Amanda Smith’s face is known across the island from her work in modeling and in the pagenting world, most recently as Mrs. Kauai International 2016.
She’s also invested her energy into education and worked for Hale Opio, teaching health classes. And behind the scenes, the Koloa mother of two has been cooking up something else.
Menehune Chef is a nonprofit organization with a mission to bring kids back to the table, and teach the fundamentals of food from the dirt to the dinner plate.
Through Menehune Chef, Smith teaches an afterschool program at Kalaheo School, where second- through fifth-graders learn gardening and cooking skills through hands-on projects.
If all goes according to plan, Kalaheo School will be the epicenter for an expanding afterschool program that will teach kids at all the schools on Kauai homegrown meal prep methods.
How did you come up with the idea of Menehune Chef?
I’ve always been really connected with making my own recipes. I was writing stuff down every time I came up with it and got really creative and I wanted my kids to get involved.
I watch a lot of YouTube videos with my kids and we’re in love with people who come up with creative ideas for cooking. I was in my own kitchen and my kids were like “How come we can’t just do our own YouTube channel?”
When I do things, I do them 100 percent, and so I told my kids “We’re doing it and we’re going to do a YouTube video bringing awareness about cooking.”
Long story short, we ended up doing a couple of videos. They weren’t the best but we tried it. After that I ended up telling my kids we should do something where we help other people with food and sustainability.
We started bouncing ideas off each other and eventually it came up while I was talking to my 9-year-old — what about talking about growing our food? So we started putting that into our meals and after getting creative, I decided to go full force on the community. I think it’s important and I think it’s really needed.
How does Menehune Chef teach these kinds of skills to kids?
It’s a two-times-a-week class and we broke it up at Kalaheo School. The second- and third-graders, they’re there for three weeks and then we have a session with the fourth- and fifth-graders. Then we cycle back and do the second- and third-graders again, so everyone gets a chance to take it.
So every week there are two classes and one is cooking and one is on growing, so we can implement the balance between the two.
The very first class started in October and it was a cooking class where we made shrimp pho. My biggest goal and test was to make the pho; we weren’t cutting anything. They just had to know where the ingredients came from and what they were.
Before we started we had a basketball game so we could test their knowledge of where food comes from and nutrition.
Then we got to the cooking piece and we break them into teams. Sometimes it’s two or three per team. In this case we had two teams of six with a couple of parents helping out.
We figured out what to put in the bowl and identify ingredients on the table. It’s more of a self-empowered type of learning and if they have questions, we’re always there, there’s no frustration about it. The kids in second and third grade, oftentimes they can’t read and we’re able to instruct them by voice and tell them “This is what it looks like and what you can do.”
How do you think this kind of program can help kids in the long run?
What makes the program unique is that we’re learning to grow and cook our food, and Menehune Chef uses at least 50 percent local ingredients. We try to use as much as we can by going into the community and getting Kauai-made products.
Mehehune Chef, it gives (kids) the opportunity to know where food comes from and how it grows. It also shows them how it nourishes our bodies what kind of vitamins are in food.
It’s the essential education that kids need about food — the missing pieces in educational systems. It’s like a home economics class with a twist and I’m trying to get people to think outside of the box.
We’re in a time when food is our own worst enemy, a time of fast food where everything is accessible. But how come we can’t go backwards and remember fresh food and things that are grown in the garden? Why aren’t we using those things and why aren’t we educating people about them?
It’s all about making cooking fun again and giving the kids the chance to utilize these practices and skills to bring it back to their lives and to the future generations — their kids as well.
What are your future plans with Menehune Chef?
Ultimately it wouldn’t just be for Kalaheo School. It’s for every school on the island, Kalaheo School is just my No. 1 school right now. We started the program in October and it’ll run all the way through the summer.
To do it, I need Kauai’s support, and that’s what it comes down to. Volunteers is the No. 1 thing I need. I had 12 students in this first class and it can be chaotic. You need more than one person helping.
And of course we need Kauai- made products, so anything that can be donated from local vendors or businesses that supports our vision. Anything that’s in abundance from fruit trees, bring it on over and we’ll use it. Just the other day I got a big box of dragonfruit and starfruit and we’ll put that into our shave ice and make our own puree.
Cooking supplies are always needed too, because I don’t want to just keep it at Kalaheo School. We need to have cooking supplies throughout the whole island and so any kitchenware would be helpful. New is preferred; it lasts longer.
And funding, of course, we always need funding. I estimate we need about $15,000 to make it go at Kalaheo for the whole year, and then we can expand to each school.
Right now I’m working at Timbers Kauai doing private cooking packages for tourists that come in. I’m also looking to do private parties and cooking classes for kids. With that kind of thing, I come to you and we make it work. It’s a one or two hour class and I do a recipe for them.
Have you always been interested in teaching nutrition to kids?
Not really. When I moved here (from California), I ate very unhealthy and it caught up to me. I went to the doctor and they said “You have problems with your ovaries,” and they did some lab tests and said it might be cancerous.
I kind of freaked out, so I took it into my own hands to start my own recipes and get myself better. That’s what a lot of people do during a life crisis, they just want to get themselves better.
So I started writing recipes. I wanted to know how to make the body strong and the only way to do it is though the gut.
I started teaching kids 12 years ago, I was working for Hale Opio and I worked for YWCA and I learned a lot of health programs and was able to provide education for them.
It was great. I’d teach at the middle schools and I had accessibility with the private schools and that’s how I build the rapport with the schools.
Once I had that, I did Mrs. Hawaii pageant for three or four times. It gave me a good platform.
It’s so important to get education to kids and that’s what I’m working on, that’s what I’m envisioning for the goal of Menehune Chef — to provide the vital life skills within the kitchen.