How ‘This is Camino’ co-author went from punk rock to fine dining
Leafing through the pages of Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain’s beautiful new cookbook This is Camino, based upon their acclaimed Oakland restaurant, its punk-rock roots may not be obvious. But when a barely teenage Moore was hitching rides to punk shows in Los Angeles, the seeds of defiance were planted. Hopelain, who is also his wife and business partner, calls him “dogmatically flexible,” and the phrase fits.
Moore was set to be a doctor when he started college, but quickly decided it wasn’t for him. As he looked for alternatives, he was drawn to the restaurant business, and eventually headed up to San Francisco, where a friend recommended he apply at a restaurant with a name he couldn’t spell—Chez Panisse. He stayed for 20 years, moving up from line cook to expediter to sous chef to the chef.
“I loved my job,” he says, “but I always wondered what my food would be like, so I decided to open my own restaurant.”
Thus was Camino born, in a former furniture store on an unremarkable street in Oakland, in 2008. Moore chose the location because it allowed him to build a fireplace for the ages. Nine feet wide and built by a French stonemason, it is a massive presence, holding three grills and managed by three chefs.
Fire is the guiding force of Camino. It defines Moore’s approach to cooking, which is exacting yet adaptable, favoring serendipity over compromise. In considering a cookbook, he had a hard time picturing how it would play out on the page.
“We waited to write This is Camino until we had something to say. At first, we thought a cookbook based on a restaurant with a giant fireplace seemed obnoxious. Who has one of those? But then I realized I’ve spent most of my life cooking outside because my home kitchen is really small. It’s easy to do, and not all the recipes are fire-oriented. A lot of them reflect how we run a kitchen, how we use the leftover bits of something to make the next thing, and how, even though it’s not all planned, there’s a theory behind it.”
Moore and Hopelain run a restaurant that reflects their values. Camino is completely organic, which means the menu changes all the time. Hopelain calls it grandmotherly cooking, and Moore explains. “We make food in a really ‘home cooking’ way. When we hire cooks with restaurant backgrounds, they’re confused, because we use mortars and pestles and hand grind stuff. We don’t have a lot of machines. We all work on this big, beautiful butcher block with clay cazuelas to hold our ingredients.”
When I ask him about the challenge of working this way, he laughs. “If you knew me, you’d know I can’t plan well. It’s more like I have a sense in the back of my head about what needs to be used and when,” he says. “We don’t conserve and pickle because it’s cool, although it is. We had to in the beginning, and it really changed our food. We could have left the sauerkraut juice in the fridge forever, but I figured out a way to use it to season soup, and it was a revelation. That’s the fun part.”
Recently, Camino established a no-tipping policy. “We had to do what we thought was right, and that meant a livable wage for everyone,” he says. It wasn’t a fly-by-night idea. “We planned for six months before we did it, but what we have now is a real team, and we have the type of staff that loves that team spirit. Our customers love it, too.”
His punk roots show again, perhaps, when Moore explains why he has refused to compromise. “Sometimes it’s not about the money. It’s more like, ‘Let’s have the restaurant we always dreamed about, the place we said we were going to have.’”
Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain will discuss ‘This is Camino’ at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 4 at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Free.
MOORE DETAILS Russell Moore comes to Bookshop Santa Cruz on Wednesday, Nov. 4, with his wife Allison Hopelain, with whom he runs the acclaimed Bay Area restaurant Camino.