How burning out at 23 helped Chef Kevin O’Connor become the man he is today

Chef Kevin O'Connor

Today we speak to Chef Kevin O’Connor from Cobram Estate.

I grew up in the Sierra Foothills and now live in Midtown, Sacramento. My love for the outdoors and for food started earlier than I can remember and has continued to grow and interweave together. I believe that to truly love food there has to first be a massive respect for nature. It’s hard to tell when I first started cooking and foraging or what sparked the initial interest; gathering and cooking has always been a part of my life. As a kid you don’t think of picking blackberries, watercress, wild mint or bay leaves as foraging. You don’t think of catching fish or shooting quail and cooking them as a “foodie moment”. I didn’t think that visiting local foothill wineries with my parents and being allowed to taste a little would evolve into a passion and love for wine. When I think about it, my childhood had an immense influence on my evolution of being a chef and the chef I aspire to be.

I got my first job when I was 14 at a mom and pop wine bar and bistro that served “fancy” food. I started as a dishwasher/prep cook and every day I would pray for a chance to use my Henkel that I brought to work wrapped in a towel in my backpack. They would do wine tasting events on Wednesdays and guests would get a small plastic plate with some sliced fruit, cheese cubes and a little bit of brownie. I was tasked with making these silly little plates and I poured my heart into it. Knowing that something I was putting together was making it to someone on the other side sealed the deal. I never looked back after that feeling. My break in to real fine dining was at Masque Ristorante, a restaurant ahead of it’s time for the region, and a kitchen I only had a place in because of annoying persistence. So much great Sacramento talent came from that kitchen like Ginger Elizabeth and Matt Masera, just to name a couple. Once I (barely) graduate high school I turned towards Sacramento. I was given a chance at Mason’s, which was probably the coolest restaurant in town at the time, and loved it. I learned so much about myself, about the grittiness of the industry, about beautiful product and how to respect it and about American cooking.

After turning nineteen I decided I had to go to France. I wasn’t sure what I was doing or why, I just knew I had to. I went to France on a one-way ticket and had the chance to cook in some great restaurants and also work on beautiful farms and wineries. My fledgling talents were recognized by a host/restaurant owner I lived with and the family had me cook dinner once a week. I was given a motorbike, some cash for the market, and carte blanche as far as what the menu would look like. I was bent on serving them real American cuisine.

I look back at this time as when I began to find my style. Coming home, an inspired twenty-year-old, I landed a job at Ella under chef Kelly McCown who has proven to be one of my greatest mentors. On top of cooking at this beastly restaurant at least sixty hours a week, I started a pop-up restaurant, kind of on accident. Tree House was an outlet for my bursting creativity that organically grew from industry dinner parties at my place to a full on ticketed guerilla dining experience within a year. I remember being approached by a publication that wanted to do a story on my pop-up restaurant and I had to google what a pop-up was. My pop-up which was a fun, creative outlet became a serious endeavor. I think Tree House becoming more well-known on the Sacramento scene led me to my first real Executive Chef position at Blackbird Kitchen and Bar.

I burned out at 23 and left for a trip around the US, spending most of my time foraging in Montana. I picked and preserved, hunted and fished, rode horses and cooked for a few months before coming back to the city. I learned what it was like to be a lost 23-year-old. I fucked off from society on purpose. After, I spent time working in the kitchens of Coi and Saison, experiences I will never forget. I came back home to Sacramento, yet again. The central location, beauty of the city and availability of amazingly fresh product keeps drawing me back. I was supposed to open a restaurant, Saddle Rock, with this group, but the wheels were spinning. I spent over a year catering for them and wondering what the hell was going on and when our empty space would start looking like a restaurant. This is when Cobram Estate first reached out to me to cook for their first olive oil harvest.

The olive oil was undeniably amazing, the group had great vision and their story was very interesting to me. After doing a few more gigs with Cobram Estate, I made the hop out of the restaurant industry for the first time in thirteen years and joined Cobram Estate full time as their Chef at Large. I couldn’t be happier with where I am at now. The creativity inside me gets to expand further than a recipe or a design element in a restaurant, it is ever changing and constantly challenging. I get to cook around the globe, interact with other great chefs, work with awesome people, and cook what I want over the fire under the stars a lot more often. I’m not confined to a steel box for absurd hours every day. I live an amazing life and always have a bunch of amazing extra virgin olive oil. What more could you ask for?

As for my personal style:

Jeans: Levi’s 501 original with a cuff. I wear my jeans out pretty quick, so it’s good to have an ol’ standby.

Shirts: I have a lot of All Good shirts in my closet, from t-shirts to button downs.

Pants: Prana Zioneer. Pants that can stick with me hiking, foraging, and dining. In the kitchen it’s all about the Lululemon ABC pant, black of course.

Suits: Swim suit, for sure. Obey Haight Street swim trunks.

Shoes: I’m a big fan of everything Birkenstock makes. It just works with my feet perfectly. In the kitchen I rock the Boston clogs in black. Casually wear the Arizona brown leather sandals and when I go out the Dundee ankle boots. Being an ex-skater I also always have a few options for Vans in the closet.

Accessories: I have a lot of Official (Official Crown of Laurel) hats on the rack. I’m in love with my Poler and Pendleton collab backpack; I don’t go anywhere without it.

Outerwear: I really like All Good (again) windbreakers. I have a few actually. My go to was All Good’s M-66 Camo jacket with the stowaway hood last winter. Burton Radial snowboard jacket on the mountain.

Favorite Cologne: Campfire smoke and ocean mist. When I’m indoors, Armani Code.

Your favorite App: It’s between Instagram and Snapchat. I’m on both way too much.

Favorite piece of technology: Besides my phone, my Leica D-Lux.

Next tech purchase: Raymarine Dragonfly-4 fish finder for the kayak.