By Léo Azambuja
As a toddler, Amanda Smith was so shy she would only start speaking at three years old. At five years old, Smith’s grandmother put her in a pageant to help her to come out of her shell. Now, the Wailua Homesteads resident and founder of a nonprofit organization that teaches young children how to cook with healthy, local foods, has hit it big time.
On Aug. 2, Smith was crowned Ms. United States, a title that has eluded Hawai‘i contestants for more than three decades at the prestigious United States National Pageants.
“Is this real?” Smith asked Ms. Florida, as the second runner up was called up and they were the last ones left on stage. “I looked at her and I went, ‘Oh my God, we’re in the top two right now!’”
Smith reminded herself she had been there before, and it would be OK if she walked once again with a runner up title. A veteran pageant contestant, she had collected five first runner up titles, and at 35 years old, this would probably be her last pageant.
“The moment they called (Ms. Florida’s) name and said she was first runner up, I think I almost threw up,” Smith said. “I knew I was going to be the first one on Kaua‘i, I knew I was going to be the first one in Hawai‘i in 30 years who has ever won a national title.”
Smith now wants to expand her winning platform — the Menehune Chef nonprofit she started years ago to teach children how to cook with sustainable foods, using mostly local produce.
Her new crown might help her to take Menehune Chef beyond Hawai‘i, as the United States National Pageants, founded in 1986, gives women opportunities to promote their community-service platforms at local, state and national levels. The largest pageant system in the country, it has eight divisions starting at 8 years old: Little Miss, Pre-Teen, Junior Teen, Teen, Miss, Ms., Ms. Woman and Mrs.
Smith’s category is for women between 30 and 35 years old, who may or may not have been previously married and/or given birth, and must not be married at the time of competition.
“I’m living my platform every day, because I have pure passion for it,” she said. “It took me three years after I started Menehune Chef to actually implement it in schools, because I wasn’t comfortable yet. I wanted to have a good curriculum, and I needed to test it to see if it worked.”
The inspiration for Menenune Chef, Smith said, came many years ago from a curriculum called ʻĀINA in Schools, a farm-to-school program by the Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation, promoting garden-based learning, waste reduction, composting and healthy nutrition, and encouraging local foods in school meals.
“That curriculum really woke people up,” said Smith, adding she still thought there was a missing piece. The curriculum was more about gardening than cooking, so it needed a cooking component to get the kids to cook with sustainable foods. “And that was the idea for Menehune Chef.”
In Menehune Chef, Smith teaches children how to cook with sustainable foods from Hawai‘i. At least 70 percent of the ingredients are from local farmers, whether they’re from farmers markets or grocery stores. The children learn about measuring, the basics of cooking, how to use a stove, the blender and other kitchen utensils.
“Everything is there. We’re working on math, healthy eating and nutrition, on top of knowing how to make their own food,” she said. Home economics is an essential skill that has been lost, and Menehune Chef is bringing it back with a different flair — understanding our culture in Hawai‘i and perpetuating it through food. “That is the concept of Menehune Chef.”
Smith is currently teaching Menehune Chef at the After School program at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School in Puhi, through a Hawai‘i Department of Education grant. Prior to that, she taught it in Koloa and Kalaheo elementary schools. Her goal is to expand it to all Hawaiian Islands and to the Mainland. She is already in contact with Chef Ann Cooper, also known as the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” founder of the Chef Ann Foundation, which promotes healthier meals in schools throughout the nation.
“What we need to be teaching kids is that self-reliance is important. That’s when Menehune Chef kicks in,” Smith said. “I can make my own meal, I’m going to be proud of that meal, and I’m going to eat it, and I’m not going to waste it.”
Smith’s journey to earn her crown was filled with blood, sweat and tears to conquer fears she never thought she could, she said.
“It’s not just about winning; I lost so many times. But it fueled me to springboard to the next thing,” said Smith, adding that deep down, there was always that need to want to feel she was in power, she wasn’t scared anymore, she was fearless.
“Once I let go, I was able to stand on stage in my own power. Something changed in me. I wasn’t the same. I wasn’t that scared girl, that three-year-old that was sitting on the curb, not coming out. I was standing in my own power,” she said. “I’m able to talk about it now. I’m able to share it, and I’m able to inspire others to do so.”
Smith’s reign will demand some travelling in the upcoming year. But she’s grounded on Kaua‘i, where she is raising her two children, ages 6 and 11. The pageant also expanded her family. She said she didn’t know she was going to walk away with more than a dozen new “sisters” who communicate with her every single day. Having grown up in a broken family, she says she has a family again, and would do anything for her new sisters.
“We all have a purpose, and we’re all helping each other, so that’s really inspiring for me,” she said.
Smith was born in Bakersfield, Calif. When she was 18 years old, she moved to Kaua‘i, where she attended Kaua‘i Community College and the University of Hawai‘i. Being part-Filipino, she placed first runner up at the Miss Kaua‘i Filipino Pageant soon after moving to Kaua‘i. “Nobody knew who I was. I just kind of came out of the gates,” she said.
Though she had a good coach, the experience was still traumatic for her.
“I couldn’t come out of my shell, I didn’t understand who I was and who I wanted to be and where pageants were going to take me. But I knew I wanted to do it in order to come out of this whole fear of being in front of people,” Smith said.
The first thing she would tell kids in Hawai‘i is to understand who you are first before doing anything for anybody else. There are too many options, and too many people telling them what to do, she said. There’s life outside of Kaua‘i, and don’t be fearful to leave for college.
“Live in passion. If you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do after high school, who cares? Go and travel, over time you’ll figure it out,” Smith said. But “figure it out by yourselves, don’t let anybody else figure out for you.”
Visit mrsunitedstates.com and menehunechef.org for more information.
Editor’s note: There are a couple dozen major pageants in the U.S., with five main ones — Miss America (since 1921), Miss World America (since 1951), Miss USA (since 1952), Miss U.S. International (since 1960), and Miss United States (since 1986). Four Hawaiians won Miss USA: Macel Wilson in 1962, Tanya Wilson in 1972, Judi Andersen in 1978, and Brook Lee in 1997, who also won Miss Universe. Two Hawaiians won Miss America: Carolyn Suzanne Sapp in 1992, and Angela Perez Baraquio in 2001. Hawaiian Brooke Alexander won Miss World America in 1980, and placed Top 7 at the Miss World.