Unemployed Ritz-Carlton Chefs Cook Up Weekly Full-Course Meal for Homeless
Executive sous chef Meredith Manee adds the finishing touch of fresh basil – picked just hours earlier from a local farm – to the braised chicken thighs cooked Italian style with tomatoes, zucchini, herbs and spices.
Before COVID-19 struck, Manee’s culinary expertise was enjoyed by guests at the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua. But every Wednesday for the past few months, the food she lovingly cooks with fellow Ritz-Carlton sous chef April Matsumoto and other unemployed volunteers at the Lahaina Baptist Church is devoured by hungry homeless people.
Last Wednesday, a record 67 people showed up. The crew cooks enough for about 90 because the people return to the buffet line for seconds and even thirds. For many of the homeless, it’s their only hot, nutritious and delicious meal of the week.
“I like it all,” said Elizabeth “Kala” Reyes, 56, a native of Maui. “It means a full belly. I’m so grateful they are here to help us out. I’m tearing up.”
The weekly Wednesday meal is in conjunction with Maui Rescue Mission’s outreach, which includes a mobile trailer that provides the homeless with a place to shower and do a load of laundry. Staff and volunteers also help people to obtain identification, government assistance, medical appointments and even get a haircut.
Lahaina is one of four locations around Maui for this weekly outreach, which don’t include meals. But that changed at the Lahaina location when Kenton Detweiler, who lost his job due to the impacts of the pandemic, was volunteering to help box food for Lahaina Baptist Church’s weekly emergency food distribution on Thursdays.
Detweiler, a former line cook, noticed the homeless outreach going on in the church parking lot in May and asked Pastor Jay Wright about it and if he could help by providing lunch.
It began modestly, with Detweiler and his community-minded 16-year-old daughter, Kamele, making ham and cheese sandwiches. At the time there was about 20 homeless people who showed up.
“It’s been a hard time for everybody since COVID; I said I’ll bring food and also be able to teach my daughter about giving back and such,” Detweiler said. “And, I had plenty of free time.”
The sandwiches evolved into full-course meals prepared and cooked by the two chefs and other volunteers. No meal is complete without homemade desserts, often made by teenager Kamele.
“When Meredith and April joined us the food elevated to the stratosphere,” Detweiler said.
In the church’s small ohana lumi kuke (family kitchen), the volunteer crew on this Wednesday began around 9 am to prepare the braised chicken thighs, vegetarian penne pasta with mushroom Alfredo sauce and broccoli, starfruit salad, Ceasar salad and Kamele’s peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream.
Funding to pay for the weekly buffet comes out of the volunteers’ own pockets, as well as with in kind donations from Rimfire Imports, a local specialty grocery store, and the Ritz-Carlton, which this time included star fruit picked from its property. The fresh produce came from nearby Hua Momona Farms.
The crew also made takeaway lunch bags, filled with salami sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips, almonds and energy bars.
The lure of the hot meals cooked by real chefs has led to a more than doubling of the number of people who attend the outreach in Lahaina. Scott Hansen, Executive Director of the Maui Rescue Mission, said his organization welcomes all the help it can get to accomplish the mission of helping the homeless people improve their lives and ultimately get off the streets.
“Here is the bull’s-eye to help with meaningful life change,” Hansen said while pointing to a tent set up with people with computers trying to help connect the needy with resources and assistance. “The longer we get them to hang out here, the more time we have to help them.”
With the aroma of delicious food wafting through the open door of the family kitchen, several men fresh from a hot shower and haircut lined up to help carry the food and fold-up tables to the site of the buffet under a tent.
“Of course, I want to help,” said Mark Christopher, 59. “We are so grateful that somebody shows us kindness.”
The line quickly formed at the buffet, with the volunteers serving up hearty portions. In return, they received many heartfelt smiles and a steady stream of “thank you” and “God bless you.”
“I just want them to feel dignified and that someone cares,” Detweiler said. “And I want them to go home with their tummies full.”