Camino Restaurant

marinated lamb leg

When I started working at Chez Panisse way back in 1983, from the moment we opened the doors at 5pm for dinner, the place was packed. I worked in the café upstairs, which opened because the restaurant downstairs had become a little more formal than anticipated and since the original idea for Chez Panisse was to be a casual dining spot, they opened a café with a no-reservations policy.

At the time, Chez Panisse was garnering a lot of publicity across America and everyone wanted to eat there. So a line formed outside of people waiting for that moment, at 5pm, when the host would go downstairs and open the front door to let everybody in.

Since I was working at the salad station when I started, I was the first to get slammed. For those of you who wonder about why you see an open table at a restaurant but they’re making you cool your heels at the host station, it’s sometimes because if they seat a hundred people all at once, the kitchen is going to get slammed with orders simultaneously. (Which is something that I understand, although when they do it to try to park you at the bar and order a round of pricey cocktails, I’m not so placated.) Since it was lonely old me versus 100+ people, the host would seat people gradually so I could get the orders taken care of and do a good job without totally being overwhelmed. Still, in spite of their efforts to gradually get the orders into my station, that first wave of customers did hit me on a nightly basis and from the moment we opened to when the hands of the clock behind the bar hit the magic number and we stopped seating people at 11:30pm, we were packed and working at full tilt.

(I probably shouldn’t admit this but I think it’s been a few decades and the statute of limitations has worn out, but occasionally someone would sneak behind the bar and move the hands of the clock to 11:30pm so we could finish for the night.)

What made it all fun was the people I worked with, who were sometimes a little sneaky, and at other times, a little crazy. But being all in the same boat really bonds people who are often very diverse and the bottom line is that if you can do the job, it doesn’t matter what color, race, religion, political persuasion, or sexual orientation you aligned with, if you could do the job, others wanted to work with you and you bonded as a team. I used to say that we all really liked each other at Chez Panisse, but we usually didn’t have time to act on it. So there were the restaurant parties, held during off-times or weekends, when we’d all have a big picnic or barbecue somewhere. People would bring food, a grill would be set up, and lots of wine would be poured. And unlike restaurants where the floor staff and the kitchen never mingled, we would just all relax together on a lawn somewhere and savor those moments where we could socialize without the stress and strain of service.

Russell Moore at CaminoCamino salad
lamb roastcamino table

Many of the cooks stayed at Chez Panisse for a number of years, some for decades. And a lot of those who left went on to open businesses like butcher shops or to make cheese or to write cookbooks. So when I went back to the restaurant yesterday to say hi after having left in 1998, there were some people there I remembered from when I started. For those of you who’ve worked in restaurants, you know it’s unusual for people to stay in any one place longer than a year, but I think that the main reasons people stayed at Chez Panisse were 1) Once you got used to cooking with such good ingredients, it was impossible to go anywhere else where decisions of what you could buy and cook with were made by people crunching the numbers, and there’s no where better to be a cook than at Chez Panisse and 2) No one else would tolerate any of us and our eccentricities.

Camino in Oakland

Some of us were really out of our minds, including one of the other line cooks who I spent a lot of nights with engaging in cappuccino-drinking contests. (No wonder when I left the restaurant business my doctor told me I had sleep deprivation.) I also remember dumping a salad that I was tossing for a customer in the face of one of the other cooks because he kept snitching my garlic croutons. (Hey, I needed those for the customers. Even though I wasn’t a pastry cook yet, I guess it was a premonition because you never mess with pastry chefs if you know what’s good for you.) And there were the wild and crazy busboys, many of whom were students from Berkeley High and they were raised in the habitat that is, um, uniquely Berkeley. And I’ll leave those stories for another time.

Fish

One fellow I worked with for quite a while was Russell Moore. After I’d moved to the pastry department, in addition to finally being allowed to fully express my territorialism to the fullest, I was away from the hectic stress of working the line in the café and baking in the downstairs kitchen where we had a different kind of stress. But when you tell people, it’s hard to get them past the image that you’re just sitting around serving tarts all day. Which is true, but rolling out and baking a tart at home is a little different from peeling two cases of apples and racing to bake off twelve tarts for the sixty orders that need to be filled in the next ten minutes that are just starting to roll in from the dining room.

tomatoesleg of lamb
grilled breadCamino dining table

Russ was one of those people who stayed at Chez Panisse a long time and was a chef for the upstairs café. He always had a mild demeanor, which was nice because he seemed to keep his calm during any kind of story. And we joked around a lot. When he started, he had spiky hair and a number of piercings, but I generally refrain from characterizing people too much for their past “looks”, because I once had my hair bleached, which lasted for a few short weeks and people still bring it up today when they talk about me, and it was probably twenty years ago. But I guess it’s better to be remembered for some of the less-innocuous things I did than for others.

camino restaurant

So I won’t mention the blue streaks in his hair as well, but since Russ was one of those people who it’d likely be impossible for him to cook with an accountant hovering over his shoulder, he opened Camino in Oakland. A while back someone tried to pick a fight with me about how elitist it was cooking over fire, which had me scratching my head since perhaps 80% or more of the world’s population likely cooks over fire. I always figured I was the elitist one with my silly little gas oven in my apartment, but in terms of cooking, it really doesn’t get any more basic than that.

Camino dining roomlamb ribs
appetizersrosé

The other thing about cooking over an open fire is who doesn’t like grilled and spit-roasted foods? Camino hosted a party to kick-off the Chez Panisse 40th anniversary weekend and when I saw Russell behind the big wooden counter of his restaurant, sweating from the intense heat of the generous open-hearth, with a dozen or so legs of lamb dangling and dripping over bowls to fresh shelling beans to infuse them with flavor, I ran over to give him a big squeeze.

But the squeeze didn’t last too long because of that insane heat which the blazing fire was throwing off. I don’t know how he stood in front of it all night, but he was – and still is – a trooper. Around him were big, generous bowls of food; vegetables soaking in olive oil and fresh thyme to be grilled, racks of lamb ribs with herbs massaged into their flesh to perfume the meat, and earthenware dishes of fresh figs waiting to be softened by the heat of the fire. The dining room at Camino is a series of long wooden tables and chairs, lined up so everyone has a view of the ‘action.’ But even better than watching Russell and his crew at work is the food.

fireplacetasting at Camino

One of the things that drives me nuts at restaurants is when I taste something, as a guest, and wonder if anyone in the kitchen bothered to taste the food they were serving. For goodness sakes – take a plate of something, stick it in your mouth, and give it a chew to see what it tastes like. Sometimes I want to go back in the kitchen and ask the cooks if they like soggy fries (which Romain once did in Paris), or what they were thinking of mixing raw beets, sesame seeds, and chocolate in an appetizer (true story), or how they could serve a tomato on a salad with those completely tasteless store-bought tomatoes, so hard and flavorless, it’s best just to leave them off altogether and realize that if you can’t even have the decency to serve people food that is reasonably fresh and flavorful, what the h*ll are you doing running a restaurant and feeding people in the first place?

Here, you could taste how much care was put into cooking, from sourcing the ingredients to how they were served, and the Petit Bouillabaise Panisse – a filet of fish in a deeply flavored tomato broth topped with shard of grilled bread slathered with rouille, to the final course of Wood Oven-Roasted Sugar Plums with Grilled Fig Leaf Ice Cream, was outstanding. I forgot how good food could taste that had been made with vegetables from local farms, sparkling fresh fish, and cooked just perfectly oven an open fireplace. It doesn’t get any better than that.

fireplace at Camino

Each course was better than the previous one and the star of the show, the Lamb Leg à la ficelle, a generous plate of house smoked lamb shoulder, grilled loin, and fresh shell beans with anchovy butter, was so good, I was a little sorry that I was so busy socializing (and drinking rosé) that I didn’t give it the full attention it deserved. I woke up this morning wishing that I had polished it all off and asked for seconds.

Leg of lamb at Camino

After dinner, when most of the wine was gone and people started leaving, I didn’t want to say goodbye. I just wanted to go back into the kitchen and pick through all the leftovers, especially the crisp bits of roasted lamb left on the counter, as pastry chefs are wont to do because we usually have to skip meals because we’re serving desserts when the rest of the crew is breaking their stations down, cleaning up, and heading home for the night. But instead, I gave Russ one final goodbye and hope to see him for his 40th anniversary when that comes around as well.

Camino Restaurant
3917 Grand Avenue
Oakland, CA

50 comments

  • The lamb looks amazing! It’s fun to read about your eccentricities- I think all restaurant people have them. That’s what makes working in restaurants so lively and interesting. Where else can you throw a salad at your co-worker?

  • Oh, I’ve been to Camino. It’s wonderful. Your post reminds me (1) to go back and (2) that the Bay Area is very fortunate in its wealth of great food.

  • I love the bleached hair. Thanks for the photo link.

  • “….you never mess with pastry chefs if you know what’s good for you.”
    How true, how very true.

  • I’m curious about the appetizer of raw beets, chocolate and sesame seeds. There are beet brownies and chocolate cakes made with beets…Is it the raw beet that makes it so disagreeable? For some reason, I’m imagining it topped with a balsamic reduction and it’s not tasting half bad in my mind. Not sure about the sesame seeds, though.

  • Your blog entries need tip jars – as I’ve written before, I hate to comment because I’m savoring your words. I especially enjoyed these last two entries.

  • I can almost small the smokey lamby deliciousness from here. I had a chance to cook over a wood fire recently and the results were tasty. I’ve found myself wondering if I could set something up in the fireplace in my living room.

  • oops small = smell ;-)

  • Loving the leg a la ficelle as well as the warm ambiance of the restaurant. It all looks very inviting.

  • Wonderful…absolutely wonderful! The “cooking over fire” comments remind me so much of when I first encountered Richard Olney… ;) and “never mess with pastry chefs” is so true; growing up in the restaurant business they were the only ones in the kitchen we wouldn’t ignore when they called us! I will open a bottle of rose tonight and reread this post!

  • Yay Russ and Allison!
    Soo jealous of my sister and brother in law who were there last night.She claimed it was the best meal she can remember. She described each dish in lip smacking detail.Thanks to your blog, I can see beautiful photos as well. Bravo.

  • Camino is awesome. My only complaint is that it’s hard to get a reservation sometimes, but that’s only because it’s so great.

  • You look like Elizabeth Falkner’s brother with that bleached hair.

  • welcome home, david.
    i love your blog.
    i love russ, allison, and camino.
    i am oaklandish.
    i congratulate alice on her major contributions to food in our country and community.
    try plum if you get a chance while you are here.
    i am glad you got come. skip your high school reunion.
    peace, love, and black garlic.

  • Hey, I went to Berkeley High and I want to hear those stories!

  • Gosh, haven’t been to Camino for quite a while. When we get down to the Bay Area….there’s always so many places we want to get to; CP, Zuni, Delfina Pizza, etc. that it’s hard to hit them all in a long weekend. I have a wonderful memory of a spectacular meal there for Fritz & Jeff’s wedding in 2008. Thanks for the reminder, David. We’ll make an effort to visit again when we next get down California!

  • Wonderful wonderful post. It’s perfect.

  • My family and I had lunch at the Cafe at Chez Panisse on Tuesday and ran into Joan Nathan who was planning the menu for the Friday night dinner (at a private home) also for Alice Waters’ 40th anniversary celebration.

    My paperback edition of your book, The Sweet Life in Paris, got wet on the flight out (what do people do with their e-book readers?), so now I’ll order another copy, preferably in hardcover, if it’s available. I love your writing!

  • @The Celiac Husband– My mother is a pastry chef, and I have learned not to mess!

  • love your blog—hate lamb cooked anyway

  • … phew – thanks for that ‘fix’ of writing such a thorough post (I’m reluctantly finishing The Sweet Life and beginning to dread those dang DT’s coming after such a high … can’t imagine what the fellow is going through right now who got his book wet on the flight who’s envisaging a hardcover replacement) #irene?

  • David,

    I am sitting here, at my laptop (almost midnight in Japan), barely able to type because of the tears. Russell has always been one of my favorite cooks or chefs at Chez Panisse and you did him justice. Camino really has a special place in that Berkeley/Oakland landscape–and not one in the shadow at all. Russell has made Camino all his, with the bold wood fire (that did take me a while to get used to) and the sheer honesty of his food. I’ll be there in September, sitting at one of those long tables—and can’t wait for the day.

    Thank you for this.

    Nancy

  • Fresh, local ingredients cooked simply to showcase their flavors…..why is that so bloody hard to find ?? 99.9% of the time I do not want art on my plate or exotic tastes from far away lands…I want what Camino is selling !!!! Thanks for reminding us what is best.

  • an amazing, wonderful, strongly tasting article with superb photos and captivating words! luckily (and very happily) I am just returning from a sublime lunch at Le Reminet right next to the bouquinistes and Notre Dame, this permits me not to fall from my chair reading about those delicious perfumes, textures, tastes, and the happiness of it all! Thank you David :)

  • I love your stories about behind the scenes at restaurants. It looks like your friend got everything just right–the food looks amazing at Camino.

  • What a beautiful post accompanied by spectacular photographs. I am feeling very hungry. Wish I could be there now!

  • You do good work, whether it’s cooking, writing or photographing! Thanks for so generously sharing your observations with us.

  • You should try Brunch. It’s just as amazing! And dangerous. Because that’s my hood. And Russ and Allison are just awesome folks.

  • Camino is our current favorite restaurant. They typically have a few small appetizers, a few slightly bigger ones, and three mains–one meat, one fish, one vegetarian. Because the menu is small, sometimes you read it and think “Oh none of those really attract me.” But you order and find out, “Wow! I am SO glad I picked that.” Another good thing about Camino is that (contrary to Steve’s comment above) it seats quite a few people, so it’s relatively easy to get a reservation. And they are so nice, so nice, when we get our timing wrong and arrive either too early or too late. Their Monday nights are always festive–right now it’s paellas, but since they started them, themes have ranged from pork to Bollywood. Camino is definitely on my speed dial.

  • This is a gorgeous tribute to what makes working in a good restaurant with good people so darn special. It’s a camaraderie like no other. And it lasts, and lasts … Thanks for putting into words what so many of us restaurant workers (both current and former) treasure about the job. Just LOVE you, David.

  • David, I enjoy you so much. You are simultaneously honest and kind, -and funny! You have been given a rare gift, and you are using it very well. Keep enjoying your life, and I’ll keep reading about it.

  • Oh, there’s nothing like the smell & flavour of char-cooked lamb, and the crunchy bits are the very best!
    Many thanks for sharing the photo – I’m sure we’ve all done things to our hair with bleach that we regret!

  • Huh……..I really love the concept of Camino. I also thought that the cocktails were phenomenal.
    But after reading this post and the comments, I’m really left wondering if a restaurant can have an “off night,” because my experience and impressions really don’t line up with everyone else’s…….

    (after those pictures, though, I’m really, really really craving lamb!)

  • Love this post. Following you recently and I am addicted. Now I must go to Camino. I worked for 7 years in restaurants (at the bar) and miss the strong camaraderie, and recognizing the worth of people from their evidenced work ethic and ability to be fantastic under pressure. Long sentence.

  • Unless you’ve worked in a restaurant you have no idea what “being slammed” really feels like. I think it’s akin to being the coffee as the water is being pressure forced through to make the golden espresso elixir. So grateful I put myself through University this way, made me respect hard work and the efforts people have made since to make my dining experience memorable.

  • Pho and Tammy: I know, once you’ve worked in a restaurant and gone through it, I think you can handle almost anything. And I always get a rise when people try to test the limits of people in the service industry. Most have seen it all and are working harder than people think. I’m glad I did it, and it really toughened me up, too.

    Amanda: For some reason, I was going to do it again a few weeks ago. But I mentioned it on Twitter and the majority of responses advised against it. I think it’s like a tattoo- you should really think about it for a year, and if a year later you still want to do it, well, then go ahead.

    stephanie: Finding (and paying for) good ingredients is much harder than just ordering from a produce company or buying frozen. A chef friend with a restaurant in Paris is working his tail off, and pointed to a café on the corner serving lousy food (like frozen) and said, “They’re working a lot less and making as much money as I am…actually, probably more!”

    Which is sort of a sad fact, although I think as a restaurateur or chef, you have to choose what kind of food you want to serve that’s in line with your morals or interest, and if you go the route of “fresh” and “sustainable”, you have to hope there’s enough of a clientele to keep your place running because it’s more work and you’re paying a lot more for the ingredients.

  • Gorgeous posting, David. Fortunately, I was very young when I worked in restaurants. People don’t understand that there are other duties besides service, like sidework and cleaning the machines and polishing the stainless steel. On graveyard, it’s worse. But I still treasure the memory of all of the interesting people (and customers), right down to the boss who had to come in at 2 a.m. because the cook couldn’t make it. Ha! The boss burned everyone’s food except for the man who asked that his bacon be burnt. For that customer, the boss served it undercooked. I didn’t make many tips, that night.But you see, when looking back these memories are comical, and you are so right about how it toughens us up.

  • Wow! I live in Ireland and am now saving all of my hard-earned cash in order to be able to pay a visit to this restaurant. I love the emphasis on high quality, fresh ingredients cooked simply. And the sound of the fish soup is to die for – I’ll have to try making something like that myself this week.
    You’ve also made me hanker for my own days working in restaurants as a student. Restaurants are such stressful environments that times spent working there are inevitably wild and sometimes wonderful.

  • Awesome post, I agree that this post should get tipped :-). sounds like you had loads o fun at the restaurant.

  • Loved your frankness in this post; it applies to many industries.

    Nothing could be truer than when you work together with a group of people you really like and trust their work ethics, you feel like you can pull off the impossible. And it doesn’t matter where they came from, what they look like (although sometimes it’s a shocker!), or what they believe in, as long as everyone believes in the same thing: giving your all and working as a team~~pulling off a grand performance night after night, just like Boggie’s last words in the Maltese Falcon: “The stuff that dreams are made of.”

  • Hi David – those old days of working double shifts in restaurants were magical. Boy, we all sure had stamina. Worked hard, and played hard. Wouldn’t trade those days for anything. Thanks for sharing your memories.
    LL

  • Such a rich post. I skirted Camino for a long time, thinking it would be too fabulous or chi chi for me and for my pals. Silly assumption. My friends and I love to eat there, where the food is terrific and the people just right. And about Chez you know what… the first time we ate there (way past years ago) downstairs, the prix fixe set us back $7.50. The meal still feels like it was the best thing I’d ever eaten. To all who then and now put it together, thank you!

  • David, thank you so much for your recent postings! I have relished your beautiful stories. They are so artfully told that I feel as if I were there with you. Your photos are deliciously gorgeous too! I hope you had a wonderful reunion weekend!

  • This is someplace I’d want to check out

  • Thanks for the thoughtful reply David. I can certainly appreciate the difficulties in being a restauranteur, but when I go out I always seek out the places who serve the best ingredients. I wish more people felt the same and then that cafe owner selling frozen moelleux would be out of business and your friend would be counting his profits!

    • It’s kind of unfortunate that places serve frozen foods (there was a program on French television last year where the camera crew went through the trash of famous old Parisian bistros and restaurants and the bins behind the restaurants were full of empty boxes of frozen foods like beef (for steak tartar), moelleux au chocolat, and even desserts like floating islands) – and I think it’s up to people to be a little more savvy about where they spend their money. Otherwise, we’re just encouraging them. I like how in Italy, restaurants are required by law to state is the food was previously frozen. Am not sure something like that could happen in France, but I do think people should know what they are paying for.

      Thankfully there’s a number of younger people in Paris opening places that are using fresh food, and they know the source of the ingredients.

  • Love the photos and the stories. Restaurants have their own kind of drama, don’t they? I always think one of the reasons performers end up working in the food industry is not just because of the convenience, but because it’s a very familiar atmosphere to that of a cast prepping and performing a show.

    I’ve always felt that the years I spent waitressing have stood me in good stead. Being slammed by a crowd that all shows up at once…Yikes. I remember coming home after those nights and waking up a few hours later sayinng, “I’m under.”

    And yes, we used to push the hands of the clock forward, too.

  • I like all what you’re doing in that restaurant, and you’re right – every time you cook you need to taste the food that you made, and then you know that everything that you made has a good taste. I like your post, it’s really interesting to read, and I learned from it.

  • Chez Panisse is one of my favorite restaurants in the world. I know it’s crazy to argue with your friends about which restaurant serves the best food, but I routinely find myself having to defend Chez because the food is so “simple” and “straight forward” without “a lot of pizazz.” The thing is, that’s exactly why I love it. Give me roast quail on a Tuesday night from Chez Panisse anytime over a fancy Saturday night extravaganza at any NYC or Chicago joint.

    We’ve been to Camino twice. I loved it the first time and I liked it the second. There’s nothing wrong with either, but I keep wanting to be blown away and that hasn’t happened yet. I’m hoping the 3rd time is the charm.