Eat and greet
July/August 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Jolaine Collins
Photos by Zach Cordner, Ono Yum and Ohana Photographers
'Neens' brings Aloha Spirit to California
More online: Pipeline poke
Nino Camilo, or "Neens" to his friends, draws from his Hawaiian heritage and passion for food and sports to produce large-scale culinary events in Southern California.
The day after producing one of his popular Southern California food festivals, Nino Camilo was grabbing a cup of coffee at a favorite shop in Encinitas. He only wanted a few sips, though.
"I can't drink a lot of coffee," he explained. "I've got lots of energy. I run on passion."
That passion is what drives Camilo to produce no fewer than six culinary events a year at beachside venues in Orange and San Diego counties. Each festival connects local chefs and visitors with foods they love.
Born in San Diego and raised in a family of Hawaiian heritage, the energetic 36-year-old—known as "Neens" to his friends—grew up surfing, skateboarding and performing hula. For several years, he marketed surf and skateboard lifestyle brands, developing a solid list of contacts along the way.
He has rolled all that into a successful career as a food-event producer, combining his love of action sports, food and Hawaiian culture, and drawing from his sports-marketing experience and contacts.
There's a "happy vibe" at Nino Camilo's food events, such as his "I Love Poke" festivals. There, chefs create their own versions of the popular Hawaiian dish, which is traditionally made with raw ahi tuna, cubed and lightly seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil.
Where chefs compete, people eat
One of Camilo's annual events recently featured a cooking competition between two professional skateboarders. The spring event, called "North Eats," celebrates the food scene of northern San Diego County and showcases chefs from Del Mar to Oceanside.
Executive Chef Suzy Williams of Solterra Winery & Kitchen in Encinitas has participated in North Eats for the past two years. She said of Camilo, "He's created a stage for those of us in the north end of San Diego that don't get as much publicity as the restaurants downtown. He's helping create a voice for chefs and the local farms that we feature in our restaurants."
Joe Barille, chef/owner of Café Topes in Carlsbad and a first-year participant in North Eats, said he appreciates the way Camilo initiates connections among chefs.
"He encouraged chefs to share food samples and meet each other at the event. Now we're going to each other's restaurants and even referring business to each other. We're working together to build our restaurant community," Barille said. "It's contagious."
Camilo, right, grew up performing the hula and often dances on stage at his I Love Poke festivals, where 500 to 600 attendees share in the Aloha Spirit.
A big Hawaiian luau
Camilo also connects cultures. His Hawaiian roots prompted the start six years ago of his most ambitious events: "I Love Poke" festivals, which showcase poke (pronounced poh-KAY), a popular Hawaiian dish traditionally made with raw ahi tuna, cubed and lightly seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil.
"Anyone who's enjoyed poke in Hawaii craves it here on the mainland. But it's not easy to find," Camilo said, pointing to the shared cultural influences of Hawaii and Southern California, including miles of beaches, fresh-food trends and, of course, surfing. "We are next-door neighbors, separated by the ocean."
Camilo's I Love Poke festivals feature friendly competition among a dozen or so local chefs who create unique versions of the event's namesake dish, hoping to claim the title of "Best Poke." A panel of celebrity judges typically includes professional surfers and skateboarders.
Some 500 to 600 attendees of the Huntington Beach and San Diego festivals sample the poke creations as well as other Hawaiian and Asian-inspired dishes. Camilo's goal has been to create what feels likes a big Hawaiian luau.
"What's cool is the overall spirit of the event. Everyone feels connected, like family and friends. That excitement—the Aloha Spirit—is what brings people together. There's a happy vibe," he said. "You often hear people say that some of their best memories stem from the time they've spent in Hawaii. My goal is to bring back those memories."
Camilo, right, creates events that connect local chefs and visitors with the food they love. He also initiates camaraderie among chefs, encouraging them to share food samples and meet, as shown here with San Diego chefs, from left, Joe Barille of Café Topes, Christine Loyola of Petite Madeline Bakery & Bistro and Suzy Williams of Solterra Winery & Kitchen.
Cooking from the soul
When he's not working on events or surfing, Camilo writes about the SoCal food scene for local magazines and has a food blog for those who enjoy Hawaii- and California-inspired food. He calls his business Ono Yum: "Ono means delicious in Hawaiian, and yum is the way we say delicious on the mainland."
Behind the man, however, is the mom—whom Camilo credits for inspiration.
"My mom is the raddest home chef. She cooks from her soul," he said. "When I grew up eating that level of food, I didn't know what I was being prepped for. She satisfies people's food cravings by cooking. I do it by connecting people with chefs; it all makes sense now."
When it comes to planning ahead, Camilo is making notes for the next year before an event is even over—always contemplating ways to improve efficiencies in creating what he said is like a large backyard barbecue. He doesn't necessarily envision bigger events, just better, he said, explaining that he's considering venues in additional locations such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and perhaps New York and Hawaii.
"I didn't go to school for hospitality or cooking or marketing. But it's what I know. I do it all from the soul," Camilo said, echoing his words about his mom. "I love making people happy with good food. There's nothing better than sharing meals with people that you love."