When Kevin O’Connor was growing up in Eldorado Hills, California he would set up a pretend kitchen in his bedroom to treat his parents to a carefully crafted meal, “just so I can share a passion, share something I love and share something that can transform people and just bring happiness to the table.”
We can set the tone for the next generation that will be enjoying this product, that will be learning more about it than we ever knew.
His first job as a teenager was in a wine bar where he convinced the owner to let him help out in the kitchen. At school he wore his exhaustion from cooking all night “like a badge of honor,” he recently told Olive Oil Times publisher Curtis Cord for the On Olive Oil podcast.
From there he would rise to become a well-known chef in the state’s capital city, landing an executive chef spot at an acclaimed restaurant, Blackbird at just 23 years of age.
“Those restaurants are just very, very cutthroat, and I’ve kind of built my career on following what would make me happiest,” O’Connor said. “It’s similar to high fashion. But, you know, at some point you’re going to want to come home and wear sweatpants.”
Eventually the fine-dining grind led him to escape to the countryside in Montana where he learned the finer skills of foraging: “There are certain ways of identifying things like mushrooms. For instance, you can do what they call a spore print. You’ll take off the stem and lay the cap on a piece of paper, and each mushroom has a unique spore print, almost like a thumbprint.”
He returned to a slew of high-end Bay Area gigs, including one for a Cobram Estate event. “Did this lunch, hit it out of the park, had an amazing time. They were real keen to continue working together. We weren’t really sure in which way. It’s not like Cobram Estate had this opening for ‘Chef at Large’ and put it up on LinkedIn or something like that,” he said.
“Kicking back some beers, we had been doing that for a few hours, so you can imagine where we’re at. Just going off, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this?’ and, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do that?’ ”
Now, the 27-year-old is the Chef at Large for Cobram Estate, the renowned olive oil producer from Australia that recently set up shop in nearby Woodland, California.
“It’s opened up a whole new world for me. It’s been amazing. I really thought that it was just another ingredient, but now it’s become the star of the show in all my cooking. I’m just enamored with olive oil, and its history, and its culture, and culinary uses have just … it’s made my cooking so much better.”
“You don’t think of something so ancient as olive oil still being so undiscovered, you know? I’m just so excited to really plant my roots here, and help educate people, and just continue cooking with these awesome, awesome oils.”
O’Connor has spent the last few months learning all he can about olive oil in Australia and California, where he has been cooking for press events and harvest tours, and he wants no less than to help establish what he sees as the nascent California olive oil culture.
“You know, in Greece, and Italy and Spain, there’s such a rich olive oil culture, and what’s so exciting about being here in California is we can help build that culture. We can be a part of it. We can set the tone for the next generation that will be enjoying this product, that will be learning more about it than we ever knew, that will be reaping the health benefits for a longer life than we’ll be able to live. So to kind of set the tone for this olive oil culture in California is my next main goal.”