Chefs at Home Series
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, but in Chef Hari Cameron’s case, he’s both. At the end of 2019, before COVID-19 took hold in the US, he accepted an offer to sell his high-end restaurant, a(MUSE.), located in the coastal resort town of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
His good fortune seems to be part of having an impressive business acumen, combined with being a great chef. Now, he’s been able to stay busy and successful with his fast-casual restaurant, Grandpa Mac, along with his consulting work in the food industry.
In this current installment of our Chefs At Home Series of interviews with renowned chefs, Chef Cameron shares his views on the industry and how he thinks restaurants can adapt to the new normal. He also shares a delicious recipe for Chesapeake Blue Crab Fried American Jasmine Rice that home cooks can try on their own and vary with local ingredients.
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Symrise: How have you been responding to COVID-19?
Chef Hari Cameron: It's definitely an unprecedented time for everybody around the world, and owning businesses, we've had to adapt in every area. At my fast-casual restaurant, we've put a food truck out front, which has helped us almost serve as a drive-through. We're very fortunate that this restaurant concept lends itself to still being able to maintain business, maybe not at the same levels as before, but still good.
For my personal consulting company, I'm not commuting as much as I was before. I've been doing a lot more cooking over video conferences, and I’ve tailored the content to fit what’s going on. I recently posted a recipe for, basically, gourmet “Green Eggs and Ham," which can be great for families with kids at home. Would I have been cooking that dish in non-COVID times? Maybe not, but we have to adapt.
Symrise: What other types of food do you like to cook and eat at home for comfort?
Chef Hari Cameron: I was raised as a vegetarian, and some of my earliest childhood memories are trying global cuisines, like Ethiopian and Indian food. We meditated in an ashram growing up, so I'm a different kind of person in terms of what I seek comfort in.
But I’ve also adapted to Delaware. The first time I had chicken and dumplings, I thought it was the most foreign taste. But now when I think about things that bring me comfort, it's definitely soups, noodles, things that have a lot of soul. I like to make chicken and dumplings with a lot more umami than usual, so I'll add local seaweeds or roasted mushrooms, things that have depth.
Symrise: Can you share with us the backstory behind your Chesapeake Blue Crab Fried American Jasmine Rice recipe?
Chef Cameron: I recently was in Mississippi, touring beautiful fields of rice, eating a lot of rice and doing different things for Think Rice, which supports American rice growers. I've also been very fortunate to travel in Thailand and Myanmar for almost a month and hang out with one of the most famous chefs in Thailand. And one of the street-food dishes that I was enjoying a lot there was crab fried rice.
A great thing about fried rice is that you can really try anything with it and use different ingredients. To treat yourself is a good thing, so try getting a pound of whatever luxury ingredient you’d like to add to the dish. In this case, the luxury ingredient was local crab, and further north you might use local lobster.
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Symrise: Do you have an idea of what's going to happen in the restaurant industry? Will fine dining be replaced by comfort food and fast-casual restaurants?
Chef Cameron: In every economic downturn, people always seek comfort and value, but I think that people are still going to seek the finer foods that they were eating before, just in a different way. A couple of times my wife and I have spent $150-$200 on takeout for things like sushi, which is a great example of luxury takeout that holds up well when eaten at home.
Fine dining isn’t dead forever, but keep in mind that customers spend money for what's on the plate as much as what's not on the plate. Think about all the time and costs that go into cleaning, creating ambiance, preparing the food and all the fixed costs of running a business.
Restaurants that want to cook higher-end, upscale foods are going to have to look at their labor model and other costs to see if there are ways they can bring expenses down. Maybe certain types of high-end food can be created with less staff, or maybe they can purchase ingredients that stay fresh longer.
Chefs will always have to create, and diners look for these experiences, but it's going to take a while for it to get back to normal. When that will be, or what that will look like, or what percentage will come back, it's hard to say. The fabric of the industry is being ripped apart and will be remade into a new quilt, but it won’t look the same.
Symrise: When people go back to seeking finer food options when things start to return to normal, do you think that they'll stick to more of the classic, higher-end comfort foods, or will they continue to be explorative in what they're eating?
Chef Cameron: Nowadays you can more easily order beautiful, high-end vegetables, meat and other ingredients to cook at home, but the thing that you're not going to be able to have at home is these creative experiences.
Many people will seek comfort, because that's just a human response, so there will be tons of people continuing to eat things like mac and cheese. But there will be a vast number of people that want to seek that luxury experience, trying to capture a little bit of that feeling they get going to a theater or going to a show, but the show is on the plate.
Although the restaurant industry is in the midst of difficult change, Chef Cameron’s sage advice could help more eateries find ways to make ends meet.
For consumers able to visit Coastal Delaware, you can try Chef Cameron’s fun, delicious creations at Grandpa Mac, or you can cook up a taste of the region at home with his Chesapeake Blue Crab Fried American Jasmine Rice recipe.
Continue our Chefs At Home series:
• Chef Brett Sawyer: Cooking Creative Comfort Foods and Carefully Planning Reopenings
• Chef Alex Harrell: Getting Creative With Pantry Items and Preparing for Re-Openings