, said Kaulana McCabe, the center’s manager. Over 4,000 youth have been educated through a range of conservation and environmental programs, such as the Hawai‘i Youth Conservation Corps, and enabled them to achieve high school equivalency diplomas.
Since Kupu began the meal program March 23 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Mafnas feels it is a duty to continue helping as long as they keep receiving donations from other nonprofits. By the end of May, Kupu had made and packed 40,000 free meals and pantry items with food provided by Aloha Harvest, the Hawaii Farm Bureau and Ham Produce and Seafood. Other partners include the KEY Project in Kahaluu, the Boys & Girls Club of Waianae and Ke Kula Nui O Waimanalo, which distribute the meals.
His four students are among about a dozen volunteers and staff putting out the thousand plates per weekday.
Data Sananap, 26, has been with Mafnas the longest, about five years. “He is my main person in the kitchen … I rely on this guy to get things done. Back in the day, he was the kid selling drugs, and now he’s earning an honest living,” Mafnas said.
Sananap, the youngest of 15 children, said of Kupu, “It helped me reset my life. If it wasn’t for Kupu, I’d either be dead, on drugs or still selling drugs. I’m glad I came to Kupu because it showed me that there’s more to life. It’s a great opportunity to have great mentors, just to have positive people around you. I grew up without that.” He added, “I got a kid now, and I want to make sure I move around clean now, not dirty.”
He cooks every night at home, where “before it was just walk to the microwave, heat up food and serve it. Now it’s full on, bring out the kitchen knives, cook up a full family meal, and sit down and spend quality time with your family.”
Raydon Amba, 20, is a whiz at carving fruits and vegetables, and decorating plated desserts, pastries and edible showpiece items (flowers) with an airbrush gun. Now he’s getting paid to use his artistic talent on a plate instead of spray painting graffiti onto buildings and freeway underpasses, said Mafnas, noting the irony in the situation. He said Amba is “very focused, such a quick learner,” and dedicated enough to skateboard all the way to the center from Likelike Highway at 5:30 a.m.
Brothers Daniel and Peter Cardona have gone through years of training at Kupu, as have Sananap and Amba. All of them finished Kupu’s 25-week Community Youth Program, which included hands-on “malama the aina” (care for the land) work, classes to earn their high school equivalency certificate and six weeks of learning basic culinary skills. Mafnas then sent them to get certification from the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at Kapiolani Community College, where he once taught.
They spent a year and a half as full-time culinary interns at Kupu until they were recently hired as staffers for the catering arm of Kupu, which serves corporate clients American Savings Bank, Hawaiian Electric Company and the Howard Hughes Corp., among others.
Although the culinary program technically started in 2018, Mafnas really began the program on a voluntary basis for the prior eight years — “I fell in love with it.” As the owner of a private catering company, the Aloha Poke Shop and Firehouse Food Truck, he would bring leftovers for the kids at Kupu, many of whom weren’t getting enough to eat. He was then asked to do cooking demonstrations to teach them how to cook healthy meals for themselves and their families, using sustainable ingredients.
“We used food as a tool” to teach basic cooking skills, which included how to stretch a dollar and make better choices: buying a loaf of bread and peanut butter, instead of candy and ready-made Spam musubi. “A lot of them knew where Costco was, but not where their food was coming from,” so Mafnas took them to visit farms, fish markets and other local vendors and restaurant chefs, he said.
The integral part of his cooking lessons is to make his students understand that “the animals and plants died for us, and we have the kuleana, the responsibility to take pride and special care, to do the best we can to make that product work and serve the purpose of why it died for us. We’re really trying to teach the kids the responsibility, and our kuleana to the land, the environment, the water, the ocean.”
Mafnas wakes up every morning inspired to work with his team. “It’s just been an amazing opportunity to see them grow, see them trust themselves and each other. And now they’re teaching younger kids to learn a skill, and stay out of jail. I’ve been blessed. It’s not work for me.”