WAILUKU - They came with trucks bearing gifts as well as lots of expensive food, well-honed organizational and kitchen skills, and a healthy sense of competition and good will, all of which were needed - and given freely - to honor Maui's kupuna during the holidays.
This year's official menu from the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association's 2011 Kupuna Dinner on Thursday night consisted of corn chowder, baked ham, rice, pumpkin pie and tea or coffee.
Maui Hotel & Lodging Association Executive Director Carol Reimann said that over the years, some hotels, with no financial gain in mind, "go well above above and beyond."
The Maui Westin Resort & Spa Sous Chef Wesley Holder puts the final touches on pumpkin creme brulee with a torch specifically designed for the sumptuous dessert.
The Maui News / CHRIS HAMILTON photo
Sheraton Maui Resort restaurant employees designed edible table centerpieces, such as this one made of sliced pineapple, carrot and green pepper to replicate a palm tree on the beach. Some kupuna at the table said they were stunned by the skill and creativity that went into the effort and felt honored by it.
The Maui News / CHRIS HAMILTON photo
"It's the best kind of competition there is because it all goes back to them," said Angela Nolan, general manager of the Westin Ka'anapali Ocean Resort Villas. "This is a great opportunity to give back. And it just feels good to go all out for them."
The self-proclaimed overachieving manager in the elf hat was flanked by her guest activities manager, Makalapua Kanuha, who sang Christmas songs on her ukulele.
Another example of the friendly competition? The Grand Wailea offered seven courses to one of the newer hotel's three, said one of its servers, Chris Congo. Congo, like so many others in his place at the Velma McWayne Santos Community Center appeared to have a nonstop smile and jovial attitude, no matter the perspiration.
"Everyone prides themselves on who puts out the nicest spread, and if they appreciate it," said Sonia Cabacungan, director of purchasing for the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea.
For her and the dozens of other employees and volunteers, who drove from nearly all corners of the island, that included unpacking, setting up, serving, and then repacking and cleaning everything needed to serve 500 meals.
Some seniors are considered "regulars" at particular tables with what many said they consider to be the best tables.
"It's the same people every year and you get to know them," said server Dahna Oviedo of the Grand Wailea, who was at her eighth kupuna dinner. "They're so cute. I think I'm going to cry."
There were high-end gift-wrapped door prizes in addition to the gift bags provided by each hotel under a senior's seat, most of which consisted of toiletries and linens, which came in multiple wrapped packages or even in baskets enclosed in colored plastic wrapping, complete with hand-tied bows.
The tables featured fine-dining centerpieces. One was a carrot peeled and cut to resemble the trunk of a palm tree, with fronds made of a sliced green pepper on a beach of pineapple.
Randy Piltz, an executive assistant to Mayor Alan Arakawa, said he couldn't get over how much effort the hotels obviously put into making everyone feel special. He remarked on more than one occasion about how wonderful it was that the hotels brought real holiday-themed tablecloths as well as fine flatware, glasses and comfortable chairs.
Participants from more than a dozen of Maui's resorts and hotels included volunteers, apprentices, top hotel executives, wait staff, chefs, line cooks and even some of their spouses and children.
The event was a major undertaking, with dinner preparation taking hundreds of people, as many pounds of food, thousands of dollars worth of presents, and dozens of buses and trucks.
Features aimed at impressing the kupuna included ice sculptures, decked halls, a band and everything in between, from Santa and Mrs. Claus to carved strawberries, pumpkin creme brulee and shrimp approaching the size of lobsters in martini glasses.
In fact, the Westin Maui's five-course meal included prosciutto-wrapped lobster tail with a bearnaise sauce and beef short rib. Hotel staff members also had a projector with the name of their property beamed on to a wall near their prep areas.
"It's the best event we do," said Grand Wailea Executive Chef Eric Faivre, who is no stranger to cooking under pressure for all sorts of events. "Just look at them. They are so happy."
Faivre said event organizers must be doing something right, and they intend to keep the seniors coming back for more each year.
Each participating hotel was responsible for 40 complete meals, Reimann said.
For hotels used to serving massive weddings and conferences, some said the pressure came from competition or themselves, to satisfy those in need or reminders of elderly loved ones.
While the seniors dined on some of the finest cuisine available on the island, many of the workers munched on pizza out back.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.