Let's Read Real Good-Like: This is Camino
A book as unpretentious as it is brilliant.
November 23, 2015 ● 5 min read
Camino is a restaurant built off conviction. Not that most restaurants aren't, but at Camino—a spacious jumble of wooden tables and brick and drying herbs on a quiet street in Oakland, CA—it's palpable. Too many of us waffle when it comes to our preferences, but co-owners Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain (and now co-authors) know exactly what they want. It's just a matter of figuring out how to tell you, which they pull off with humble efficacy.
It feels good to eat at Camino, which is why it comes as no surprise that reading the newly-released This is Camino holds the same gratification. We're currently giving away two signed copies of this book, but in the meantime, get a behind-the-scenes feel for the Friday and Saturday experience in the excerpt below. It rocks.
Prep meeting. Lauren has an idea for a burdock and artichoke dish. Russ likes it – but has aesthetic concerns.
“Both of these foods want to turn ugly. What if you lay some nettles in there?”
Yesterday’s pig head is today’s fritters. They’ll go in a salad.
Consommé tomorrow. Russ wants to butcher the ducks today, so their carcasses are available for stock.
A new waiter will be auditioning tonight. As Allison explains, it’s a tough gig – the ideal candidate needs the know-how that comes from fine dining, but the easygoingness of a more casual place. The guy who’s coming has many years of experience, has the potential to slip right in. Allison’s optimistic.
Cooks’ meeting. A cheese called columbine is on the menu. Russ worries briefly about the word’s associations.
There were no nettles for Lauren’s promising-but-colorless burdock and artichoke dish, but she’s going for it anyway. “Super ultra hippy-looking,” observes Russ after her third attempt.
Brian adjusts the lights.
Allison readjusts the lights.
“The trick is to look at the bald heads. If I see a glare, the lights need to come down.”
The Friday night vibe is fully in place. Lou Reed is playing quietly, a leg of lamb is twirling in front of the fire, and nearly all the seats are already full. A group of fifteen is on the horizon and Allison’s making sure the space will open up at the right time. She’s also got an eye on the auditioning waiter. He’s mature and professional but diffident at times. “He’s really sweet,” one of the waiters says to me, “it sucks he’s not going to cut it.”
He doesn’t. Otherwise, the evening’s a success. The fire is out and the staff has dribbled out to one of the communal tables for dinner and decompression. Talk turns to whether Russ would get “a Korean exception” from the obligation to join a gang, should he ever go to prison.
The restaurant’s closed at this point, but eight parties in the room are still going. Each of them had Lauren’s burdock and artichoke. It was delicious, but Russ was right: the color was gray and uniform, like a black-and-white movie. Regarding its appearance, Lauren is the most critical of all. Russ says the self-criticism is worth more to him than getting a dish’s hue right.
The Camino brunch was invented to open the restaurant up to a broader demographic. Indeed, this morning’s clientele includes a dozen kids of varying ages and temperaments. Russ stands at the edge of the salad station, assessing.
“It’s under control. Let’s go.”
We file out the back door and climb into his pickup.
There’s no farmer’s market better than the Berkeley Farmer’s Market, Russ says. He arrives armed with a dolly, a mental list of what remains in the walk-in, plus a general openness to whatever looks good.
The grapefruits looks good. Russ buys two bags from Didar and his wife, Didar, of Guru Ram Das Orchards, in Capay Valley. Both wear long ponytails under baseball hats. The grapefruits are a gamble – some will likely have some frost damage – but he Didars have been giving him great stuff since his Chez Panisse days.
The recent frost is just one concern. Trini from Riverdog Farm says they’ve gotten seven inches of rain recently, but that’s still below half of where they should be. As a result, no sweet corn will be planted next season. Russ is crushed. This represents a major financial hit for the farm, plus no corn for Camino – he typically buys a hundred pounds a week. “It’s a crowd-pleaser, and it’s great for vegetarian dishes, good to grill. We’ll need to figure out a replacement,” he says. He buys rutabaga, green mustard, King Richard leeks, green garlic, cilantro, and asparagus but he does so in a funk.
Next, two more flats of asparagus from the Kaki Farms folks, from a town called Gridley – it’ll tide Camino over till peas and favas are in season. The metion of peas sends Russ into a reverie. “You can have truffles or foie gras, but a perfect bowl of peas? Hard to beat.”
Cooks’ meeting. There shall be no crab butter in the grilled rockfish and little gems with picked chiles and crab broth – too many strong flavors, Russ felt; let the chiles have a little space. As for the burnt nut ice cream with chocolate and cream, it’s revealed that the hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, and almonds have all been mixed together. Russ clucks. “We needed the space in back,” someone replies. Conversation swings around to Michael, who dined at a San Francisco restaurant last night. “Fine. Boring. But fine – well-seasoned,” he reports, shrugging. Knowing nods all around.
“The stupid ragù and the stupid consommé are weighing on me,” Russ sighs.
Chris, the neighbor from up the street, comes by to drop off some homegrown flora from her yard and, well, her neighbor’s yard. Persian mint, anise hyssop, yacón, lovage, sunchokes, and weird things like mashua, a tuber-forming nasturtium relative.
Lauren has her hands in a bowl of onions and a furrowed brow. It’s furrowed for a good two minutes, which is two hours in non-kitchen time.
“I can't decide if I ground the coriander, cumin, caraway, and black pepper enough,” she finally says. She’s a friendly woman in outer space-themed leggings. “Very little is ever definitive,” she adds. “The menu changes every night. You want to trust your judgment, but of course you’re also trying to guess what Russ will like.”
Fred Niger Van Herck, a Frenchman with pale eyes and salt-and-pepper hair, drops in to give notes to the waitstaff about such things as the breaking of the musk and the nuances of biodynamic farming. Van Herck is a winemaker from Domaine L’Ecu, a fifth-generation winery in Muscadet. He passes around samples of his crisp and complex whites, some of which will appear on the menu. Allison is carrying two bottles to the back when one slips out of her hand. Life goes on.
A dozen broken bottles couldn’t dampen Russ’s mood. He’s chopping duck carcasses into chunks, to expose as much surface area as possible for the browning. While Van Herck discussed Muscadet, Russ rolled up his sleeves and butchered fifteen ducks. There’s a spring in his step – he’s actually bouncing. The duck will roast with chicken and quail bones. The consommé will be done by tomorrow night.
Brian adjusts the lights.
Allison readjusts the lights.