There’s never a dull moment in the kitchen of Chef Eric Oto, the newest member of our Hawaiian Airlines Featured Chef Series. Between running the kitchen as chef de cuisine at Hoku’s at The Kahala Hotel and Resort, fishing for his main entrée, shaking hands with local farmers, and turning simple ingredients into magical masterpieces, Oto’s gastronomic genius is always on the go – and now, the sky. Through the end of May, Oto is creating the first-class menus on our flights from Hawai‘i to the U.S. Mainland, adding his island-flare to our complimentary meal service.
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His passion for all things culinary began at the age of four when he caught his first fish with a bamboo cane pole. Since then, he has lived by a philosophy passed on by his father, a farmer and fisherman: work hard, appreciate what you are given, and respect the Earth that feeds you. Today, his love for the ocean and the environment is clear in his cooking style, setting him apart as one of Hawai‘i’s up-and-coming tastemakers.
Until you experience Oto’s meals yourself, we invite you to join us in getting to know our newest Featured Chef.
We know you’re passionate about the ocean and have been fishing since you were a little kid. Can you tell us about your childhood and relationship with the ocean?
I believe that the sea is a special place. It’s where I can relieve stress and reconnect to what’s important, including my family. We spent a lot of our weekends together shore fishing on O‘ahu, and I came to see it as important family time. I learned a lot about fishing and its cultural significance at a young age, and I am grateful to have had that opportunity.
It was also how we brought food to the table. Being able to catch our own dinner saved us time while bringing our family closer together. As fishermen, farmers and gardeners, looking back, we were fortunate to always have fresh food and vegetables in the house.
You once told us your dad taught you how to cook a lot of meals from scratch. This didn’t always translate into doing it the easy way but almost always involved using the freshest ingredients. What did you learn and how did it impact your decision to pursue cooking as a career?
Growing up fishing and cooking definitely had an impact on me becoming a chef.
There’s quite a bit of correlation between the two, as both require a lot of preparation. My dad always stressed doing things by hand – from tying our own flies to making our own fishing lures. We also had to prepare our bait: for smaller fish, you have to cut up your bait, and for larger fish, you have to catch fresh opae (Hawaiian shrimp) or ‘oama (juvenile goatfish), the day before to use as bait. To make mochi, we’d go cut and collect our own wood for the fire, build our wood boxes to cook the mochi rice and make our own mallets to pound it into the final product. One step always led to the next.
Doing things from scratch also instilled in me a deeper reverence for food. My dad always told me that if you need to kill something to eat it, to make sure you respect it and find a use for every single part. Instead of throwing away the fish bones, we’d boil them to make our own stock. That was an important mentality for me.
Could you describe your cooking style or goal as a chef in three words?
- HOLISTIC: Cooking is about more than sustainability or farm-to-table. It’s everything in one – it’s having an understanding that everything comes full circle, from sourcing your food to processing your waste. It’s more important to do the right thing than the easy thing.
- STORYTELLING: It’s great to see that more and more people are getting curious about what they are eating. Now, people want to know why, when, and how their meal was created. Having a connection to the food and how its grown, caught or prepared is important. I believe that the story of the nitty gritty process – whether on the farm or in the kitchen – makes a meal special and distinguishes an “excellent” dish from an “okay” dish.
- PURPOSE: Becoming a part of a movement and having your food mirror its core philosophies is a big part of my goal. Michelle Karr-Ueoka, co-owner of MW Restaurant and a good friend of mine, once gave me a piece of advice that she received from a former mentor: “Don’t be part of a trend. A trend has a beginning and an end. Be part of a movement. A movement makes a difference. A movement lasts forever.”
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Wade Ueoka, the Hawaiian Airlines Featured Chef for all flights to Hawai‘i from Japan, and Michelle Karr-Ueoka are the husband-and-wife duo behind Honolulu’s favorite MW Restaurant.]
A chef has the power to change people’s perspectives, opening them up to unique experiences. For me, it’s giving unfamiliar foods – such as invasive species of fish and produce – a chance to serve a new purpose. The more I understand fish, even species like wrasse, tilapia or cornetfish that are thought of as “junk fish” in Hawai‘i, the more creative I can get. My dad always taught me that there was no such thing as a junk fish. After all, what is seen as rubbish here could be celebrated as a delicacy elsewhere, such as the balloon fish in Japan. It’s all a mindset. Rules can be broken and it’s up to us as chefs to change the paradigm.
How do you find a balance between your personal life, being a Featured Chef and running your own kitchen at Hoku’s?
I am always striving to learn. On my days off, I’m either visiting farms, trying new fishing techniques or traveling to get inspiration from new ingredients. I recently went on a couple of fishing charters in Alaska and Greece, and last year took a cooking class in Southern Italy. Through my travels, I gain inspiration as well as new and different methods and techniques to bring back home.
Being a chef is a lifestyle, and in your free time you’re going to do everything you can that connects you to it. If it’s your passion, you’re continuously doing it, even in your free time. It never ends. Your love for cooking doesn’t stop on your day off.
What inspired your Hawaiian Airlines menu?
I wanted my menu to feature dishes that spotlight local favorites with a comforting and satisfying Hawai‘i twist. Whether it’s adding wasabi to the mashed potato and short rib dish, making a furikake (a Japanese seasoning) hummus, or topping pizza with pipikaula (salted and dried beef), I hope that guests experience a touch of the Islands and my upbringing with this menu.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: To view Oto’s menu served complimentary on our non-stop Honolulu to John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) service, click here. To view his menu offered on our Honolulu to the U.S. Mainland (excluding JFK) flights, click here.]
If you could hop on any Hawaiian Airlines flight to eat and travel your way through any of our destinations, where would you go and why?
If I could visit anywhere that Hawaiian Airlines flies, I would visit Seoul, South Korea – home to some of my favorite foods. I think South Korea is similar to Japan in the sense that each region specializes in something unique. It’s interesting to eat and experience a destination’s authenticity like that.
What are your favorite dishes to make?
Well, my favorite dish to make is anything I catch. When I go fishing, whatever the ocean gives to me that day, I eat. I try to keep an open mind, but I am especially thankful when I do catch a prized fish. Regardless of what I catch, I always lean on my philosophy of expressing gratitude for what is given to me.