Hawaii chef known for generosity gets a life-changing gift

Dec. 28—In early December former chef Mel Arellano, who is well known for exemplifying the giving spirit year-round, received a generous early Christmas present.

In early December chef Mel Arellano, who is well known for exemplifying the giving spirit year-round, received a generous early Christmas present.

Arellano, 73, was on a kidney transplant waitlist for four years before finally getting a call at 11 a.m. Dec. 4 that a match was found.

After being diagnosed with kidney disease six years ago, the culinary instructor and the former executive chef at The Bankers Club at First Hawaiian Center downtown underwent a grueling dialysis regimen that limited his activities. Knowing he had to be ready 24 /7 to get on a plane within hours of the call, Arellano said, "My luggage had been packed for a year now."

Less than three hours after getting the match phone call, he boarded a flight bound for San Francisco, accompanied by friend and postoperative caregiver Darryl Choy, who was not pre-packed and had to scramble to get ready. By 5 a.m. Dec. 5, Arellano was being prepped for the 2-1 /2-hour surgery at the University of California, San Francisco's Helen Diller Medical Center at Parnassus Heights.

Arellano came through the procedure, and while there is always concern about post-surgery rejection, that hasn't been the case for the Waipahu native.

"The body is already accepting and functioning, " Arellano said Thursday during a phone interview from San Francisco. "They thought I was going to dialysis right after, but the kidney kicked in right away, " he said.

He said he did not yet know who the donor was. When asked how he felt about the gift from a stranger, Arellano paused and tried to maintain his composure. But overcome with emotion, he simply said, "I'm just blessed." Friends, relatives and many of Arellano's former students and workers, who are grateful to have been on the receiving end of Arellano's generosity, quickly offered to help cover costs tied to Arellano's health care or serve as kidney donor. But there was no donor match in that group.

After five days at the hospital, Arellano was released to Choy's care, but must remain in close proximity until Tuesday to ensure recovery goes well. "I'm amazed at how speedy his recovery is going, " said Choy, who is doling out 18 different medications, which must be given on a timely basis, and the dosage depends on the bloodwork.

Arellano had been largely confined to his hotel room at the Hilton in San Francisco's Union Square, paid for by the hospital along with his airfare, until a drive out to the beach Friday. But Choy has been on the hunt for food to fatten up his friend, who has lost some weight. The chef has slowly returned to eating, enjoying San Francisco treats like clam chowder, and Choy recently brought him some boeuf bourguignon.

Arellano, a Kaiser Permanente member, was diagnosed with diabetes about 15 years ago and developed chronic kidney disease six years ago. Diabetes, along with high blood pressure, are the two leading causes of chronic kidney disease, according to the National Kidney Foundation. If unmanaged, diabetes can cause damage to many organs, including the kidneys.

Arellano said "an outgoing, positive attitude " helped him qualify for the transplant. And developing a healthier lifestyle likely contributed.

After his diabetes diagnosis, Arellano said he "took control over it, " dropped several pounds, not by cutting out the foods he loves, including Hawaiian food, but by changing his eating habits. "Instead of eating a whole piece of pie, I eat only half, " he said. He also credits his 13-year-old Miniature Pinscher for helping him to get healthy from their daily 1-mile walks.

Becoming tied to a dialysis schedule, Arellano said could no longer fully enjoy the things he used to, including extended travel, so a First Hawaiian Bank friend urged him to consider a transplant.

ARELLANO MAINTAINS a connection to a wide range of friends going back dec ­ades from his first summer job in New York at the Concord Resort Hotel in the Catskills to teaching at Kapiolani Community College and later Leeward Community College, where he returned last semester. Also, he has worked at Woolworth's Ala Moana, South Seas Restaurant and the Kahala Hilton. Additionally, the chef worked for a government program training people on all islands to gain skills and help them become employable in restaurant jobs.

Longtime friend Bill Aoki, 69, who went through the screening process for kidney donation but was ruled out due to health issues, calls Arellano "the man with a golden heart " because "he gives and gives and gives." Aoki thought by giving a kidney, he could somehow repay the kindnesses Arellano has shown him, including caring for him for a month after his open-heart surgery.

Another friend set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for expenses Arellano would incur, and donations poured in, quickly reaching the $20, 000 goal.

"That's how generous this guy is, " Aoki said. And some banker friends offered to donate money. "They were willing to pay for the whole thing themselves, but he said no."

Former KCC student Peter Abarcar, now executive chef at the Mauna Kea Resort, said, "Mr. A was an amazing mentor, and was one of the many people who was a part of my life and helped keep my head on straight and gave me some opportunities I would not have had had I not met him."

Abarcar said Arellano helped land his first job in 1988 at FHB's executive dining room and helped him secure scholarships and tuition waivers. When Abarcar learned Arellano needed a kidney, he wanted to help. "He was a huge influence on a lot of people's lives, an amazing human being, and to lengthen his life, I would have " donated a kidney. Abarcar said. He made the offer but Arellano declined. "He's always thinking of others before himself, " Abarcar said.

Arellano said, "I still keep in touch with a lot of my students, and I told them their kidney doesn't belong to them. It belongs to their families, so I won't accept it."

Colin Nakagawa, owner of Seaside Restaurant in Hilo, said, "For many years he used to come down to Hilo and decorate the restaurant on his own time and his own generosity." He added, "It's kind of like his passion, " combining his love of Christmas and his outstanding skills and creativity.

"Over 30 years ago I sought out Mel, " Nakagawa said. "He has such a big heart and took me under his wing and taught me a lot of culinary skills." After years of waiting for a kidney, "I guess he got his Christmas wish, " Nakagawa said. "He's such a deserving guy."

Correction : Chef and culinary instructor Mel Arellano continues to cater events and teach. An earlier version of this story and its headline said he no longer held those postions.