When the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures began, chefs and restaurants across the globe were hit especially hard. Dining rooms shuttered overnight. However, the relationships that were built over many years in and around those dining rooms have been a beacon during the crisis, particularly in Hawaiʻi.
Chef Hui — a collaborative of chefs, farmers and co-producers from across Hawaiʻi — joined to cook and serve upwards of 20,000 meals for families in need during the pandemic, distributing over a million pounds of food in the first couple of months alone.
The Hawaiian word hui refers to a group of people that meet, such as a club, partnership, alliance, union, or team. And that is what Chef Hui is about: stakeholders from all walks of life uniting through a shared mission to “keeping farmers farming, chefs cooking and communities fed.”
Chef Hui began in 2017 as a program of Pili Group to connect people to their food and those who produce it. Husband and wife super team, Chef Mark “Gooch” Noguchi and Amanda Corby Noguchi, co-founded Pili Group in 2013 to help create a better world through food, education and community. Their respective work in the culinary and public relations spheres has earned them national and international acclaim, though they remain focused on channeling their skillsets in and out of the kitchen to benefit Hawaiʻi’s communities.
Chef Hui has now grown to over 200 chefs, 75 local farms, 60 restaurants and small to large distributors statewide. With strong relationships already in place, Chef Hui was able to quickly mobilize to help connect places with excess food to those without at the onset of COVID-19.
While the network was very willing to serve, the goal was to actually pay restaurants to make meals, especially given many local businesses were struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic. Pili Group was able to raise and redistribute $2 million, and get these funds to farmers, restaurants, and co-producers to make meals for those who needed them most.
Chef Hui rolled out several new programs aimed to address the skyrocketing food insecurity and bolster the local economy. Their Give & Go Community Meal Program commits to purchasing a set number of meals per week (at $8 stipend per dish), giving restaurants the security needed to keep staff on for the month. They launched Mahiʻai Produce Boxes and Meal Kits, partnering with local farmers (mahiʻai in Hawaiian) to redistribute their excess produce, and with restaurants to curate recipes, meals kits and cooking demos for families and the elderly (kūpuna).
Corby Noguchi, whose event production and communications company Under My Umbrella is the team responsible for coordinating the on-the-ground logistics, says distributors like Fukunaga Produce have been “ground zero” for food transportation, rapid response and critical supplies like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
All Chef Hui programs prioritize supporting small local farmers and Hawaiʻi-grown ingredients. In addition to sourcing local, feeding people culturally appropriate foods and feeding people with dignity are core values for their work.
“When you’re not feeling well, what you eat is almost as important as eating if it brings you comfort,” said Corby Noguchi, “in addition to it being healthy and nutritional.” The chefs curate meals that match the people they are serving, for example, often preparing steamed fish and vegetables with coconut milk for Pacific Islander communities.
Chef Hui is very intentional about working with trusted partners that can distribute the prepared food and meal kits to their local networks. The goal is to set-up systems that allow communities to self-organize and take care of each other far beyond the pandemic, contributing to long-term community resilience.
Corby Noguchi emphasized that Chef Hui is about building trust and relationships, and that the network’s impacts to date are a testament to the incredible power of collaboration.
“We are all community supporting community,” Corby Noguchi explained. “It’s about making it a celebration. Us, as a community, showing up for each other — just like we would if somebody had a new baby.”
Chef Hui is not just focused on preparing and distributing meals. It’s their care for how the food is delivered and makes people feel that truly sets them apart — and can hopefully inspire others to join them in their mission to serve communities with both food and dignity.
NEXT ON THE DISH