Ten years ago, Camino opened in a former furniture store on a sleepy stretch of Grand Avenue in Oakland, lead by two Chez Panisse alums: chef Russell (Russ) Moore and general manager Allison Hopelain.
Since then the couple, who are married, have lead a minor revolution in the Bay Area dining scene, though they refuse to take credit. Countless chefs have spun off after leaving the wood-fire fueled kitchen of Camino, where three main courses have been the daily offering since it opened in 2008, and where the majority of cooking is done in the hearth. After over 20 years cooking at Chez Panisse, Camino was, and is, Moore’s personal outlet, and canvas for creativity.
From the moment it opened, the restaurant became known for its dedication to its owners’ ethos, which included buying organic and using whole animals. To start, some diners didn’t understand the slim menu or lack of decaf coffee (Moore doesn’t think it tastes good). Yet, it stood the test of time.
Anyone in the business knows that ten years for a restaurant is no easy feat; neither is becoming an icon of Bay Area cooking. To celebrate, Hopelain and Moore are throwing two parties, starting with cocktails and snacks tonight from 6 p.m.- late (open to the public) and a “fancy dinner party” on Saturday, May 19 by reservation only ($200 per person). More details can be found here.
In honor of ten years in business, Eater spoke with the duo about what’s changed, how they made it, and what’s ahead.
Can you believe it’s been ten years?
Russ: It feels longer and shorter in a way, like we’ve been doing this our whole lives.
Allison: Every night is different and totally the same, so you think about time in a different way.
How do you feel the restaurant has changed in the past ten years?
Russ: It’s harder to find the quirky weirdos that this is the perfect restaurant for. I know everyone is having staffing issues, but we’ve always been particular about who fits in here. Like, waiters can make more money somewhere else, even before we eliminated tipping. People buy into our lives here, and if they’re into it, its a great place to work and if they;re not into it it’s not. It’s hard to find those people, especially in the kitchen
Allison: One thing that is the same is that we still work here very day, so that consistency is a common thread. But there are a lot of people who have responsibility and have been here a long time. That’s infused the restaurant with certain point of views that have helped the restaurant evolve. Everyone has input now but when we opened it was like don’t even bother coming up with an idea, we’re so picky.
In terms of the restaurant landscape in the Bay Area, Camino opened right before the stock market crash in 2008. How did you come through that?
Allison: We had no money then and we still don’t so it’s not like anything changed for us at that moment. Because it happened so quickly after we opened — we opened in May and that was October — so we hadn’t developed any bad habits, so we didn’t have to tighten up or lay people off. It was more like let’s fine tune how we use stuff, if we’re going to buy expensive lemons how are we going to earn the most amount of money off that lemon.
Russ: I think it’s defined us a little bit. if a person from another restaurant walks in here they think everything we do is kind of crazy. We had a guy from England who staged here and at the end of it, he’s like, “The way you’re doing this is so hard but it’s so interesting.” He saw how hard it was to only buy whole animals, to figure out every day what to do with the leftover parts. I love that dilemma everyday and that helped work things out for us. I think we’re the right restaurant to be agile enough to deal with what happened then.
But now is a different set of problems, now it’s a different world again. I’m not sure what the future is — it’s so expensive to live here.
What do the next ten years hold?
Russ: This is such a hands on restaurant. I made the kitchen so that it would be difficult and so I wouldn’t be bored, but that means I have to actually cook here every day. I don’t know, I’m 54. We’ll have to see how it shapes up
Allison: It’s hard to imagine a scenario where you’re not involved. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where you’re not working as a line cook every night but I don’t know how you back out of a restaurant like this. I don’t think you can.
My dream would be…
Russ: Ooh, let’s hear this!
Allison: My dream would be to have someone working here who we could hand it over to. I’m talking way down the line, but that would feel really good and then they could do whatever they wanted with it after that.
I know people have left here to be chefs and for the first year it’s very Camino-ey but then they cook the way they want to cook and are less influenced by where they just came from. It was the same for us when we left chez panise. That would be the cool thing, to bring someone up. We don’t have kids so we have to find someone. [laughter]
It’s interesting that you mentioned how when you opened the food was very Chez Panisse-y. In the same way that Chez Panisse has had this spinoff effect of people leaving there to start things, Camino has had a similar impact.
Allison: That’s where ten years feels like “oh something has happened in the last ten years.” That feels like a fun meaningful thing, that someone has worked here and then gone on to do something of their own. That feels cool. And then when you look at ten years and what you have accomplished, we still have the restaurant but so-and-so is a chef here and opened their place there — it feels great.
Why do you think this restaurant has lasted for ten years?
Russ: We have some good people working here, whose whole motivation isn’t just to make money, they want to do this thing, live a certain way. They want to use good products, and not buy environmentally damaging things.
Allison: I think there’s some consistency in the values of this restaurant, not just in terms of the day-to-day operations but how people can live their lives. Chez Panisse was a great model, that’s such a complete ecosystem and way of life, and I think we’ve ben able to try to do that to a certain extent. It’s not just a job.
How have you seen the menus evolve? what was on the first menu?
Allison: Oh, this is super funny.
Russ: We had three main courses — we haven’t changed that — and it was goat, sardines, and an egg. Those were the three main courses.
Allison: There’s always been a vegetable, a fish, and a meat. I remember that Cal [Peternell] who was at Chez Panisse at the time said “That sounds great, but you can’t have a restaurant that just serves goat, sardines, and egg.”
Russ: We were so in it that I didn’t even think of like...
Allison: ...other people.
Russ: I was like “ I scored these goats! Come on, you wish you had these goats!”
We were naive about a lot of things, having worked at Chez Panisse for so long. I was always pushing against statements being made or things that were happening. We opened camino and had all these ideals in mind, I wasn’t really thinking “Are people going to like goat or sardine or an egg?” I was like, “the food’s going to be amazing!”
That was a rude awakening in the beginning, a lot of the decisions we made that are so easy now weren’t easy then. We were “The restaurant of no.” No, we’re not going to make that, no we don’t have Coke, no we don’t have vodka. We only have alcohol that we really like and we only have three main courses, and we don’t wear chef coats. Even not wearing chef coats, that seems really funny now, but I got a ton of shit for it.
Allison: That was a really big deal.
Russ: I always wear some kind of patterned shirt and an apron and people were like, “This doesn’t seem fancy.” The waiters don’t wear uniforms — we’ve always had people with tattoos and funny hair, that’s just us. Our rule was if we didn’t like we’re not going to buy and that’s still our rule, we just have more things now.
We were blissfully unaware of what was going to work or not work. We learned quickly, but we didn’t really change anything. Because it’s us: we back each other up.
What are you most proud of?
Russ: We have done what we said we were going to do. We don’t cave into financial or peer pressure. Allison and I have backed each other up on the core decisions of the restaurant ad we’re happy with that.
Allison: What I’m most proud of is that the vision is complete. It isn’t just about food — I feel like every decision we make is about the same thing and I think that that makes for a complete experience.
What has been your scariest moment?
Russ: I think when economy crashed in ‘08 that was scary. We’ve been working on this for so many years and now that we have a restaurant the world is falling apart?
Allison: I felt like russ always come through. When things are scary and stressful, at least I know the food will always be good.
You guys were comfortable with yourselves when you opened. That hasn’t changed.
Russ: We’re more ourselves, even. I’ve been influenced by the people that have worked here, and it makes the restaurant different and better.