Sure, Chicken Tenders appear on countless resort snack menus, but how often do you see Chicken Karaage bites? Koloa Landing Resort’s new Executive Chef Gavin Onishi is just the guy to take a poolside staple and kick it up a notch or three. In his kitchen, tender chunks of chicken breast are marinated in ginger and fried to the perfect crunchy crisp, then they’re sprinkled with spring onions and served with a housemade yuzu aioli and wedge of fresh lemon.

All you can say is more, please!

Friendly, laid-back and oh-so knowledgeable, Executive Chef Gavin Onishi has soul — and so does his food. There are layers here and roots that run deep. The Kauai native has spent much of his life in the kitchen and knew that he wanted to be a chef by the age of eight.

“I’ve always been intrigued by the ins and outs of food, and I’ve been inadvertently studying food since I was a child,” he says. “From cooking meals for my family to experimenting with my first microwave brownies to making homemade cream puffs from scratch at the age of 12.” Onishi says he grew up surrounded by his family’s great home-cooking and making lasting memories over food together. This all had a huge impact on him. “I was either going to be a chef or an astronaut!”

After earning his culinary degree right here on Kauai, Onishi went on to cook at some of the island’s best-loved establishments before joining the Koloa Landing Resort team as Executive Chef. Since May of this year he has overseen the development, preparation, production and execution of everything from the Holoholo Grill to the resort’s banquets, events and weddings.

“The happiest thing about being the Executive Chef here is the same for any chef job,” he says. “It’s being able to give people great food memories.”

And Onishi’s updated Holoholo Grill menu does just that. It is filled with the kind of dishes you just can’t help but bond over with your fellow diners. For example, his new Crab and Artichoke appetizer comes to the table in a cast iron skillet and is loaded with tender crab and chunks of artichoke. It oozes with  creamy-cheesy goodness and is perfect for scooping onto the crusty hunks of herb focaccia. The skillet keeps everything hot and gooey throughout all the sharing, oo-ing and ahh-ing. Someone in your party will inevitably photograph this beautiful treat and will still be talking about it on the flight home. It’s that good.

In fact, Onishi has recently overhauled the entire appetizer (or pupu) menu. In addition to the Crab and Artichoke dish he added the aforementioned Chicken Karaage, a Macadamia Nut Crusted Brie with garam masala pineapple chutney, a tender Pork Rib that has been smoked with kiawe (a Hawaiian mesquite) and is served with a tangy housemade guava barbecue sauce. The only item he carried over from the previous menu is the Crispy Calamari, but instead of the been-there-done-that tomato-y cocktail sauce, it has been elevated to include a citrus aioli dip, arugula, parmesan and tomato.

And the restaurant’s guests are responding.

“We are seeing a higher percentage of appetizers going out to tables than we used to, which increases our chances to make an impact on our diners,” Onishi says. The new-and-improved menu is raising revenue which means Onishi can start increasing wages for his staff and securing the kind of equipment that will even further improve operations.

Onishi says his biggest challenge has been overcoming the difficulties brought on by the pandemic — especially the lack of proper staffing. “But if any industry can learn to adjust it’s the food service industry,” he says with his usual optimism. “So I know it’ll work out in the long run.”

He adds, “I’m lucky to have inherited a great bunch of cooks. They all understand what they need to do, and they have the vision and discipline to stay the course. We all share the same goal to put out the best food that we possibly can and to give our guests the best experience that we can.”

As for Onishi’s personal favorites from the Holoholo Grill menu he says, “I eat simple. I like simply prepared food. I actually love our Vegetable Stir Fry and our Mac Nut Crusted Brie. And anything from our breakfast menu which is my favorite meal of all.”

And what does Onishi see on the horizon for food at the resort? “The sky’s the limit with what we can do here,” he says. He is looking forward to implementing a host of ideas, such as themed dinners paired with local Koloa Rum, wine-paired tasting menus, dinners with out-of-the-box experimental dishes and service styles. Onishi would like to throw events and concerts with hosted food booths, and show movies under the stars with gourmet popcorn and delectable snacks. “Hopefully we’ll even have our own property garden where we grow our own produce to serve to our guests. That would be awesome.”

Onishi’s roots in the community run as deep as the roots of that kiawe tree that provides his smoker wood, and he is mindful of honoring the chefs who have paved the way for him.

He says, “I would love to work with local chefs on the island to help cultivate the culinary culture on Kauai. Keep the Kauai culinary scene important and relevant in the eyes of the community and the state. Make sure the chefs that came before me — and worked so hard — will be proud of where we’re going with the food culture on the island.” He hopes this legacy will continue to thrive for generations to come.

The spirit that lit up that 8-year old boy all those years ago in his family’s kitchen is still in evidence today. To see (and taste!) what a soulful and skilled chef Onishi has become, it’s easy to figure that he probably would’ve made a pretty darn good astronaut if he had chosen that path. Luckily for us eaters, however, he is Executive Cheffing here at the resort, and serving us food that is, quite simply, out of this world.

Thanks for the memories, Chef!

Throw the most delicious wedding ever at Koloa Landing Resort the best beach resort in Kauai or just come stay with us and indulge in all the great food coming out of Chef Onishi’s kitchens.

–Erica Karlin