The Wannabe GrandmaThe Art of Eating | December 2011
On the outside, Camino, on a quiet stretch of Grand Avenue, looks simple and humble, a rustic brick box built in the 1930s as a dry goods store. Inside, it could hardly be more sparse with its concrete floors, brick and plaster walls, and bare iron chandeliers. The long communal tables and shorter individual tables were constructed from fallen redwoods; benches and chairs, bought on eBay, came from churches in Pennsylvania and England. The menu, which changes every day, is short, a dozen different seasonal dishes, mostly Italian-, French-, and Spanish-influenced. For such a visually unassuming restaurant, Camino evokes strong reactions. Those who love it profess a desire to live there. Others chafe at the house rules.
After opening the restaurant in May 2008, husband and wife owners Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain gained unintended notoriety when they refused to serve vodka, decaffeinated coffee, or chocolate because they didn’t fit into their cooking or because theycouldn’t find suitable, sustainable sources. While they’ve since started serving acceptable brands of all three, they continue to forswear anything GMO (including cornstarch and most mass-produced spirits) or containing high-fructose corn syrup, as well as any fish not caught locally or by a specific, sustainable method, such as a fishing line and not a dragnet. For long stretches of winter, the fish portion of the menu offers only oysters, anchovies, smelt, ling cod, or Dungeness crab from the nearby San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean. On rare occasions when nothing suitable can be found, it offers no fish at all. And in part because Moore doesn’t want to be seen as yet another Chez Panisse vet doing more of the same, he also refuses to serve the iconic restaurant’s classic dishes of pasta or pizza.
It would be a shame for the things Camino doesn’t serve to overshadow all the marvelous things it does. In the region where the North American interest in cooking with local and seasonal produce began, Moore is such a gifted judge of produce that the farmers who supply him turn to him for advice. More notable, however, are his archaic methods, whether he is cooking on the hearth or in his wood-fired brick oven. He is at “the fireplace station” several nights a week and has become something of an expert in a town where more and more restaurants have hearths. Eschewing many of the usual tools and appliances, Moore proudly calls his approach “as grandmotherly as possible: I’m a grandmother wannabe.”
Tall and lean, with spiked dark hair, Moore looks much younger than his 47 years — more skateboarder than grandma — and describes himself as a punk-rock hippie. Hopelain, with her gamine curls and tortoise-shell glasses, at 43 has a similar mellow spirit that belies firm convictions. Moore cooked for over two decades at Chez Panisse, first as a line cook and then as chef de cuisine of the upstairs café, an astonishingly long run in an industry where the average line-cook tenure is closer to 18 months. Hopelain, when the two began dating in the early 2000s, was a landscape designer and gardener; after they decided to open Camino, she trained as a hostess at the San Francisco restaurants Bar Tartine and Zuni Café.
Camino means “fireplace” in Italian, and the back wall of the dining room is dominated by the eight-foot-long, brick-lined stone fireplace built by Pascal Faivre, a Sonoma-based Frenchman whose family has worked in stonemasonry since the Crusades. The hearth is set at about 32 inches high; logs are stored below. Moore keeps the large cooking area beautifully spare, like a 17th-century Spanish still life. At the center, a tall, U-shaped iron rack holds a stack of burning logs, creating heat for roasting and coals for grilling. Surrounding the rack are three grills of varying heights. Moore shuns even a spit; instead he roasts legs of lamb and other large cuts à la ficelle — letting them twirl before the coals on a long piece of string, often over a shallow cazuela, or Spanish clay pot, of simmering beans, which catches the drippings.
The fireplace was Hopelain’s idea. After years of observing Moore cook, she realized he felt most comfortable working with live fire. “That’s how we cooked at home, because our kitchen was really small. We would cook outside all the time, and whenever Russ did events for Chez Panisse, he would end up cooking outside.”
For a restaurant centered on a fireplace, however, the food at Camino has deliciously little of the acrid flavor that sometimes comes from smoke. Restaurants with wood-fired grills typically get aggressive with their flames, building their fires as hot as possible to heavily char foods like steak, sausages, and thick pieces of fish like salmon and swordfish. This leaves no question in their customers’ minds that their dishes came off a grill, but it can give a monotonously smoky taste and an almost unpleasant creosotelike aroma. Camino hardly ever serves steak. Moore builds a fire to generate as little smoke as possible, then takes full advantage of the roomy hearth to expose dishes to a wide range of temperatures, most of them low. “It’s probably like using a French flat-top stove,” he says, “though I’ve never used one.”
You might expect a grilled fillet of ling cod, for example, to appear at the table with deep, black grill marks, the charred and all but dried-out exterior contrasting strongly if pleasantly with the moist, fragrant interior. But Moore grills his fish over only a handful of red coals. The cod arrives glistening, with faint grill marks, quiveringly moist and only lightly, if wonderfully, scented with smoke.
A signature first course, grilled cheese, is not the classic sandwich but rather a wedge of Bellwether Farms’ unusually firm fresh sheep’s milk ricotta, grilled with a handful of bay, fig or myrtle leaves, served with a platter of thick slices of grilled Acme pain d’épi (Camino’s house bread, available by request). The bread comes handsomely toasted, lightly oiled, with great crunch but still pliant, and tasting of particularly delicious baguette. (“If people can’t come here for good grilled toast,” Moore asks, “then really, what are we doing?”) The cheese tastes of tangy milk, a faint hint of fire, and the barely singed oil of the fragrant leaves.
Similarly, though his leg of lamb spends more than an hour à la ficelle in front of the burning logs, it barely browns and inside stays beautifully pink throughout. A clear if mild smoke flavor permeates the meat the way a spiced brine might give pork or chicken a faint but distinct taste of juniper or anise.
In the summer, Moore cooks his vegetables over higher heat for more char, though still less than is usual among other restaurants. For a grilled Roman squash salad, Moore gives thin slices of firm Costata Romanesco zucchini perhaps the darkest grill marks of anything served at Camino — not quite black, but burnt sienna. He then marinates the slices in a lemon vinaigrette that seems to dissolve some of the bitterest charred flavors. “Summer vegetables are so sweet and easy, by the end of the summer they can actually be a bit boring to cook and eat — especially in the Bay Area, how many perfect green beans and peppers can you have before you need to do something different?” he asks. “A little bitterness makes them more interesting.”
In summer, even his toast gets more toasted. For a bar snack of King Trumpet mushrooms sautéed with tarragon, served on Bellwether ricotta spread on toast, the same pain d’épi came out more thinly sliced, less pliable and darker brown, but not so smoky that it could overwhelm the clear, lively tarragon flavor of the mushrooms.
For ratatouille, Moore cooks the onions and bell peppers right in the coals. But he experiments with the zucchini and eggplant, sometimes grilling them, sometimes frying them on a gas stove so that not all the vegetables taste of the fireplace. He roasts a portion of the tomatoes in the wood oven, but also stirs in chopped and seeded raw tomatoes, pounded raw garlic, and big handfuls of fresh herbs to balance some of the smoke.
Grilled corn on the cob also gets more smoke flavor than winter vegetables do at Camino, but again within limits. Moore finds that cooking fresh ears entirely on the grill makes them taste, he says with some disdain, “like something served at a backyard barbecue.” So he roasts them halfway in the oven, bastes them with a bright herb butter, and grills them for another five or six minutes before basting them with a little more herb butter. The fat and the grilling make for a smoky but far more flavorful ear.
Moore has never measured the temperature, but thinks he heat his oven to only about 450 to 500 degrees, lower than a pizza oven (which usually runs to 650 degrees or more). The oven fire is designed to have hotter and cooler areas, some hot enough to give potatoes roasted in duck fat a crunchy exterior and ethereally light interior, others low enough so that oysters can be warmed in a cazuela on a bed of chopped, sweet, softened green garlic shoots spiced with absinthe, sprinkled with breadcrumbs for a fennelly, briny appetizer.
The few times that Moore intentionally smokes something, his choice of foods is unexpected. For a winter first course, he served a homey room-temperature salad of smoked lentils topped with bright, piquant segments of pomelo, blood orange, and grapefruit. Moore built a small fire of twigs in his wood oven, set the cooked lentils inside and closed the door. Ten minutes later the beans emerged tasting barely smoky and earthily sweet, as though they’d been drizzled with dark molasses.
The gentleness of the smoke is partly a practical necessity to stave off neighbors’ complaints. To assuage their fears about pollution, Moore has figured out how to build a nearly smokeless fire. On weekdays, the staff preheats, for about an hour, a dozen logs, usually a mix of almond, cherry, and other orchard cuttings, either in the restaurant’s gas oven or in the unlit wood-fired oven if it’s still hot from the night before. “We let them get hot enough that they could almost ignite themselves,” Moore says. Then they transfer the logs to the U-shaped rack and light them. The hot, dry logs quickly flame up. With all the oxygen circulating through the large hearth (assisted by a hood vent that pulls air up into the chimney), they burn cleanly. Every 40 minutes or so, one of the cooks throws another log or two into the rack. By the time the dinner service starts, a deep bed of glowing red coals lies beneath the rack. Whenever the cooks need coals for grilling, they scrape a mere cup or two out from under the fire with an L-shaped piece of rebar.
“It’s difficult to be a line cook here,” Moore admits. Not only do the cooks have to understand wood heat, but Moore prefers the flavors of foods cooked almost entirely to order. “It’s not five minutes rewarming something in butter, it’s 30 minutes of fire time. At most restaurants, everything’s blanched ahead of time, then chilled and reheated. I’m a bit anti-blanching because it bugs me to see all the water with the flavor getting poured down the drain. You lose the flavor of where it came from. I love the building up and the slowing down,” he says, referring to both the taste and the heat. Capitalizing on the range of temperatures akin to a flat-top’s, instead of rewarming foods instantaneously, anything he doesn’t cook to order Moore heats back up slowly enough to deepen its flavors. “Heating stuff up is almost as important as cooking stuff here,” he says.
Take the farro that appeared one winter night with grilled chicken. Moore discovered Anson Mills’s farro piccolo a couple of years ago. Unlike ordinary farro, which usually comes semi-perlato or perlato, with a portion or all of the outer bran removed for quicker cooking, this farro piccolo comes with the full husk. For a dish last February, Moore toasted the grains in a dry pan, then boiled them until just tender. Then he fried them with spring onions, garlic, and mint. During service he reheated a few scoopfuls at a time in a Chinese sand pot, a small, deep, lidded clay pot with a glazed interior, which he set on a brick by the fire’s edge. He prizes the vessel partly for its ability to give the farro a fine crust. Just before serving, he used a favorite wooden spoon to stir in the crispy edges. “It doesn’t get smoked,” Moore said, “but it gets great.” The juicy chicken breast and leg, succulent black trumpet mushrooms, and a light salad of mildly bitter white winter chicory lay on a bed of faintly crisp, burnished farro, which was one of the best parts of the dish.
In summer, Moore serves similar farro beneath a grilled duck breast and a house-made duck and pork sausage. Much as he gives summer vegetables a smokier flavor, he makes the farro even crisper by stirring in duck cracklings and fried sage leaves.
When he was at Chez Panisse, Moore ordered the produce for both the café and restaurant, and he has bought from many of the Bay Area’s best growers for as long as they’ve been selling to restaurants directly. Two of his biggest suppliers at Camino, Annabelle Lenderink and Tim Mueller and Trini Campbell of Riverdog Farm, have sold to him since the 1990s. They remark that Moore’s careful observations of their produce have helped them become better farmers. For example, Moore noticed Rivedog’s Little Gem lettuces had more tightly packed leaves in the fall than in the winter, when they tended to be looser and more deliciously crisp. Mueller realized the fall lettuces were growing more quickly, so he planted more heads in the fall and picked them earlier before they grew too dense. Another time, Moore noticed the proportion of leaves to flowers in the rapini changed with the seasons. To make them more consistent, Mueller turned to a succession of varieties.
Having sourced his ingredients so carefully, Moore likes to use every last scrap of them. With fennel, which Moore often picks wild, he saves the stalks to use as insulation for oven-roasted oysters, laying them over the open shells before exposing the oysters to the oven heat just long enough to warm them through. He braises fennel bulbs in a small amount of water, then reserves those juices to season yet another dish, such as the blanched cabbage he serves in winter as a delicately sweet accompaniment to lightly smoky Dungeness crab.
When Camino opened, Moore considered making it impossible to blanch food. “We toyed with the idea of having no gas,” he explains. But a former colleague from Chez Panisse “said that was crazy.” The couple bought a stove. Still, Moore’s main idea for the restaurant seems to be working out: “All I wanted was the biggest amount of open space to build a fire and cook in it.”
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