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ALL PHOTOS COURTESY THE KAHALA HOTEL & RESORT

From amuse bouche to main course, Eric Oto’s passion for food permeates every dish he creates.

“ Eric is a young guy with an old soul,” says his mentor and friend Nelson Kawai-Yamagata. The two first met more than a decade ago at the Halekulani hotel where Kawai-Yamagata was the banquet chef and he hired Eric Oto on the recommendation of a colleague who worked with then 20-year-old Oto during a culinary internship program. The colleague told him Oto had all the right intangibles beyond talent—a hardcore work ethic, always the last to leave, the last to eat, an all-around hard worker. This may have been his first professional gig, but the new hire had been cooking for others since he was in the fourth grade.

>“I remember my friends coming over for a backyard sleep over and cooking pancakes and eggs for them the next morning. After they went home a couple of their parents called his mom to ask what they did with their kids because their child came home from the sleep over wanting to cook. For his family, cooking was a natural part of everyday life. Raised by a stepdad who fished, made his own guava jam and tsukemono (Japanese pickles) and would take Oto into the mountains to harvest wood that after months of soaking in water would be made into a kine (mallet for pounding mochi), cooking was what they did.

This ingrained sensibility of food, tradition and family, and a childhood spent growing, harvesting and fishing is showcased on his menu at Hoku’s, The Kahala Hotel and Resort’s marquee restaurant where Oto is the chef de cuisine. The hotel’s executive chef, Wayne Hirabayashi, has turned over the kitchen to him.

A smart move, as guests continue to seek chef-driven dining experiences. It’s often tricky for a young chef to execute his ideas on to the plate, it can be even trickier in a hotel restaurant that’s been around for 22 years with a legacy of its own. But Oto has managed to balance Hoku’s history and bring his own sensibility and excitement to the restaurant. Perhaps it’s because he’s a young chef with an old soul that it works. His day boat scallops crusted with mushrooms and tskudani (a Japanese seaweed simmered in soy and mirin) and served over dashi (Japanese fish broth) and cauliflower foam or the tiny, delicate, crispy shore-caught fish served as an amuse bouche tells you this isn’t a chef who grew up a culinary voyeur watching the Food Network. His tastes and sensibilities are rooted in hands-on experiences. The amuse bouche of tiny fish comes from a lifetime of shoreline fishing with his stepdad and friends. “My dad would always tell me not to waste and there isn’t a junk fish, some might not be as popular but it’s how you prepare it” recalls Oto who said his stepdad would tell him you need to feel the flesh to know how much salt to add. The tskudanicrusted scallops is also a nod to family meals that included the Japanese comfort food of hot rice with flavored seaweed. The young chef has managed to reach into his deep bank of experiences and create food that is uniquely his own. In a time when “farm to table” is an overused marketing mantra, Oto’s personal approach that’s less about trends—spoiler alert, no poke on kale is found on his menu—is an opportunity and challenge for Oto.

The Kahala’s general manager, Gerald Glennon, was taken with his authenticity and commitment to craft when he hired Oto last year. “Eric exudes a passion for his craft and such a positive energy. To listen to his outlook and to hear his experiences which have shaped him since he was a child is inspirational. For Eric, food is personal,” says Glennon.

“Maybe it’s not good for me, for my career, but I don’t do all that stuff ” says Oto. The stuff he’s referring to is Facebook and Instagram, He is a chef who finds joy and pleasure in activities far outside the digital realm. He likes to make pickles (when there is time) and fish. A graduate of Assets School, in high school he participated in a mentorship program at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and thought he might become a marine biologist, but after talking with biologists in the field who said low-pay and job insecurity are big concerns, decided to take his passion for fishing into the kitchen and upon graduating from high school enrolled in the culinary program at Leeward Community College.

“My dad has the best palate, better than mine” says Oto of Milton Sato, his stepdad who raised him since he was three. “He would always ask me, what’s in this, what do you taste.” Sato who runs the agriculture program at Waiawa Correctional Facility, spent time as a cook at Leeward Drive-Inn while going to college and taught his son his first dish—scrambled eggs. “After that we moved on to over easy—that’s harder” said Sato with a laugh. He also taught his son to pickle mangoes, grow backyard vegetables and preserve them, and catch, cook and clean his own fish. For New Year, his family harvested and cut bamboo to make traditional kadomatsu arrangements for good luck, a skill Sato learned from his old employer, the Yamaki family who owned Leeward Drive-Inn.

His mentor said he couldn’t remember a day that Oto called in sick. Even after falling out of a truck and chipping a tooth after a night celebrating his 21st birthday, he came to work. “When I met Eric’s parents, I finally understood. They are humble, nice and generous. I see where Eric got his intangibles,” says Kawai-Yamagata “I tell my son, if you grow up like Uncle Eric, I’ll be proud.”