Hawaii's Best Cheesecake Is Made by This Self-Taught Punk Rock Baker
Photos by Adam Jung


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Hawaii's Best Cheesecake Is Made by This Self-Taught Punk Rock Baker

Despite years of struggles with illiteracy and feuds with drug dealers on his block, Otto has built a reputation as the best on the island.

The first time Otto ever baked a cheesecake, he built it from scratch without a recipe because he didn’t know how to read. It was a gift for his mother; every year, she had a tradition of going to the local Times or Foodland supermarket in Hawaii and buying herself a whole cheesecake for her birthday. They would arrive frozen and shipped in from Colorado, until the company one day went out of business.


“She was so sad. I didn’t know how to cook and had no idea how hard it would be but I decided to make her a cheesecake anyway,” Otto says. “My brother became my guinea pig: I told him to close his eyes and taste-test the cake. If he could tell it was cheesecake, then I knew it was okay.”

His mother loved it. And when Otto (one name only, like Coolio or Divine) later made a second cheesecake to bring to a work potluck, he received eight orders for more cakes on the spot from his coworkers. That was 28 years ago, and the demand hasn’t stopped.

Otto’s never had to rely on advertising, and never took a cheesecake to a restaurant and asked them to sell his slices. People just arrive at Otto Cake, his hole-in-the-wall bakery on 12th Avenue in Kaimuki, examine the daily selection (there are 286-plus rotating flavors that range from coconut macadamia to peanuts-and-beer to Chinese almond cookie), and clear out his entire inventory within a few hours.

Visitors and locals alike leave reviews online that rave about the cheesecake. Before adopting a five-star scale in 2016, Zagat awarded the cake shop one of the highest ratings in the state with 28 points out of the possible 30 and called Otto a “baking wizard,” serving what may “arguably be the best cheesecake on the island.” Not bad for a musician who taught himself to cook and struggled well into his twenties with learning how to read, write, and do math.


“In my life, my growth has just always been slower,” says Otto. “I think I just had to figure things out my own way.” Otto attended special education classes all through high school and came close to not graduating. Besides baking, he found work in customer service for American Express, installing store display windows for Gucci, and selling vacation tours at the airport.

In the late 1990s, Otto found an opportunity to bake full-time when he came across a listing to rent out a bakery by the airport for $500 a month. Around the same time, he had recently joined a local punk band, The Sticklers, after they asked him to play bass—despite the fact that Otto had never picked up the instrument before in his life. He spent the next several weeks teaching himself the bass and, realizing that your band got to play if you organized the event, began hosting once-a-month shows at the new bakery.

“I’ve loved the punk scene in Hawaii since the early 80s, because it always accepted everyone,” says Otto. “At the bakery, we’d hold shows in the parking lot because there were no costs, except for $75 to rent a porta-potty. Sometimes, I’d just trade two cheesecakes and get the porta-potty for free.”

Promoting his own shows at the bakery led to other gigs promoting punk shows around town, which led to a stint working for the music promotion company Goldenvoice. In 2001, Otto convinced the new band he was in, 86 List, to perform a remount of the cult musical Hedwig and The Angry Inch, with Otto starring in the lead role of the East German transgender glam rocker. The show was a hit, and Otto and the band performed it three more times that decade.


In 2009, Otto moved his bakery to Chinatown, but within a couple of years, he began encountering problems with neighborhood drug dealers pushing product outside his shop. One afternoon, a guy grabbed the baker and started choking him. Otto, who is physically fit but nonviolent, pretended to lose consciousness. The guy broke Otto’s phone and took off. Another time, while he ushered Japanese tourists out of the bakery as an increasingly vocal drug handoff was taking place outside, a woman struck Otto hard enough to give him a bruised rib. During a smoke break, a female employee was shoved into a window.

On each occasion, Otto would call the police. They’d arrive and take a statement, but the attacks continued. The final straw came on Honolulu’s monthly First Friday neighborhood art walk, when a man brandished a gun outside the bakery. Otto had enough.

“I believed in Chinatown; this was an area I had known for years,” says Otto. “Ultimately I think what happened is that this was a quiet street with a relatively fixed number of people coming through. Some days, the bakery would get a hundred people coming in, and now it became harder for people who had been selling drugs here.”

Otto moved across town in 2013. He’s still making cheesecake with flavors of his own invention (as well as other sweets such as brownies and homemade chocolate), still getting to the shop at 5 AM and baking until the fridge is full, and still mixing each cake one at a time with his right arm—no machine.

“Everything is done by hand; this way I know the consistency of the batter,” Otto says. “I don’t have a vision to increase production. I want the same quality from that first day, the cake my brother liked.”