Madame Donut’s waist-length, rainbow-colored hair causes a stir wherever she goes. “People say I look like a cartoon character,” says the petite, doe-eyed baker, bursting with energy.
“I’m so sorry,” I volunteer.
“Are you kidding? I love it! I want to look like a superhero!”
Madame Donut—which she refers to as her “DBA” (doing business as) moniker—brings a similarly fearless attitude to Donut Dynamite!, her shopfront in the sleepy town of Wailuku, 10 minutes west of Maui’s Kahului Airport. Here, she and her two-person team craft a maximum of 40 dozen doughnuts each day in such unique varieties as bacon-maple, miso-honey, cheesy hammy, and goat cheese with walnut.
Made from brioche dough, the rich, fluffy treats rely heavily on the island’s bounty for their intense flavor. “I love the Mac-Koi,” says Madame Donut. “It has a lilikoi [passion fruit] glaze, macadamia nuts candied with Kona coffee, and a brown-butter crumble.” Because she crafts her doughnuts in such small batches, it’s hard for her to work with restaurant suppliers for ingredients. Instead, she relies on her neighbors, who drop off excess from their backyard gardens, like calamansi limes, which she pairs with ginger for a Moscow Mule–like doughnut.
“Our shop isn’t near the big touristy spots. It’s in the heart of where locals live,” she says. Indeed, Donut Dynamite! stands across from a mechanic’s yard on an industrial-heavy stretch of Lower Main Street. Inside, there’s a counter, a few brightly painted stools, and some donated art pieces starring Madame herself. In other words, it’s a local’s spot—more than three-quarters of the patrons come from the island—though foodies and Instagram fanatics often build their vacations around a stop here.
“It’s not a typical café like you’d find in a city,” Madame Donut explains. “Our doughnuts have become special treats. People buy dozens at a time. That means we sell out fast. We open at 6 a.m., the choices thin at 9 a.m., and we often close by 10 a.m.”
The space may be straightforward, but Madame Donut refuses to take shortcuts when it comes to her work. “A lot of people assume that because I’m so colorful, my doughnuts will be the stuff of rainbows,” she says. “But the fake color stays in my hair, not in my food. I don’t use any coloring, it’s all natural. The doughnuts are pink because I use local strawberries or they’re purple because I use Molokai sweet potatoes.”
I crack open a box containing a plum-colored gem during happy hour at Mill House, one of Madame Donut’s favorite hangouts. The park, working farm, and fine-dining restaurant sits close to her bakery, right where Maui’s two volcanoes meet. A bachelorette party comes to a halt by our table. One woman can’t help herself: “What are those gorgeous things? I’m from New York City and we don’t even have doughnuts like that.”
The truth is, few places do. Not many chefs trained at Madame Donut’s level, that is with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, have chosen to devote their careers to something as humble as the doughnut.
When asked why she did, she recalls, “I’d always loved doughnuts because they’re the underdog. I just wouldn’t shut up about them.” When friends found a food truck for sale in 2013, they convinced her to turn her passion into a business.
“I called it ‘the doughnut-mobile.’ That sounds way more superhero, right?” she asks rhetorically. The vehicle came with a permit for Maui’s First Friday Town Parties and Swap Meet, the island’s largest open-air market, where Madame Donut began selling her product and quickly developed a loyal following. Before long, two families volunteered $20,000 in seed money for her to open a brick-and-mortar shop, which debuted in 2016.
Ever since the beginning, her aim has always been to make people happy. “Doughnuts just make people smile,” she says. “You feel good and almost righteous about having a salad, but no one ever says, ‘Oh my God! I had a salad,’ while jumping up and down. Kids and even adults get a childlike joy when they come in [to the store]. Their eyes light up.”
By applying her fine-dining skills to $5 doughnuts, she makes haute cuisine available to everyone. “I come from a small village in the Philippines, so it’s not like I was fancy growing up,” she says. As the family chef, she lit a fire three times a day to cook on a clay stove built by her uncles. “We didn’t have electricity until I was eight or nine years old. The first time I walked into a real supermarket, I was 14. My mom raised and grew almost everything we ate, except what she bartered with neighbors. I wanted to make food that’s accessible and honors my upbringing. It’s important that all my communities can enjoy it without feeling intimidated.”
If the rate at which her doughnuts sell out every day is any indication, she’s certainly succeeded. “This island is the most supportive place I’ve ever lived. I wasn’t anyone special or rich or with a big family, but locals welcomed me. I have so much support and I’m like, ‘Oh man, I just make doughnuts.’”