Camarillo prepares to put his signature on Courtyard menus

WAIPOULI — When some of the other kitchen workers at the Courtyard by Marriott Kauai at Waipouli Beach report to work and greet new Executive Chef Rafael Camarillo “good morning chef,” it is with a level of respect bordering on reverence.

For someone so new to his position, such respect could be disarming for some.

Not for Camarillo.

In his short time at the Courtyard property, after spending 15 years at what is now the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa in Po’ipu, he has shown that he is willing to work hard, side by side, with his mix of veterans and newer workers.

And, they are following his lead, knowing also that some changes are coming.

“I am very eager to put my signature on this restaurant,” he says from inside the Voyager Grille, the only restaurant at the 311-room hotel.

He will be redoing the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus in January, installing room service sometime in 2006, will re-launch the Sunday brunch on Sunday, Jan. 8, and has already re-launched a prime rib and king crab leg dinner buffet each Friday and Saturday, effective last Friday, Dec. 23.

“In the beginning, I took little, baby steps,” he said.

But he realizes he has a talented crew of around 30 people under him, who have already responded favorably to his new leadership style, and has a lot of goals:

  • “We want the locals back. We miss having them here. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you very well;”
  • “I will make the best Sunday brunch on Kaua’i, hopefully.” Come on over after church, and bring the whole family, he said. When he was in charge of the Grand Hyatt Kauai Sunday brunch, it won awards, he noted;
  • He wants those on his culinary staff to be complimented for their skills and service when they are out and about in the community;
  • Those working for him should understand that changes are coming. “Change. You have to take it for what it is. You know what? We need to go forward;”
  • And, as mentioned earlier, he wants to put his culinary stamp on the restaurant.

He calls his style of cooking “local fusion,” with simple preparation and nothing-fancy presentations, but good-tasting food.

It is local food with an up-scale touch, like filet mignon and salmon side by side, crab cake, and an ‘ahi poke dish that looks so good it is almost (but not quite) too good-looking to eat.

He wants his workers to do as he does, work hard, and have a sense of pride about everything they do, he said. “They’re a good bunch of people.”

Camarillo also gives a lot of credit to Glen Okamoto, general manager, and George Liechty, food and beverage director and a former executive chef at the Kaua’i Marriott Resort & Beach Club.

“He’s been tireless,” he said of Liechty. Okamoto is doing an “unbelievable job,” Camarillo said.

But back to the food. “I love local food,” Camarillo said, adding that he also loves European, Italian, Japanese, and all other kinds of food.

After getting his early training at Kaua’i Community College, he got on-the-job lessons from two very good Italian chefs at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, Gerardo Mocheri and Vince Pecoraro, he said.

While “one of my dreams” is to own his own restaurant, he said, he has also reached one of his pinnacles, as a hotel executive chef.

In his experience, there is a lot of talent on Kaua’i, but one thing that needs to happen is that local chefs have to “push” local-style dishes to visitors, to expose them to new foods and flavor combinations.

He credits his mother, Karen Camarillo, who lives in Koloa, with teaching him how to enjoy food, he said. At the Camarillo house, no one left without being fed and given drink, he said.

The decision to leave the Grand Hyatt Kauai after 15 years was difficult, and questions about it still get him emotional, he said.

“It’s the people that make the Grand Hyatt Kauai,” and the friends he gained there in the 15 years he was there were both sad to see him leave, but happy that he achieved one of his goals of becoming an executive chef.

“I know that they miss me because they e-mail me all the time.”

The variety of experiences he gained there, though, prepared him well for his current position, he said.

“I wanted to stay in Kaua’i, which my family loves,” he said of his wife Ruby, and children Angelica, 11; Justice, 6; and Gianna, 3. They all live in Puhi.

He is presiding over a Christmas buffet today, Sunday, Dec. 25, Christmas Day, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a carving station, omelet station, fresh fish, ‘ahi, shrimp, chicken, pork, and a signature dessert station, featuring a flowing chocolate fountain that people can dip strawberries, Rice Crispies Treats, pound cake and other sweet stuff into.

His other current responsibilities include overseeing the culinary operations of the Courtyard by Marriott Kauai at Waipouli Beach, supervising the culinary team, implementing effective food- and labor-cost programs, as well as training and motivating his staff for their positive growth along with the company.

Camarillo also supervises the extensive buffet spread at Tihati’s Hiva Pasefika Luau a few steps away from the resort. Prior to his appointment, he was the assistant executive chef at the Grand Hyatt Kauai.

Born in Manila in 1968, Camarillo was educated at KCC, and also took a food-safety course organized by officials at the state Department of Health, and enhanced his culinary experience by assisting in numerous charity functions, including “Taste of Hawaii,” food and wine shows, cooking demonstrations and college lectures.

He also regularly participates in the annual KCC gala culinary fund-raiser, the Kaua’i Hospice Fourth of July Concert in the Sky fund-raiser, lectures at KCC, and has appeared on the “Chefs in Paradise” TV show.

He strongly believes in self-motivation, whereby he reads books and attends seminars as well as culinary shows to learn new and innovative techniques as well as further improve his culinary expertise.

His diligence earned him recognition as one of the Top 10 Young Chefs in 2004 as chosen by editors of Hawaii Hospitality magazine.

Camarillo’s past job experi ences included working as a member of the hotel-opening team of Hyatt Lake Las Vegas, where they were responsible for four restaurants and banquet operations.

He also worked at the Hyatt Waikoloa (now known as Hilton Waikoloa), with six restaurants and banquet operations, and was part of the culinary team of the Stouffer Waiohai Beach Resort (now Marriott’s Waiohai Beach Club), with three restaurants and banquet operations.

When asked what aspired him to become a chef, said Camarillo, “When I was about 9 or 10 years old, my mom and dad would go fishing and not return home till dark. When I got hungry, I put ingredients together from mom’s food supply.

“It might be a vegetable omelet or teriyaki beef, stir fry, Spam burger on sweet bread,” he said.

“I had to be creative. Soon, mom started asking me to cook meals for everyone, including her friends,” Camarillo recalled. “Everyone was full when they left our house.”

His favorite kitchen tool is chef tongs, as he considers them an extension of his hands, especially when he is busy working on the cooking line.

“I use the tongs to grab hot sauté pans and plates, stir food in the pan, flip steaks, fish, and other food items. Try grabbing a hot pan with your bare hand,” he said.

“You could have used a tong, huh? And now you need some burn cream,” added Camarillo.

When asked what his memorable meal was, Camarillo explained that he considers every meal a memorable experience.

“From the good to bad, just like in life,” said Camarillo.

He has many words of wisdom for aspiring cooks: “I salute you for daring to immerse yourself into an industry that can be cruel and sometimes unforgiving. Being a chef comes from the heart,” he said.

“You either love it or you don’t. Cooking should be a passion,” he continued.

“Don’t let that passion die down. Learn, learn and learn some more everyday,” he said.

“Check your ego once in a while. Experience will teach you the rest,” said Camarillo.

“That’s what life is, an experience. So live it.”

For restaurant reservations or more information, please call 822-3455.

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