Food by VICE

Playing with Fire Is a Great Excuse to Throw a Party

Chef Russell Moore can handle the heat in the kitchen. A Chez Panisse veteran and owner of Oakland's Camino, he has mastered the art of grilling over an open flame.

by Lauren Sloss
Nov 23 2015, 6:00pm

Chef Russell Moore. All photos by Wes Rowe.

Chef Russell Moore is quick to point out that he is not a "bro-y dude cook. I'm not cooking wasted, drinking beer. OK, I might be drunk, but I'm drinking delicious wine."

Moore's assertion makes sense when you realize that he's known as "the guy who cooks over open fire" on the Bay Area's ever-crowded culinary stage. His Oakland restaurant, Camino, opened in 2008 with a roaring hearth at its center, and stunning presentations of fire-cooked meats, vegetables, and beyond on its menu. Unsurprisingly, once flame enters into the equation, assumptions of bombast and bro-dom are quick to follow.

Moore, however, is guilty of neither. The quick-talking, congenial chef approaches his fire with a sense of attention and almost Zen-like care; his restaurant may radiate from the hearth, but his food is more about an obsession with top-quality ingredients.

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Russell Moore in the kitchen at Camino. All photos by Wes Rowe.

An appreciation of ingredients, and the "burden of never throwing anything away," are what guide Moore's brand new cookbook, This Is Camino, written in collaboration with his wife (and business partner and restaurant co-owner) Allison Hopelain. He also emphasizes how to harness the power of the fire at home, be it in your kitchen or your backyard. Most importantly, Moore wanted to do a book that readers might actually be able to cook from.

RECIPE: Braised Duck Legs

"I didn't want one of those arrogant chef books that's [like], Look how beautiful this is. I wanted to show how we think about food."

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Moore and Camino's brand of food stems directly from his tenure at Cal-cuisine mothership Chez Panisse, where he worked for 20 years. Despite being seriously indoctrinated into the school of Alice Waters, he knew he wanted to break free from the restraints the restaurant imposed.

RECIPE: King Trumpet Mushroom Parcels with Greens and Grilled Rutabaga

"Right before we opened seven years ago, there were so many Chez Panisse-y style restaurants. That was the stranglehold on this area. And I knew I wanted to throw away the unwritten 'rules' of what Alice would and wouldn't like. I mean, we're in Oakland, for one. People have tattoos."

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He had always been drawn to the fire element of cooking—so much so that he found himself using the fireplace in the Chez Panisse dining room to prep dishes before dinner service. This was combined with a wide array of backyard, fire-centric cooking adventures at his and Hopelain's home.

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"My kitchen was, and is, pretty horrible at home; it's really tiny. But I like having dinner parties, and I like making something I don't know how to make. So, I just started making stuff in my backyard all the time—paella, grilling dinner for myself and Allison. And I found that I really liked that format. When cooking with fire, you have to read what's happening—the direction the wind is blowing, the heat of the coals. I'm not structured, or linear, and cooking like that suits me."

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Thinking in a less "structured" way about cooking is much of what's covered in This Is Camino, from pounding bunches of fresh herbs (whatever you have on hand) with garlic and olive oil in order to make a sauce you'll want to put on everything, to tempering your meat (a.k.a. leaving it out to allow it to reach room temperature) longer than you'd think you should before cooking it.

And, of course, it covers how to use fire—which, according to the Camino school of thought, should not be about burning the shit out of your food with an open flame.

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"Our big joke is we do 'gentle grilling,' he says. "Our fire is a billion different temperatures and allows to cook things differently. And I find that I value delicacy and restraint, much more than 'umami' and burnt flavors."

RECIPE: Jaggery Ice Cream

Moore's setup involves a large fireplace complete with a wire "basket" that allows him to constantly generate new coals. This is flanked by two grills; new coals can be raked under each and positioned accordingly. Pots are set on stones next to the fire to slow-cook or warm dishes.

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But a restaurant-scale build-out isn't necessary for even the most intrepid home cooks (just look at Moore's home experiments—shitty, small kitchen and all).

"Grill with what you have," he advises. "A hibachi grill is great; you can cook so many things over that. Or build a little fire with mesquite in a chimney starter. You can build something [like an A-frame, from which you can hang a whole leg of lamb] if you want, but you don't have to to get started."

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And make it a social thing. "A friend of mine had a goat, which obviously I wanted to cook. And really, the goat became an excuse to build a fire and have a party."

Maybe you don't have a friend with a goat, but with the biggest nationwide dinner party fast approaching (cough, Thanksgiving, cough), we think it's high time to fix a drink, build a fire, and create a feast to remember.

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Here are some tips from Moore to get you started:

Think about what you want the fire to do Your fire will be different temperatures in different places; by positioning the food you're cooking at certain points, it will cook at different rates. "We put all the thick ends of things—meats and vegetables—closer to the fire. It seems so obvious, but it makes an enormous difference. There's a funny little dance of thinking about what's causing the heat, and how to cook with that heat." Moore suggests keeping that basic setup in mind when positioning food, and when flipping.

Have a gameplan for generating coals If you're cooking multiple dishes over coals, you're going to need to continuously make fresh ones. Moore's fire basket is "a lifesaver," but you can easily make do without (as he does when cooking at home). "You make the fire, spread out the coals to cook, and feed the fire to create new coals. From there, just pay attention—you keep going, and keep switching the new heat source in." This requires some maintenance, but can make for rich rewards. Moore likes to cook things in the "leftover" coals, such as eggplants ("Just throw them in whole!"), or mirepoix vegetables (carrot, onion, celery) to make a smokey stock the following day.

Have a gameplan for your meal (including snacks and drinks) Any dinner party, Thanksgiving included, needs a plan. Throwing a fire into the mix makes planning a little more essential. "Think about what takes longer, what can sit, what can be done ahead," Moore says. And make waiting, and cooking, a part of the fun. "We always get a snack angle in there, and a drink!" Batch-make a cocktail, prepare an herb jam to easily put on grilled bread, and make sure to enjoy yourself while you tend to the grill.

Be patient Building a fire, raking coals, and waiting for temperatures to align requires more than a little bit of patience (particularly if you're not giving into the urge to cook over big, bright flames). "I think people tend to cook things too fast. It's true—you have to be patient and wait for your fire to be ready. But really… what is the hurry?" And, have fun with it. "People approach Thanksgiving like it's this big, torturous slog. That doesn't sound very fun!" So, pour yourself a drink, tend to your fire, and give thanks for a Thanksgiving that need not be like all the rest.

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