“At one point, cooks are going to get together and say, ‘Fuck this, I’m not going to be paid so little just because I’m lucky to work at your fancy restaurant,’” says Russell Moore, chef/owner of the live-fire restaurant Camino, which now has a no-tipping policy in place. “We have one of the highest minimum wages in Oakland. Maybe the cook revolution will happen here.”
Whether the subject is restaurant politics or the farmer’s market, Moore admits he’s “super idealistic,” undoubtedly a result of two decades spent working for Alice Waters at that grande-dame of farm-to-table cooking, Chez Panisse. When he forged his own path with Camino in 2008 with his wife Allison Hopelain, he did so in a city that was rapidly transforming—albeit one that had long been sitting in the shadows of its culinary neighbor across the Bay. “San Francisco,” says Moore, “is so fucking expensive, and it’s getting to be that way here too. But there’s competition now, and that will make the restaurants even better.”
With last year’s cookbook, This is Camino, behind him, Moore’s now content to devote most of his time to the restaurant, whose centerpiece is a massive nine-foot-wide fireplace. Most items on the rotating menu, whether an egg with Périgord black truffle and grilled radicchio, or a slow-cooked duck leg with farro and Seville orange, are licked by flames.
“Maybe the cook revolution will happen here.”
The focus on elemental techniques and ingredients is a natural reflection of the Chez Panisse years, where, when he first arrived, “the word organic wasn’t even used in the context of restaurants.” The saturation of sustainability-driven eateries inspired by Waters’ culinary temple is, as Moore points out, “what we wanted. Now there are a hundred restaurants that are sort of like [it], but not that good. It’s not that everything needs to be like Chez Panisse, but my problem is some people lie.” For example, he often sees places touting that they buy local seafood, yet feature fish that aren’t currently in season. “It’s good that Alice changed the way we think and that it’s part of the conversation now, but I’d like to push it even farther,” he adds.
That Moore has evolved into a chef skeptical of an avocado’s origins surprises him most. Although the California native has fond memories of accompanying his Korean-Hawaiian mother on shopping jaunts to Asian groceries, the “white people food” she served at home was less than impressive. “She rebelled. She didn’t want to cook and clean and be a good Korean housewife, but unfortunately she still had to feed us,” he recalls.
Moore was “on the fast track to becoming a doctor” when he got burnt out before even finishing high school. Soon he began perusing the tech-school catalog, where cooking was among the offerings. It wasn’t the era of “cool bros with sleeves of tattoos,” but Moore relished being behind the stove. When he applied for a job at Chez Panisse, he had no idea it was shrouded in such myth. “I just walked in and everyone was smart and interesting, talking about movies and books,” he says. “And they were making the best vegetables I ever saw.”
Fortunately, he stuck around and learned how to cook them, absorbing a philosophy that continues to shape his own cuisine. From the boudin blanc that garnered Alice’s attention, to the spice-encrusted crab that’s a Camino mainstay, here are 10 milestone moments in Moore’s cooking career.
Red Pepper Soup
Deborah Madison was visiting Chez Panisse and she was working on this soup for hours and hours with chef [and now New York Times columnist] David Tanis. They tasted it and went back and forth adjusting it. I was really young at the time and didn’t even know who she was, but I remember thinking I was so out of my league and below their level that I didn’t understand what they were talking about. With my Korean-Hawaiian background, everything I ate had MSG in it, and here they were taking a soup so seriously. It was a pivotal moment for me in that I knew I had to learn—to eat more food and make more food. (Photo: Flickr/Jules)
My friend John Luther and I used to experiment and cook things for each other. He worked at Chez Panisse too, and we were really junior so we didn’t know anything. We saw a recipe in Saveur for paella cooked in fire and we decided to make it. I don’t remember what was in it, probably shrimp and sausage, but it turned out to be really good. To cook outside with fire was this seminal moment for me. Now we’ll do a paella night at the restaurant, and I’ve even been asked to write a few paella recipes for magazines. I always think, “This is too much. Who’s going to make this in their backyard?” And I think back to how I was looking at a magazine trying to figure it all out, and I say, “Russ at 20 would make this in his backyard.” (Photo: Flickr/Matt Westgate)
I was afraid of dessert. One time at Chez Panisse, Jacques Pépin rolled in and made an apple tart in front of us. He winged it, didn’t even measure ingredients, and it just blew us up. They still use that dough recipe and I make a weird version of it with buckwheat now. Pépin is a real cook who was able to just throw it together, and I realized if that’s how you could make dessert, maybe I could do it after all. Another time at Chez Panisse my friend Tony Brush was in charge of one of the try-out lunches, where you had to do everything from making three or four courses and picking out the wine. Of course dessert was part of it. Lindsey Shere was the pastry chef and she was picky and talented, so it was scary to make something for her. But Tony dumped apples on the counter, rolled out dough, put sugar in a cast-iron pan, and made a tarte tatin that Lindsey called perfect. This is something even I can make now. (Photo: elephantine.typepad.com)
Alice said she really wanted someone to make boudin blanc. David Tanis wasn’t working there at the time, so I called and asked him for advice. He gave me rambling, free-association thoughts on the process and I took notes. I made it and out of sheer luck, Alice took notice of me. Soon I got promoted and was referred to as the charcuterie guy, making pâté and terrines. Then at some point I got tired of making boudin blanc. I do it in this tedious way that’s un-teachable. It became a contentious issue because it developed a cult following and people started to ask for it here, but I don’t feel like it’s the restaurant for it because I cook in a lighter way now. Sometimes I give up, though, and make it for New Year’s with truffle. (Photo: Facebook/Camino)
Piles of Herbs
I have an Indian friend who once served me, as a first course, chunks of feta piled over herbs like cilantro, mint, and parsley with torn pieces of lavash. You squeezed lime over it, rolled it up, and ate it. It reminded me of pho, when there’s a pile of herbs in your soup, and I knew then that if I ever had a restaurant I would serve piles of herbs. We do that now at Camino with pozole and cilantro, basil, and Persian mint. We leave them on the branch and tell guests to pick what they want. (Photo: Flickr/Jamie)
I grew up in the worst cocktail era, filled with crappy vodka and giant Manhattans spilling out of glasses. When we were opening Camino we talked about serving craft cocktails and turned to Thad Vogler—a little while before Bar Agricole opened—to help us as our opening bar manager. We studied drinks and followed him around, and then he made us a daiquiri with really good rum and really good sugar and really good lime—if they weren’t organic and from California we wouldn’t use them—and I knew he was a master at balancing a drink. He encouraged us to keep things simple and support small brands, and it’s a foundation we still build off of today. (Photo: Flickr/Jon Oropeza)
Agnolotti at Quince
Mike Tusk and I worked together at Chez Panisse and then he went on to Oliveto, when he traveled to Italy a lot. Now we had a lot of pasta in San Francisco before, but it was largely a California thing, more about the great ingredients than tradition. There were so many better ways to make it, like the Piedmontese style with egg yolk. When Mike opened Quince, the pasta was at another level and I realized I never wanted to make it again. Why should I when someone else could make it so much better than me? His agnolotti were so small and stuffed with the meat pulled from between the ribs. It was super labor-intensive and grandmotherly at the same time. After Chez Panisse, my rule was no pizza and no pasta. I was sick of that framework. I haven’t made pasta in 10 years and I don’t even eat it anymore. (Photo: Foodspotting/Jody Brandes)
Grilled Dungeness Crab
Everyone here likes to make a little salad with fresh picked crab and citrus, but it didn’t seem right for us so I figured out ways to grill Dungeness crab. We haven’t had it for several weeks, though, because the weather is bad. We boil the crab first, cool it off, brush it with olive oil and spices like chile and coriander, and grill it so they burn and stick to the shell and don’t seep into the meat. I love it because it’s a big mess and a big commitment. You can’t be fancy when you’re eating crab. We’re not going to pick it for you. (Photo: Facebook/Camino)
Grilled King Salmon with Herb Broth
I write the menu six days in a row and then my co-chef, Michael Tsai, [takes over]. But we both work the line, [and we both work with live fire]. The thing I miss is that we just can’t poach [at Camino]. But Tsai does this dish we call Grilled King Salmon with Herb Broth, and he very slowly grills it—there’s hardly any fire—so it has a poached texture, and he puts herbs all over it. He takes bones from the fish and makes an almost tea out of it, and strains it so there’s no oiliness. Then he puts this slow-cooked fish on top of sorrel and it bleeds into the broth. It really feels like Camino. We always say that if we had a tasting menu, it would be course seven. (Photo: wildfish.co.nz)
We cook all parts of the animal in a different way every night, and it’s really hard to not have leftovers. I always say that we don’t make our money on the lamb but on the ragu, which keeps going for a few days. It takes a lot of technique, finesse, and labor, but something like lamb ragu on flatbread or toast with garlic and mint is a cool, rustic dish that suits Camino. (Photo courtesy Camino)