Executive Chef of Kukio Beach Clubhouse and Kukio Golf Clubhouse
Kukio on the Big Island of Hawaii is an area befit for royalty. Nestled on the dormant Hualalai volcano, Kukio’s scenic natural views, white-shored beaches and abundant ahupuaa sustainable system of life made it throughout history a much-revered destination for Hawaii’s chiefs.
In the modern age, Kukio plays host to a different kind of elite. As a private Tom Fazio golf club and ultra-exclusive residential community, Kukio now sees its share of the world’s top celebrities, athletes and entrepreneurs walking through the doors of its indescribably luxurious homes and cottages.
Amid an estate of such pedigree, a humble chef creates a haven of hands-on cooking. Michael Bilger, executive chef of the Kukio Beach Clubhouse and the Kukio Golf Clubhouse, brings a touch of heart, soul and home to the Kukio’s discerning diners.
“At Kukio, there’s a nice mix of haute cuisine and modern American cuisine,” Bilger says. “We cover the board.”
Bilger, 37, grew up in California, with most of his childhood spent in the southern part of the state. His culinary background stems from an early love of Italian cooking inspired by his Sicilian grandmother, Angeline. He recalls helping his grandmother make gnocchi from scratch during the holidays, and took to heart her passionate approach and traditional tactics.
“My grandmother was a great home cook,” he says. “She didn’t make a big fuss about it, but she had a passion for it. (But) by modern standards, she wouldn’t be considered a ‘foodie’ – she never had the latest gadgets.”
Once in his 20s, Bilger made the move to Northern California, where he got his first taste of the restaurant industry.
“I spent several years as a server, kicking it around in greasy spoons,” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.”
Ironically, his home-taught skills in Sicilian cooking ultimately led to his fortuitous start in a professional restaurant kitchen. Chef Carlo Middione of the restaurant Vivande Porta Via, a specialist in Southern Italian cuisine and fellow Sicilian, took note of Bilger’s talent and mentored the budding chef in using simple flavors.
“Carlo is brilliant,” says Bilger, who lists Middione among the chefs he admires.
Also on Bilger’s list of chef idols is another mentor, chef Brian Whitmer. Whitmer, who formerly served as executive chef of Montrio restaurant in Monterey Bay, invited Bilger to create a pasta program for San Francisco eatery, Moose’s. More opportunities followed for Bilger, as he was later called upon by Whitmer to serve as chef de cuisine at The Lodge at Sonoma. Bilger became executive chef there within a year.
“Brian was a mentor to me,” he says. “He taught me what it means to be a chef.”
Having learned to forge his own signature style of fresh artisan ingredients, Bilger went on to help open Wine Garden Food and Wine Bar in 2004. As executive chef, Bilger worked with the Nord family, a Napa Valley clan known for its premium wines and sustainable farming.
It was with the Wine Garden team that Bilger got to experience what he considers the highlight of his career.
“I cooked at the James Beard House for Wine Garden,” he recalls of the 2004 event in New York City. “It was a little before Christmas time, and the house was sold out. It was a total success.”
Success never caused Bilger to rest on his laurels, however. Ever seeking a challenge, he moved to Hawaii in 2005 and found himself at Kukio, where he started off as executive sous chef of the Kukio Beach Clubhouse. He’s since risen through the ranks, and now offers his own fresh, seasonal menus as executive chef of Kukio’s two dining spots.
“My goal is to be hands-on” with food, he says. “I’m more of a chef than an ‘executive chef’ – an executive chef gets into more of the business role. I’m continually training. I can’t not cook!”