As a Charleston native, John Ondo, executive chef at The Atlantic Room at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, long ago experienced a full-immersion baptism into the Lowcountry way of life. With the tidal creeks and his grandmother’s kitchen for stomping grounds, he grew up surrounded by the abundant agricultural/aquacultural resources and traditions that define the rich, regional larder. His eventual interest in a culinary career seemed a natural extension of those formative years.
To that end, he studied hospitality management and culinary arts at Trident Tech’s Culinary Institute of Charleston and sharpened his technique working in some of the area’s most memorable kitchens, including Il Cortile Del Re, Carolina’s and McCrady’s. Ondo established himself as a local culinary force in 2005 when he opened the restaurant Lana, where he showcased rustic Mediterranean dishes and built a loyal following before moving on to other ventures, including serving as an adjunct professor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston.
His respect for local foodways and demonstrated commitment to culinary excellence has earned Chef Ondo a spot on the 2022 roster of South Carolina Chef Ambassadors. Through the program, the state’s most talented chefs are chosen to promote South Carolina's culinary heritage and local food culture via cooking demonstrations, guest appearances and educational programs.
Now, as executive chef of The Atlantic Room at Kiawah, Ondo draws upon his expertise in Mediterranean cuisine, close-knit relationships with farmers and fishermen and love for the food traditions of the Lowcountry to craft memorable dining experiences for the restaurant’s many discriminating diners. Here, he shares insights into his already storied career and how he envisions his role as a SC Chef Ambassador.
Q: What was it about food and beverage that made it the career of choice for you?
A: I always liked the constant pace of the industry, the hustle and bustle of a working kitchen, always having another task to complete to get to service or to finish service.
Q: What are your favorite locally sourced ingredients and what are some ways you use them?
A: The two that immediately come to mind are Carolina Gold Rice and tomatoes. I like to use the rice or “middlins” in salads and chilled preparations. I think Guy Clark said it best in his song “Home Grown Tomatoes”—"Only two things that money can’t buy, that’s true love and home-grown tomatoes.”
Q: Do you have a signature dish?
A: I would say a current staple on the menu is the seafood stew. It is an elevated interpretation of Country Captain that incorporates local seafood and Carolina Gold Rice.
Q: As a chef ambassador, what do you most look forward to sharing with the people of South Carolina?
A: I hope to celebrate the bounty that is readily available here in the Lowcountry by focusing on support for our farmers and fishermen. Food also just tastes better when it comes from close by. It doesn’t have to be overly manipulated because it just tastes so great when it’s fresh and local, so I hope to highlight that. I also look forward to the challenge and opportunity to learn more about our state’s rich culinary history from my fellow chef ambassadors and perhaps share something useful with them that I have learned over the years. I look forward to honoring the producers who work so hard for us to have such beautiful produce on our kitchen counters, in our stores and farmers markets and in our restaurants.