Chef Rafael Camarillo spreads aloha through cooking

KAPA‘A — Chef Rafael Camarillo was a “Chopped” champion in his own right long before the popular cooking competition made its way to the Food Network.

As a 12-year-old Kaua‘i boy, he would scour his parents’ kitchen for ingredients to make dinner. The result would be SPAM burgers, marinated hot dogs and other creations.

To this day, Camarillo’s cousins rave about his hot dogs served with brown sugar, shoyu and onions.

“Growing up, we had limited resources,” said Camarillo, who is the executive chef at Courtyard by Marriott Kaua‘i at Coconut Beach.

Like most chefs, Camarillo credits his mother for inspiring his cooking.

“As my story goes, I credit my mom for my cooking,” Camarillo said. “But doesn’t everybody? We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, and my mom made great foods out of things from around the house.”

Born in the Philippines, Camarillo moved to Kaua‘i with his family when he was five years old. Often, his parents worked be absent during the day while they went fishing, which left Camarillo to fend for himself when it was time to eat.

When he wasn’t dreaming up new creations in the kitchen, he was watching cooking shows on television. Julia Child remains a favorite.

“I started cooking for friends and family, and I did it because it was fun,” Camarillo said. “They started telling me how good I was.”

Camarillo’s culinary career launched at Kaua‘i Community College, where he enrolled in a cooking class and learned short-order and steam-table cooking.

His first foray into the culinary world landed him as “salad bar man.”

“It’s just salad, but I was proud of my salad bar,” Camarillo said.

Taking pride in your work is a key component for Camarillo, which he emphasizes to his staff of 30.

“If you’re cooking, you can make it your own and personalize your food,” Camarillo said. “If it comes from the heart, that’s the best, because you know that food is made out of love.”

Camarillo spent 15 years at the Grand Hyatt Kaua‘i Resort and Spa, where he trained more than 200 people.

“I was a local boy, and people came up to me and said ‘One of the things I want you to know, I’m really proud of you,’” Camarillo said. “My philosophy is to always promote from within. We have a lot of local talent. We have great people who put their heart and soul into cooking, and we need to promote those people. They are our new Alan Wongs, our new Sam Choys, our new Peter Merrimans. Those guys are the ones who are going to step it up again and push the boundaries of Hawaiian regional cooking.”

The chef took his talents to the Marriott Waiohai Beach Club and St. Regis Princeville before rising to his current position at the Courtyard by Marriott at Coconut Beach.

While Camarillo’s accomplishments are extensive, he remains modest about his achievements.

It takes a lot of goading for him to admit that he was honored as a Top Chef by Kaua‘i Community College, won a contest sponsored by the Hawaiian Hotel & Lodging Association and took home top honors at Taste of Hawai‘i for best presentation.  

He’s also won awards at chili competitions, gingerbread build-offs and other culinary contests.

“I don’t try to enter because there’s no time,” Camarillo said with a laugh. “I spend 12 to 14 hours a day here.”

“Here” is the Courtyard by Marriott, previously known as the Aston Kaua‘i Beach at Maka‘iwa, where Camarillo also worked.

“We’ve done so much with so little renovation,” Camarillo said about his two years at the Courtyard. “My crew have a big heart. Sometimes I look back and I think, ‘I don’t know how we did it.’”

Camarillo’s crew serves a la carte breakfasts, lunches and dinners along with buffets.

The menu has been transformed to reflect a wide array of dishes while using local ingredients “as much as possible,” and Camarillo said the hotel plans to unveil a new menu featuring Hawaiian-inspired plates.

One of Camarillo’s favorite entrees is roast pork and gravy, which comes from his “secret menu.”

“I see the food every day,” Camarillo said. “It’s hard to pick a favorite. I’m a carnivore, and I also love the steak. It’s our cooking technique that makes it what it is.”

Guests clamor to the hotel for grilled fish tacos with a chipotle aioli and cucumber and avocado salad. Camarillo also finds joy introducing tourists to local dishes, including kimchi and SPAM musubi.

As far as goals in the upcoming year, Camarillo’s vision is clear.

“Aspirations? I’m planning to retire next year,” Camarillo jokingly said. “Seriously, my aspiration is to make this place the best it can be and spreading aloha through our cooking.”

• Andrea Frainier, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681, ext. 257 or afrainier@ thegardenisland.com.

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