Three Chefs and the Pandemic

Three Chefs and the Pandemic

Alexis Viloria

Editor’s Note: With the Philippine Consulate General in Hawaii’s upcoming sponsorship of Filipino Food Week from June 6 through June 12—as of press time, Maui’s Joey’s Kitchen and Tante’s Island Cuisine are scheduled to participate—the Fil-Am Voice examines how the pandemic affected three Chefs of Filipino ancestry.

In March 2020, when the first impacts of COVID-19 hit Maui, the outcomes the pandemic would have on the community were almost unimaginable. With the number of visitors decreasing tremendously, traffic to local establishments diminished, leaving nothing but locals to ensure the survival of local businesses. Even with consistent efforts to save treasured establishments token to Maui’s community, many businesses hit hard by the pandemic, including beloved local eatery Da Kitchen, have gone under.

A year later Maui is still in the midst of the pandemic but slowly, tourism is bouncing back and locals have created and adapted to a new normal to keep Maui afloat. The journey from the beginning of the pandemic, although tumultuous, has proven the resilience of the community towards the common cause of everybody’s wellbeing and prosperity even in these difficult times. Three outstanding Pinoy chefs who have experienced their share of challenges thanks to the presence of COVID-19 describe their expeditions from the past to the present of the pandemic.

Chefs Macadangdang, Balagso and Simeon at the August 2019 fundraiser for Binhi at Ani.
Photo: Alfredo Evangelista

Chef Joey Macadangdang of Joey’s Kitchen speaks to the obstacles he faced over the past year. At the first touchdown of the pandemic, Chef Macadangdang felt he knew the fate of his career. At the time with two locations in Ka‘anapali and Napili, as the income of visitors ended, Joey’s Kitchen at Whaler’s Village had to be put on hold. A striking parallel to other restaurants across the island, the closure was not easy for Chef Macadangdang, having to let go of staff who depended on the restaurant. “It affected me personally because it was hard to let my staff go,” Macadangdang stated.

Chef Joey Macadangdang.
Photo courtesy Joey Macadangdang

While many were able to quarantine within the comfort of their home, waiting for the storm to pass, Chef Macadangdang spent significant amounts of time from the beginning working just to keep his Nāpili location open. “It really challenged me to keep Joey’s Kitchen Nāpili open throughout the pandemic.” As if fighting for his restaurant to stay open wasn’t enough, when Chef Macadangdang tested positive for COVID-19, he was faced with the very thing he was battling against. “The biggest challenge I faced was when I tested positive with COVID-19 back in September of 2020 that we had to close the restaurant. (At that moment) I said that is it, my career is over and we may not be able to regain back the restaurant.”

Chef Joey Macadangdang’s crew workers. Chef Joey currently has two locations open, Joey’s Kitchen in Nāpili, and one at the Whaler’s Village in Kā‘anapali.
Photo courtesy Joey Macadangdang

Despite a periodical loss in hope, for Chef Macadangdang, it was refreshing to see the community so quick to show their support for him. “During my isolation posted on my Facebook page that I tested positive with COVID-19 and the responses were just so touching and very caring,” says Macadangdang. Thanks to the support and wishes received, Chef Macadangdang was inspired to keep going. “That gave me more ideas of how to regain strength back and stay up and positive.” With the re-opening of Joey’s Kitchen in Kā‘anapali, Chef Macadangdang is still going strong and continues to use the positivity he received as fuel to pay it forward. “I’m still giving back and helping the community regardless of the pandemic in any way I can.”

Rockstar Chef Sheldon Simeon with his wife shows the book he recently published, “Cook Real Hawai‘i.”
Photo courtesy Sheldon Simeon

Fellow Maui restauranteur and culinary rockstar Chef Sheldon Simeon also took the time to share his experience during the pandemic. Like Chef Macadangdang, Chef Simeon made the decision to keep his restaurant Tin Roof open from the beginning of the pandemic. “Luckily for us at Tin Roof we did not have to close our restaurant,” said Chef Simeon. Their ability to do so was made easier by their current system of operation. “Thankfully for us, we already had the right system in place where we’re all grab and go.”

The transition to operating in the pandemic, however, was not an easy trek. “I still had to lay off my staff,” says Chef Simeon. Layoffs at Tin Roof were difficult to go through with for him. “There were so many negatives in not being able to give my staff and my team jobs knowing how important that was to their livelihood.” A common occurrence in pandemic-era Hawaii, the loss of tourism hit the job status of many locals hard.

The Tin Roof team limited to a small group, Simeon, like many other business owners, had to think of ways to keep the restaurant going. “That was just me, my wife, and two of my chefs. With no tourists here, nobody coming to the islands, which was a huge part of our revenue, we had to figure out ways to continue to keep the doors open and we went basic.”

For Chef Simeon and his team, going back to basics meant putting the community first. Participating in local programs to feed those in need like Hale Kau Kau and Feed My Sheep and implementing pay-it-forward opportunities for restaurant patrons to provide meals to those who needed it, the Tin Roof team did just that. “We thought about our community and not about how we were going to make money. What can we do that’s within our means? We fed the kūpuna and fed the needy.” Even now, after the recent release of his new cookbook, Chef Simeon continues to give back. “All sales off my cookbook out of Tin Roof right now are going straight to the Maui Food Bank. After the second week, we’ve already gotten $7,000 to donate.”

After a year of challenges, Chef Simeon used the obstacles he overcame to better his outlook on his career and restaurant. Looking back, Chef Simeon saw how much he took the success of Tin Roof for granted. “Well in the beginning, we took it for granted that my restaurant was busy all the time and we had only four hours of service so just 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM.” Having had to go back to phase one and relying on the community to keep the coveted Tin Roof open, Simeon has made it a point to exude gratefulness for them. “I made it a point to thank every single person that came in those early days like whoever braved their selves to get out the house and order food,” says Simeon. Tin Roof’s journey through the pandemic has been nothing short of a classroom for Chef Simeon who passes on the biggest lesson he learned. “That’s the biggest lesson is make every minute count because everything could be taken away very quickly.”

Chef Gemsley Balagso
Photos courtesy Gemsley Balsagso

Last, but not least, Chef Gemsley Balagso shares his transition from sous chef to furniture connoisseur. Prior to the pandemic, Chef Balagso hoped the COVID-19 would be handled in a manner that would prioritize the community “thinking that we were or are safer than most places as long as the government officials quickly make a decision to shut down the state to outside travelers,” says Balagso. Looking at the aftermath, he soon found it would come to be untrue. “But it seems that we were all wrong, cases quickly spiked as well as families losing loved ones became a reality.”

The lockdown because of COVID-19 had its own effect on Balagso’s life including areas like his career and his family. “I didn’t have to report to a place of work like I did (before the pandemic). It was hard for me to see my kids not being able to go to school and socialize with people of their age and then always having to make sure they had someone to watch them or take care of them while both parents continued to work.” Faced with the harsh realities of the pandemic for island locals, Balagso took matters into his own hands.

Chef Gemsley Balagso has trained his fine-tuned penchant for food as art to fine works of wood craftsmanship—these include truly remarkable functional pieces that are on a whole new heightened level on their own.
Photos: Gemsley Balsagso

Taking the leap to start his own furniture business, Canefield Creations, to be able to further support his family, Balagso has been a revolutionary in fostering the newfound farming skills of the community. “I started my own business building furniture which helped make ends meet along with the later support of UI and additional government funding. I spent the time on lockdown starting a furniture building business and also making and selling over one hundred fifty custom planter boxes for our community that for some reason became farmers and food growers overnight as a result of this pandemic.” First starting off to support his family in a treacherous time for all, the cycle of support didn’t end at the planter boxes. “Home Depot and Lowes loved someone like me, I bought their lumber and my clients bought all the soil and seeds,” Balagso says.

As shown by his entrepreneurial spirit in starting a furniture business, Balagso is quick to adapt to difficult situations. “The same as we couldn’t go to work, but we still needed money to live so starting a business for me was the best thing for me instead of waiting on UI and Stimulus Checks.” For Balagso, it’s all about doing what is needed to make things happen. “There have been all types of adaptations that needed to happen from when we could leave the house, to when I could go shopping. Or even how bills needed to be paid. My upbringing has been all about making it happen through hard work and dedication, not looking for handouts or dwelling on the current situation.”

Within tough spots created by unforeseen difficulties, for Balagso, an important lesson can be taken. “Some folks need to take negative things like this and learn how to adjust and adapt in the world that we all live in now. Bills will always be there and we as the community need to find a way to live, whether it’s supporting that local business or getting paid from a local employer or just getting out there.” To Balagso, by making it happen you can make sure you put the well-being of yourself and others first no matter the circumstances. “Making it happen no matter what the situation will help yourself and everyone around you.”

Having gone through his fair share of hardships through the pandemic, Balagso, like his two Pinoy counterparts, makes it a point to make sure others can make it happen. “Luckily enough I am still employed by a very strong community-involved property that is still supporting safe ways to give back, whether it’s a highway clean up to keep our ‘āina looking good or even during the lockdown we were able to partner with our community food vendors to give a care package to 300+ households, granted those households were employees of the property, these care packages were enough to feed others that live there with them for several good meals.”

All three chefs featured, though they have experienced some turbulent times because of the pandemic, have made it a point to persevere and give back. This theme has been common with them in times past as they supported the community even before the pandemic, leading “Three Chefs and a Grammy” in 2019 to fundraise for Binhi At Ani alongside Grammy winner Kalani Pe‘a. From these chefs, many can take moral incentive to do good for others no matter the circumstances, good times or not, pandemic or no pandemic. The unwavering spirits that the chefs possess is representative of the community’s willingness to keep going.

Alexis Joy Viloria, a Maui High School Senior, is the founder and President of the SaberScribes journalism club and Vice President of the Silversword Chapter of the National Honor Society. Alexis is a member of HOSA-Future Health Professionals as the Secondary Representative of the Hawai‘i HOSA State Council. She will be attending Stanford University in the Fall to major in Anthropology. Alexis is the daughter of Alex and Juvy Viloria.