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Debbie Elliott

A Maui chef's lifeline: his restaurant as the island recovers from Lahaina wildfires

Chef Jojo Vasquez in the open kitchen of FOND – a Neighborhood Eatery, in west Maui. (Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR)

LAHAINA, Hawaii – On a recent Saturday evening, Chef Jojo Vasquez is directing traffic in the open kitchen of FOND – a Neighborhood Eatery.

"You can go on sirloin anytime," Vasquez says, instructing his cooks to start working a steak dish.

The restaurant is known for its seasonal menus featuring local ingredients. It's in a strip mall convenient to nearby resorts and residential neighborhoods. Vasquez says he's cultivated a loyal following among both locals and tourists.

"I don't have the best view of anything, but when they do come in, they definitely feel a vibe."

Vasquez is a 50-year-old Filipino-American who worked for years as a chef at high-end hotel restaurants on Maui before breaking out on his own. His wife, Eliza Escano, is his business partner and the face of Fond – when customers walk in, she greets them with a smile. She also waits on tables, and plays DJ. The couple opened the restaurant in 2019.

"The first thing we did was break the [kitchen] wall," says Escano, who sports a short pink hairstyle. "Because he wants people to see how they're working."

Vasquez steps from the brightly-lit kitchen to deliver the evening's amuse-bouche.

"This is going to be a butternut squash arancini," he tells his customers. "Our local butternut squash boasts a beautiful sweet finish to a crispy risotto ball."

Fond is the French word for pan drippings. The name also captures the restaurant's friendly, artsy atmosphere. A mural in shades of pink, red and yellow on one wall reads 'Fond of you Maui.' A newer one above the kitchen says 'Lahaina Strong,' recognizing the resilience of the community to overcome all that was lost in the devastating wildfires last August that destroyed much of the historic town of Lahaina, and killed 101 people.

Questioning how to get back in business

The restaurant itself was spared damage, but Vasquez and Escano lost their home and everything they owned. So did many of their employees. Fond remained shuttered for more than three months.

"It's not just checking your menu and your computer system," says Vasquez.

For weeks, he says he sat in the quiet, empty restaurant to consider what reopening would require, and what questions his staff and customers would have.

Restaurateurs Eliza Escano (left) and Jojo Vasquez opened FOND in 2019. The married couple lost their home, car and all their belongings in the Maui wildfires last August. (Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR)

"It's not only the restaurant, it's also our lives and livelihoods that we had to actually put into place before we can say we're back to work."

He worked to make sure his family and his staff had housing for one. And then the emotional toll.

"I was a wreck," he says. "Then I went through an angry stage."

That's not the right frame of mind for the hospitality industry, says Vasquez.

"Are we actually in a position to be hospitable when we do not have that sense within us?"

After the fires, the couple and their teenage son slept in the restaurant for days, then stayed with friends for a few weeks. They've since rented a customer's second-home. But finding a more permanent and affordable place in west Maui, near the restaurant, has been a challenge.

Vasquez is overwhelmed coping with all the things he's had to manage after the disaster – insurance, creditors, and repeated denial letters from FEMA for federal housing aid, including one in early February.

"I'm back into that emotional distress," he says, worrying about keeping up with his bills.

"I lost my home, I lost my belongings, I lost my car. I'm still paying for the mortgage, you know? I like to say I'm paying for ash."

Seven months out thousands are still displaced in West Maui

Thousands of people are in the same bind.

According to the latest update from Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, more than 4,000 people displaced by the wildfires are still living in hotels - paid for by the government and nonprofits. Green says that's an untenable situation now seven months after the disaster. One that hampers the economic recovery of the island.

Buildings still smolder days after a wildfire gutted downtown Lahaina. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

"It is very traumatic to lose your home," Green says. "It's also very impactful to what happens in Maui, and to the state, if people end up adrift without a roof over their heads."

An existing housing crisis was only made worse after the wildfires. The state, Maui County, FEMA, and nonprofit groups have developed the Maui Interim Housing Plan to address the affordable housing shortage. It includes building new homes, but also paying short-term vacation rental owners to offer long-term leases to displaced families. They'll get property tax breaks for participating but the state is still more than 800 units shy of its goal.

Gov. Green is ramping up pressure on homeowners, threatening to impose a moratorium on short-term rentals in west Maui until the need is met.

"I'm not playing around," Green said during a news conference on Feb. 27. "People have been in hotels quite a long time, and it is very difficult on these extraordinary people who have survived the wildfire."

A different way to run a restaurant now

People, like Jojo Vasquez and Eliza Escano, who are now trying to figure out how to run their business despite the uncertainty.

"We need to survive," says Vasquez. "After I lost everything, this is what I felt that I had left. And I didn't want to leave it."

Fond has been back open since mid-November. The ambiance is lively as people wait to be seated.

Vasquez says before reopening, he thought long and hard about how to address the trauma he and his staff are experiencing, and how that manifests itself in the workplace. He called a staff meeting and posed the question directly to employees.

"Are you emotionally ready to work?" Vasquez asked. "And I wanted it to be a real truthful answer from everyone. I don't want someone to say 'yes because I need to make money.' I want them to say 'yes because that's part of me moving forward.'"

"It's part of the healing process," he says.

Eliza Escano and Jojo Vasquez say having their Maui restaurant Fond back in business offers some semblance of normalcy in a community upended by deadly wildfires. (Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR)

It's a different way of doing business now. The restaurant doesn't have as many customers as before. And some employees did not return so everyone is doing more. Vasquez trained his dishwasher and food runner to cook, for instance.

Vasquez knows the deep pain and loss his staff is coping with, so he has empowered them to stop any conversation that brings those emotions back to the surface.

"You do not have to answer any of those questions," he told workers. "You can politely say, 'I'd rather not talk about my personal life right now.'"

He has frequent staff meetings to make sure people can check their emotions and bring an "aloha spirit" to the restaurant. But it's a tough balancing act, even for him.

"I don't even think that I'm ready right now," he says. "I'm talking about this and I'm trying to hold back tears – inside, I feel very broken."

Vasquez says he holds it together understanding his responsibilities, not just for his family, but also, "the livelihoods of everyone that's within these four walls."

His wife Eliza Escano knows too well. "We just get through it," she says. "I know he has an insurmountable amount of pressure on his shoulders and it's very intense."

Escano and Vasquez have been married for almost two decades now. Their oldest daughter is a freshman in college in California, and their son is a sophomore in high school.

Escano says despite the difficulties, being back to work offers some semblance of normalcy in a community that's upended.

A tattoo of Polynesian bands wraps around Chef Jojo Vasquez's forearm. He says it's a source of inspiration and a reminder of the values that drive him. (Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR)

"The fact that we have reopened means everybody's sort of on, like, steady ground a little bit," she says, searching for words that convey the kind of limbo everyone in the restaurant is trying to navigate.

"All of us are still kind of in between things. There's not really a long-term situation for any of us at the moment, but, you know, long term enough that we can run a business."

She says the restaurant feels sustainable at this moment, and that's all she can ask for.

The couple has joined a class-action lawsuit against the government and Hawaiian Electric, seeking compensation for their losses. They say that's another way of fighting for their family, along with working to keep the restaurant afloat and keep his staff employed.

Vasquez points to a tattoo on his right arm that serves as inspiration, and a reminder of the values that drive him.

"The bands are Polynesian," he says, describing their meaning. "The arrows represent strength. I have two different waterways going different ways, and that's me with adversity."

There are also halos representing his children, and an homage to his mother, Margarita.

It will be his compass to get through the next phase in west Maui – a rebuilding process that will take years.

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