For two decades, chef Russell Moore was a company man. Of course, the company he worked for was Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ bastion for seasonal, sustainable California cuisine. Still, it became time for Moore to move on, and he opened Camino in Oakland with wife and General Manager Allison Hopelain. The couple changes the menu daily, focusing matters around a wood-burning hearth. I met Moore on September 6 at the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, and he shared several culinary insights.
Was it a given that you would become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
I was set to be a doctor through high school, and right through when I started college. Suddenly I decided it wasn’t for me. I kind of happened into cooking. I had always cooked at home and always loved eating. I was kind of wobbling. I decided not to go to college and flounder and not know what I wanted to do, so I was reading different catalogs and met a guy who was a professional cook. I’m 49 years old, so that was a long time ago, and cooking wasn’t a very popular thing. It wasn’t in my field of vision, but he gave me the idea, and I pursued it. I went to a community college briefly, and got my first job. I quite community college cooking program and worked in one restaurant for nine months. It wasn’t very good. I moved to San Francisco and got a job at Chez Panisse.
Where you from originally?
Los Angeles. I moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles and had a friend of a friend who told me which restaurants to seek out. I’d always made Asian food. I’m half Korean, so I didn’t really know about European food at all. I ended up getting a job at Chez Panisse and worked there for 20 years.
After 20 years, what ultimately tipped it in terms of opening your own restaurant finally?
It’s funny. I never really thought about having my own restaurant. At first, I just wanted to be a really good line cook. Then I wanted to be a good expediter. Then I wanted to be a sous chef. Then I was the chef. In some way, I hit a wall and rather than try to change the system I was working in, in a certain way, and work within the confines of that, I really wanted to cook what I wanted to cook on my own. I loved my job at Chez Panisse. It was really nice, cushy, really great colleagues, but if I didn’t do Alice Waters’ cooking, I always wondered what my food would be, so I decided to open my own restaurant. I wanted to open a restaurant that had – my wife and I, we thought – What if we open a restaurant and only do things we like? We don’t do everything we’re supposed to do, made no compromises. Didn’t say “organic when possible” or any garbage like that. Go totally organic, the way we do at home, and just cook the way we wanted to. Why doesn’t anyone do that? That’s what we did.
What does a dish have to be to go on your menu?
The menu’s different every day because it has to be. Using whole animals and whatever produce farmers bring in, you’ve got to adapt and change to that. I don’t buy ingredients for the menu. I buy ingredients and write the menu after. We have some things we’ve done a few times and have different ways of cooking in the fire. Our whole restaurant’s based around the fireplace. We try a few techniques, we taste dishes back and forth, then it goes on the menu…I use a ton of herbs. I don’t rely that much on fat. I like fat, but I don’t rely on it. I want food that’s satisfying and balanced. It does not have to be traditional, at all, but I don’t want it to feel modern either. I want it to feel timeless. I go to a lot of my friends’ restaurants.
There are a couple camps of cooking these days. There are rustic so-called farm-to-table restaurants, which we’d be considered as. Then there are modern restaurants that are technique driven. I’m really inspired by the modern restaurants’ combination of flavors. I don’t want to use a circulator, I don’t want to cook in plastic, I don’t want to use chemicals, and I don’t want to plate in a way that requires tweezers and complicated things. I want my food to look homey and rustic, but I am free to use whatever combination of things I want, that makes sense. It doesn’t have to be based in France or Italy or Tunisia or Iran. We can do whatever we want.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in Camino?