Food The Bite:

Chef Kevin O’Connor

Photography by Sarah Elliott

Earlier this week I shared my swoony experience in Yolo California with Cobram Estate. I engaged in their first Californian harvest for their vibrant Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The day came to a close with the most delicious olive oil focused meal prepared by Chef Kevin O’Connor. I was smitten by his passion surrounding food & farming and inspired by his journey into food. Kevin’s olive oil butter cream simply blew me away dolloped atop a rich and decadent carrot cake. Today he shares the recipe for us all on #TheBite

Chef Kevin O’Connor

Name: Kevin O’Connor

Profession: Chef

Recipe: Nantes Carrot Cake with Olive Oil Butter Cream and persimmon with honey

Five ingredients you couldn’t live without? Salt, Olive Oil, Fresh Fish, Lemon, Chives.

Cooking makes you feel? Cooking makes me feel free. It makes me feel confident. Cooking makes me feel complete. I love to give and I love to share. Having an artistic outlet that people can enjoy on so many different sensory levels that pays respect to nature is the most rewarding thing ever.

Chef Kevin O’Connor
Chef Kevin O’Connor

How would you describe the food you create? What is the core value represented in the food? The food that I create has evolved from esoteric, fine dining, ‘tweezer food’ to just good food on a plate. From my fine dining background I took the respect for quality ingredients and the importance of balanced flavors, but stripped down mostly everything else. Great, exciting, creative food can be still be very simple.

Most important flavor building ingredient or combo? Salt salt salt salt salt. Dishes are balanced with salt and acid. The ability to properly season with salt and balance with acid makes a good cook a great cook. The French cook in me finds mirepoix important for flavor building. I also encourage people to use fresh herbs rather than dried; to me there’s no other way.

I know you were working on a restaurant – when will that open? I was working on opening Saddle Rock Restaurant, but I left the operation before it opened to join Cobram Estate full time.

Chef Kevin O’Connor

How do you remain inspired in food? Inspiration comes from everything around me. I really have to keep an open, childlike mind to find constant and continual inspiration. I never want to get to a point again in which I’m hunting for inspiration. I want it to overwhelm me. I feel a connection with nature is one of the most important ways for a chef to stay inspired.

Something you often create for yourself or friends at home? I’m known to make the world’s best popcorn for my friends. It’s a snack I’ve made since I was a kid in my grandma’s magic cast iron pot that she passed down and it’s something I can still eat a ton of on the daily.

Classic local restaurant that makes you swoon? There’s a little French spot in East Sacramento called Café Rolle. There’s a small two top in the kitchen that I will sit at sometimes and speak French the whole evening. The food is simple and delicious the small team is passionate and loyal. I also get very excited to visit The Old Spaghetti Factory.

Chef Kevin O'Connor


What inspired you to you become a chef at such a young age and what was the genesis to where you are today?

I’ve wanted to be a chef for as long as I can remember. I think I was eight when I opened my first “restaurant” in my bedroom with my parents and brother as the patrons. I yearned to be a dishwasher and a prep-cook as a pre-teen and after getting my first job in a kitchen at 14 I was absolutely hooked. I was lucky enough to have a work experience program at highschool, which allowed me to have a full schedule and work in the best restaurants around me at that time. After high school I moved to downtown Sacramento to pursue even finer dining. At 19 I went to France on a one way ticket and cooked my way through some beautiful cities. I found a lot out about myself and developed some core food values that still hold true to my cooking today. When I came home I landed a job cooking under the best chef in town at the time but also started a pop-up restaurant in my house. I needed an outlet, needed to express myself, I needed to start figuring out what “my food” was. I started receiving some great recognition for what I was doing, and eventually the pop-up grew out of my house. This recognition from the pop-up eventually led me to an offer to open a restaurant in Sacramento as the executive chef at the age of 23. I was really able to solidify my name as a chef in Sacramento and truly start to develop my style. As a young chef does, I burned out hard and went to Montana to get some relaxation, foraging and hunting and fishing in. I decided to take a while before returning to Sacramento and studied in a couple Michelin starred kitchens in San Francisco. I was lucky enough to spend time in the kitchens of Coi and Saison. After freelancing a bit and starting to open another restaurant in Sacramento, Cobram found me and the bond was formed.

The lunch you created was simply perfection so vibrant and fresh – can you speak about the local farms and produce and how that informs your food?

In the Sacramento we are so lucky to be in such close proximity to amazing farms. Even in the great restaurants I’ve worked in in other cities we weren’t getting tomatoes delivered through the back door just after harvesting, still warm from the sun. We never received peaches dripping with nectar, or figs bursting from ripeness that couldn’t handle another mile of transportation. Great product doesn’t just inform my food, it defines it. It’s my starting point for the dish. At the harvest lunch I really wanted to show people how good we have it, so I sourced most the product from a farm that was actually within eyeshot from the lunch location. Apart from supporting the local community of farmers, creating a sense of time and place within the dishes, creating dishes with fresh product just tastes way better.

Tell us about your carrot cake recipe? The olive oil infused frosting was genius!

I really had no idea what to make for the dessert for this lunch, which was actually the first event I did with Cobram. Capay Organic, a farm just a couple miles from the grove, was selling beautiful nantes carrots at the time. Carrot cake popped in to my head so I started playing with different recipes. I wanted the olive oil to sing, so I took out the usual spices from the cake (ginger, cinnamon, etc) and let the robustness of the olive oil take their place. I didn’t want to do a classic cream cheese frosting, and not being much of a pastry guy a simple buttercream came to mind. I thought, butter is fat, olive oil is fat, why not make a frosting with olive oil. A simple two ingredient frosting has now become a part of my repertoire.

Any kitchen trick for home chefs that guaranteed to pack flavor into their dishes?

Add plenty of Cobram Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil 😛 I urge home cooks to use more salt or seasoning in the forms of soys, miso, or fermented foods. Don’t skimp on ingredients; be sure to use quality stuff. I don’t mean luxury ingredients, I mean quality. Go to the farmers market, keep it simple, taste as you cook and make adjustments. That’s it. Don’t forget; not tasting as you cook is like driving with your eyes closed.

Do you have a different approach to cooking at home than at work?

My approach with cooking at home varies so much, as opposed to cooking at work which is more consistent. Cooking at home I usually try to tailor exactly to what my girlfriend is feeling or what I’m craving. If I want thai food, I’ll make thai food. If she wants fish tacos, I’ll devote my night to making fish tacos. At work, I’m furthering my style and following some guidelines, but trying to do new things. At home I’m more geared towards perfecting the basics. I may have spent three days making the perfect, simple cheeseburger at my house.

The 5 local go-to restaurants or cafes you frequent?

My favorite spot in town right now is probably my friend’s rotisserie house, Empress Tavern. Best sushi in town has got to be Kru; I could eat there every night. I love starting my morning at The Mill. Their espresso is primo and they whip up a mean waffle. Best date spot and damn good food goes to Mother, a vegetable centric spot with a cool casual atmosphere. They actually change the concept monthly, but veggies always reign supreme. The new kids on the block that are just doing an awesome job and delivering a great new concept is Skool, a Japanese inspired American fish house. If I could eat brunch at Bacon and Butter every weekend I totally would.

Food trend you partake in? One you wish would go away?

Now that foraging has fortunately/unfortunately become trendy, I suppose I partake in that. I find fashionable plating styles, techniques and color schemes cool and fun to keep up with, but I never let it define a dish. I feel like some cooks follow plating trends or trendy techniques so much that they lose vision of what the dish is about. There are also too many chefs just forcing foraged ingredients in to dishes. At the end of the day, the dish has to taste good. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Also, can we stop putting bacon on everything?

Olive Oil Carrot Cake with Extra Virgin Buttercream

Chef Kevin O'Connor


For the Carrot Cake

  • 3 cups all purpose flour, plus a little more for
  • the pan
  • 1 pound of carrots, peeled and finely grated
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • ⅓ cup of nonfat buttermilk, at room
  • temperature
  • 2 cups of sugar
  • 1 ½ cups of olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt

For the ‘Buttercream’

  • ¾ cup powdered sugar
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil

Note: For this recipe I let the bold flavors of the olive oil take the place of the spices which are traditional in any carrot cake. When I make this cake I use nantes carrots grown in the Capay Valley, but any carrot will work.

The Prep

1. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees fahrenheit. Grease a large cake tin with a drizzle of olive oil. Dust with flour, tap out any excess and set aside.

2. Whisk together the carrots, eggs, buttermilk, sugar, and olive oil in a large bowl. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. Stir the flour mixture into the carrot mixture until completely combined. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan.

3. Bake for one hour and fifteen minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. While the cake is baking, prepare the buttercream by thoroughly and vigorously whisking the powdered sugar and olive oil together. Unmold the cake onto a cooling rack and let cool completely before frosting. (Optional) Garnish with carrot ribbons or cleaned carrot tops.

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