Maui Food and Dining

Teens Compete to “Cook with Heart” in Lahaina

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“Growing up a little bit.”

Lahainaluna High School senior Herzain Cardenas-Zakata has paired leadership skills with culinary talents in his second year with the American Heart Association’s Maui Kids/Teens Cook with Heart program.

“Learning how to be a captain, knowing how to talk to somebody when you’re in a rush,” says Cardenas-Zakata, who aims to join the culinary program at University of Hawai‘i Maui College this fall. “Just having a connection with all the chefs, knowing if I had a question I could go to them.”

Respected chefs like Lyndon Honda of Laulima Events & Catering and Craig Erickson of Kā’anapali Beach Club volunteered as instructors for eight weeks of cooking classes at the high school. Students learned life skills, prepping, cooking, eating and cleaning up, all within class time.


“We did salsa, guacamole, ribeye with chimichurri, fresh Mahi, turkey veggie chili, everything they can do within 25 to 35 minutes,” says Honda, who led classes that counted toward the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) program. “Things like how to hold a knife, so if they go to college, they can cook something quick and healthy instead of buying fast food or out-of-the can stuff.”

To curtail the onset of obesity among children, which has tripled over the past 30 years, the American Heart Association developed the Kids/Teens Cook With Heart program to teach elementary, middle and high school students how to prepare nutritional meals as a way to embrace a healthier lifestyle.

Studies show that youth who are involved in preparing their own meals are more likely to eat nutritious foods, and more fruits and vegetables. Moreover, leaders say the program gets kids excited about trying new foods, and encourages them to share this passion with their own families at home, expanding the program’s reach.

The high school program culminated on March 17 with teams of students demonstrating their new skills in an “Iron Chef” competition at Lāhaināluna High School gymnasium. The student teams were paired with professional chefs serving as advisors and had 45-minutes to craft a smoothie, salad and entrée using a variety of ingredients. Their creations were judged by a panel of professional chefs like Sheldon Simeon and Alvin Savella, representatives of the media, school leaders and others. The winning team, called “Salt & Pepper,” consisted of junior Alan Barrios and seniors Joseph Campos, Renden Dadez, Denilson Riveria and Herzain Cardenas-Zakata, who was proud of their teamwork, even as the clock ticked down to the last few minutes.


“Everyone pulled their own weight; we all did what we were supposed to, we didn’t argue or anything,” he explains.

Younger students who went through the program were there to cheer them on, and everyone agreed, all the students presented some impressive creations.

“It was really exciting to see how well they came together as a team,” says instructor Craig Erickson. “It’s always fun to be able to work with someone who may not have ever thought of doing this eight weeks ago.”

The AHA, together with West Maui’s own Chef Paris Nabavi, who volunteers his time to the program, recruits and trains other West Maui chefs who bring their knowledge, passion and local flavors to the classroom. Other chefs volunteering their time include Elizabeth (Betty) McDonald, Jojo Vasquez, Kaipo Nagata, Riko Bartolome, Rob Mason and Ryan Luckey.


Student cooking competitors at Lāhaināluna High School, through the AHA Maui Teens Cook with Heart program. Courtesy photo.

Entrées being created by students competitors through the Teens Cook with Heart program at Lāhaināluna High School. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

The heat is on as Teens Cook with Heart student teams have 45 minutes to make three creations. Courtesy photo.

Younger students who went through the Kids Cook with Heart program cheer on high school cooking competitors. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

High school students put their eight-weeks of cooking skills to the test in the Teens Cook with Heart competition. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Dishes presented to the judges’ panel by students in the Teens Cook with Heart culinary competition. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Sharon and Joe Saunders, who made the Kids/Teens Cook with Heart program possible through a grant to the American Heart Association. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

“Salt and Pepper,” the winning team from AHA’s Maui Teens Cook with Heart cooking competition. Courtesy photo.

Entrée made by students during competition through the Teens Cook with Heart program. Courtesy photo.

Students, chef volunteers and donors gather for the AHA’s Maui Kids/Teens Cook with Heart program. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.


The program is offered in Lāhainā-area schools through a grant to the AHA by the Saunders Family. The goal is to expand it to schools across Maui and eventually to outer islands.

“It’s nice to teach the kids early and get them involved in health,” says Sharon Saunders, who served as one of the competition judges. “There are so many good fruits and vegetables here in Hawai‘i that eating healthy shouldn’t be that hard.”

Families can learn more about the program during the Maui County Agricultural Festival, or AgFest, on April 1.  “Kids/Teens Cook With Heart” culinary classes will be available from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Maui Tropical Plantation.  Presented by Nabavi and the chef instructors, kids are encouraged to take culinary classes centered around three crops – avocado, tomatoes and bananas.  Learn more about this and other activities in our article on AgFest.


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