Chef Eric Oto has lived, learned and worked his whole life on the 600 square miles of Oahu, but it has been a winding journey to his new post as chef de cuisine for Hoku's, Kahala Hotel and Resort's signature restaurant.
Oto has had a strong connection to where his food came from an early age. Under the tutelage of his stepfather, he learned to garden, catch fish and raise chickens.
"My dad always had a philosophy: If you take something from the ocean, you must make sure you respect it. If you're going to kill it, don't waste it," Oto said. "I think when you feel the fish shiver in your hands you look at the product differently. It's like gardening. It takes time to plant a seed, water it, wait for it to sprout, nurture it, and then finally get that fruit. When you feel that deep reverence for where the food came from, you have a totally different perspective and mindset when you work with the product."
Oto loved the ocean and, at first, thought of being a marine biologist. But the dishes he made with his fresh-caught fish were a big hit at family gatherings, and he also felt the pull of the kitchen. In high school he interned with the Oceanic Institute and at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology before getting an internship at Sam Choy's. In the end, Oto chose the kitchen over the lab, and enrolled in the culinary program at Oahu's Leeward Community College.
He worked his way up at Halekulani, first rising to banquet chef before moving over to sous chef at Orchids restaurant. He then moved on to Four Seasons Ko Olina, where he helped open the Ko Olina Fish House as the sous chef.
"Coming to Hoku and Kahala was a great opportunity for me," said Oto. "It's a higher position and I get to put my stamp on the menu, and it's a beautiful restaurant. For me, it's one of the most beautiful views you can have. It's an open kitchen right at the beach, but we still have air conditioning so it's not so hot."
Kahala is owned by Japan-based Resorttrust, and Oto was tasked with reworking Hoku's menu while staying true to the restaurant's Japanese roots and foundation. Previously, the food had a little too much "fluff and froo-froo," Oto said, and he has made the menu and food more accessible and focused on flavor.
Recently, the management team from Japan flew in for a full tasting of Oto's plans for the new menu.
"I was stressed. I met the big director and he was very serious, very intimidating," Oto said. "He didn't even look at you, and he spoke through his translator. Then, after dinner and he had some wine in him, he was like a whole other person. He was very happy. Then I knew I could relax."
With the boss's stamp of approval, the new menu was debuted Aug. 7. Oto has blended a range of Asian influences, which is typical of the way he grew up cooking.
"The flavors are a lot more bold than what was on the menu before, and it's more dynamic ethnicity-wise. I have some Filipino influence, some Thai influence, Vietnamese and Japanese. Before it was predominantly Japanese, and now there is more of the other Asian cultures."
Oto also gives back to the community and island that has nurtured him to this point. He volunteers for the Hawaii Culinary Education Foundation's Chef Mentor program for James Campbell High School and often donates his time to cook for various fundraisers such as the Hawaii Food Bank's Great Chefs Fight Hunger program.