Fairmont Orchid's head chef aims for approachability, innovation

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Binchotan, a new restaurant focused on robatayaki-style grilling, is coming to the Fairmont Orchid at the close of 2018.
Binchotan, a new restaurant focused on robatayaki-style grilling, is coming to the Fairmont Orchid at the close of 2018.
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Ever since his first, brief stint in Hawaii, chef David Viviano has been drawn to the islands. In 2012 he was assigned to an interim hotel task force. He left his normal post in Arizona to serve on a transition team at the St. Regis Princeville on Kauai's north shore.

The five-week stint was enough to convince him that somehow, someday, he needed to return. Viviano, a Michigan native, got scuba certified at 14 and learned to surf after college. Now he had seen the verdant hillsides, turquoise waters and array of food products on the islands. Hawaii was calling.

"It was my first experience in Hawaii, and right away I fell in love with the culture, people and landscape," Viviano said of his stopover on the Garden Isle. 

He returned to the Aloha State in 2015 as executive chef at Montage Kapalua Bay before heading back to the mainland two years later for the same role at Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa in Florida. But the Aloha State's pull was too strong. Now, a little more than a year later, Viviano is back on the Islands.

In October, he took over as executive chef at the Fairmont Orchid, overseeing all culinary operations, and has been diligently working on tweaks, enhancements and the opening of a new restaurant at the Hawaii Island luxury property. 

David Viviano took over as executive chef at the Fairmont Orchid on Hawaii Island in October.
David Viviano took over as executive chef at the Fairmont Orchid on Hawaii Island in October.

"The Fairmont Orchid is one of the iconic properties of the Hawaiian Islands," Viviano said. "It was a great opportunity for me as an expansive property with multiple restaurants and large banquet operation. To me, it's a chef's dream because there are so many ways to put my fingerprint on the property. ... A job like this doesn't come around all that often."

Viviano brings more than 17 years of culinary experience to his new role. He grew up in an Italian-American household; his father is from Sicily, his mother is from Puglia.

"It was a European household and the first question of the day when we woke up was, 'What's for dinner?'" Viviano said. "But my mother is a teacher and told me to a get a four-year degree." 

Viviano listened, getting a degree in journalism from Miami University in Ohio, but he also kept working in kitchens while he went to school, working his way up from dishwasher to sous chef at a Italian restaurant over four years. After graduation, he decided to give a culinary career a chance and took a job in a Detroit restaurant before taking a friend's invitation to visit San Francisco. Viviano approached the chef de cuisine at Jardiniere, flagship restaurant of James Beard Award winner Traci Des Jardins, and talked his way into a tryout in the kitchen.

"It turned into a job, and that was my first big shot in a big culinary city," Viviano said. "I never went to culinary school and San Francisco became my culinary school. Over the next year and a half, even though I didn't have a ton of money, I'd go to different restaurants and try things. I went to the farmers market and really got into the culture of cooking with local, in-season products."

His line-cook salary only took him so far in San Francisco, and Viviano moved back to Detroit, where he continued to work in fine dining and scored his first job as an executive chef. His first foray into the hospitality world came in 2006 when he joined the Ritz-Carlton Dearborn as chef de cuisine. He has stayed in the hotel and resort world ever since, also spending time at the Westin Phoenix Downtown and St. Regis Aspen. 

Now at the Fairmont Orchid, Viviano supervises a culinary team of more than 100 people. He is a big proponent of on-the-job instruction and holds regular training sessions and workshops for his team so they can learn different aspects of the business, including purchasing and inventory management. 

"I've inherited a very talented culinary team, and I always set out to empower my team. I want to be a guide and manage them the way I like to be managed, where I know the goal, I'm not micromanaged, and work creatively to get there," Viviano said of his philosophy. "Cooking-wise I don't overmanipulate the food, and I like classic flavor profiles that are approachable. At the same time, this is a top tourist destination, and we want to create an exceptional regional experience. I want to create a story with local food -- the fruits, vegetables and livestock -- and when people walk away, I want them to feel they had an experience they can't get anywhere else in the world."

Viviano has been working in his first few months on the launch of the resort's brand new restaurant Binchotan: Bar and Grill, featuring fresh, locally sourced, Asian-inspired seafood and meats grilled robatayaki-style over white charcoal called "binchotan." The restaurant is expected to open around the new year.

"It's a totally new concept for the property. It's a modern take on a chef's table, with a robata grill and the food cooked right in front of you," Viviano said.

Moving forward, Viviano said he sees great opportunity for innovation with the Fairmont Orchid's large banquet operation and facilities, which he believes will set the property apart from other Hawaii Island accommodations.

"It's important to me and my family to become part of the community and assist with community programs," Viviano said. "I'd love to help with the local culinary school. ... Now that I've come back to the islands, I don't want to leave again."

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