When asked whom he reveres in the food world, Doug Kocol immediately says Chefs Brian Polcyn (who co-wrote the meat-curing bible, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing) and Cathal Armstrong (who is known for working at farms on his days off from the kitchen). It’s no wonder, then, that Kocol has made a name for himself—in Hawaii, and inevitably beyond—as a top-shelf charcutier.
The Littleton, Colorado, native spent the formative years of his career working under the tutelage of Chef Charles Hays at Toscanini in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and later at Vin 48 Restaurant and Wine Bar while receiving his culinary degree. Kocol went on to work the line at local haunts Blue Plate Bistro and Restaurant Kelly Liken, and staged at Bouchon, Animal, and Michael Mina. All that experience made him a natural fit when Honolulu Chef Kevin Hanney tapped him for the opening of Salt Kitchen & Tasting Bar.
Working in Hawaii at Roy’s, Kocol took some time off to return to Colorado and was hired as sous chef in 2011 by Hanney at 12th Avenue Grill. Only a few weeks into the job Kocol quickly shuffled over to the charcutier position at the newly opened Salt. Alongside fellow Rising Star Chef Quinten Frye, Kocol’s program has caught the attention of Hawaii foodies and fellow chefs. In addition to Salt, Kocol also helped start sustainability-focused company Sweetbreads, which caters private events with a focus on maintaining snout-to-tail and stem-to-root culinary practices, and he works with Grow Culture, which runs catering and pop-up restaurants.
Interview with 2012 Hawaii Rising Star Chef Doug Kocol
Nicholas Rummell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Doug Kocol: It is kind of out of a weird happenstance. My first food-related job was delivering Chinese food. It was the only job I could get after playing sports during the day in high school. They got me into wontons and egg rolls. But it wasn’t until after university that I actually worked in a professional kitchen at 20 years old. I realized that college wasn’t the best thing for me. My girlfriend at the time liked having dinner parties and whatnot, and I always ended up cooking for them. My girlfriend said to me “you’re pretty good at cooking, maybe you should go to culinary school or something.” I made buffalo chili at one of those parties, using some ground bison, and my friends said it was the best chili they had in their life. That was my “aha moment.” So I dropped out of college and went from Greeley, Colorado, to Vail and got a job. I worked my way up through garde manger, pizza cook, sauté, fish, grill, etc.
NR: What is your opinion of culinary school. Is it necessary for young cooks?
DK: For me it was subjective. It depends on what manner you learn best. At [Colorado Mountain College], we had to do both an internship and take classes. I worked a bunch during culinary school, and when the restaurants were closed we were in the classroom learning the theoretical [stuff]. So I did both the hands-on and bookwork learning.
NR: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
DK: Go with what you feel is best. Go with where your heart lies. Graduating from college for me was more for my dad than myself. I wanted to do it for him. My dad never got to finish college because he had kids. With cooking, I had the desire to learn as much as possible, so that was where my heart was.
NR: How important is travel to a young cook?
DK: I think it’s immensely important. Chef Charles [Hays] always embedded in my head that variety is the spice of life. The more experience and different things you can do the better.
NR: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
DK: Honestly, I just like good food. I love cooking food. And good company and good people. Anything that can bring people together and have that kind of impact, for emotions, is great for me. Food brings happiness, and I like to be around happiness and happy people.
NR: What culinary trends do you see in the market now?
DK: I definitely feel that in my time here [on Hawaii], I’ve been pushed toward local food. I know it’s so cliché, the whole farm-to-table, dirt-to-doorknob thing, but I feel like people in Hawaii are actually doing it rather than just talking about it. The whole “from Hawaii” thing is going big now. It was something that we at Salt thought about in terms of pushing the boundaries even further (like having our own octopus fisherman get us tako, or growing greens that are only being used by Salt, or using rabbit from the Big Island). We really pushed the limits on getting local product and maintaining high quality standards. It’s not just us, though. The group at Town is really dedicated to the local farms with Ma’O Farms.
NR: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
DK: When I did the stage at Bouchon, the chef and I had a talk outside and he said: “You’ve got the job. You can work here.” And it was one of those things where I went there not knowing what would happen. I was just looking to stage. I had a lease in Vail that was just six more months, and had to pass up the opportunity because I wouldn’t be able to afford to keep the lease and move to Napa and work at Bouchon. So I decided then to go another route. I used the money I saved up and flew to Hawaii, which was the polar opposite of the mountains of Vail. It was the final choice. But I don’t regret it.
NR: Do you see yourself somewhere else in five years, or have you been bitten by the Hawaii bug?
DK: Yeah, I love Hawaii. The people here, the melting pot of cultures, the food especially. I don’t necessarily know whether I have a five-day plan. Right now it’s just all about what feels good and what makes me happy. Cooking high-quality food and being surrounded by good people. One day I would love to have my own place. Even before I started cooking professionally, I used to say I wanted my own farm. Now I’ve been considering the idea of a deli. A proper sandwich shop. Retirement plan in the perfect world: I would have a farm and a sandwich shop.