Considering Campanile

In the summer of 2000, I was twenty-seven years old, had said some goodbyes to friends and family in the Northeast, and contemplated, while standing on the overpass at Fourth Street and Ocean Park Boulevard in Santa Monica, a near-term future at least on the west coast.  I possessed in my professional quiver not more than a few years of restaurant work, but there had been a strategy from the beginning, and that was that a little bit of good restaurant experience could be pretty helpful in the pursuit of employment in strange new cities.  Los Angeles could hardly have been stranger to me.  I had one friend who lived there and a couple of  cousins.  I made a list of the eight or ten best restaurants in the city, and submitted applications at all of them.

Within a few days I received a call from a woman named Jessica at a restaurant called Campanile on La Brea Avenue.  She invited me to come to the restaurant for an interview, and I set about figuring a way to make myself look presentable and began to consider the prospect of landing at this place.  I remember that it seemed in some way alternative to me.  Before I had walked through the front door, whatever I gleaned from the restaurant website or online reviews in the days when those were written mostly by professional critics, gave me the feeling that I was in for something different.

I was at that moment fresh from a job in Boston at a restaurant called the Federalist, where, I was surely proud to say, I had demonstrated my abilities at the highest level of restaurant service.  I had been fitted for a fine waiter’s uniform by one of Boston’s top fashion designers, I had opened and served expensive bottles of wine and set them gently on sterling coasters on beautiful clothed tables.  I had worked to understand and to become comfortable in the ceremonies of dinner service to wealthy people.

About this Campanile place, words were used like rustic, and country, and I remember one expression in particular, “temple of food,” which was used to describe it more than once.  People seemed to talk about it as though it was some kind of fraternity, maybe like an outing club or a bird watching club.  It seemed to me like it might not exactly be up my alley.  I was looking for the place where diplomats dined on caviar and abalone and drank great Meursault, and found gleaming silver cloches protecting their plates when they returned from drying their hands on fine linens in the bathrooms.  But maybe this little hippie spot could help me get a foot in the door in the city.  I could pay my bills while looking for a job at a really great place.

So on a warm and sunny Los Angeles summer afternoon, I walked into a space which indeed felt and looked nothing like any restaurant I had ever seen.  There were skylights and natural light everywhere, old stones and bricks and tiles, a little fountain with a pool and and a few fat red goldfish just inside the front door.  It seemed something like a Mediterranean or North African bazaar, though not because I had ever seen one of those.  It was lunchtime and the space was buzzing with food service.  The colors were softly muted greens and bricks and perfectly juxtaposed, primary, blues and yellows.  The place was a bit of a feast for the eyes.

In an office upstairs, Jessica asked me if I knew about grape varietals.  I had followed her up a staircase next to the bar that was just wide enough for a person, and sat down with her in a little non-descript office.  “Jacques will be up to talk with you in a minute, and he’s going to ask you some tough questions about wine,” she said.  Jacques arrived a minute or two later, looking like a fit, flush-faced adolescent boy in a nice pressed suit.  Smiling, with a Cheshire grin he wore more or less permanently, Jacques wanted to know if I knew the difference between cabernet sauvignon and nebbiolo.

It turned out that I did know the difference, and it was a good thing for me, because a couple of days later I worked my first shift at Campanile.  What was immediately striking, I remember, was that everyone in the restaurant seemed to care about the difference between cabernet sauvignon and nebbiolo.  I had to familiarize myself with just six wines which were being offered by the glass—three white and three red, but the three red wines were wines that might or might not have been remotely recognizable to anyone.

At first I could hardly believe that it worked, that there really were enough guests to fill such a massive space who were happy to choose between a nerello mascalase from Sicily, a cabernet franc from the Loire valley and a zweigelt from Austria.  If I had walked up to the people I had waited on in Boston and offered them a glass of zweigelt at least half of them would have looked at me as though I had just jammed a pencil in my ear.  It didn’t take long for me to learn: in this place, merlot enjoyed no advantage from some arbitrary pole position in the American culinary vernacular.  Here, merlot wasn’t disqualified, but neither was it offered because it had to be.

The approach to wine, as explained by resident scholar and wine director George Cossette, was that the wines we poured needed to be not only delicious, and to represent value, but also to be authentic in some kind of regionally traditional way.  I learned that on the one hand, there was an endless supply of subjectivity in the wine world, and on the other hand that there were real discriminations to be made.  One should certainly discern the delicious and the not-so-delicious, and note the traditional bottle of Tuscan sangiovese as something different than the wine produced by a fledgling Tuscan vanity project winery which had been recently erected by three investment bankers hoping to make world-class cabernet sauvignon and merlot in Tuscany.  George used to say that if there was a certain wine that all the fishermen drank when they came in from their boats to their coastal village in Italy, we wanted that wine.

If it took some time for me to cobble away at the mountain of information and nuance that was the Campanile wine list, the activity and production of the kitchen produced a farily immediate astonishment.  In terms of the pricing of the menu and the sheer volume of dishes prepared I had never seen anything like it.  I had served my share of $35 entrees before, but those were the delicately-constructed, museum-style plates in Boston which were turned out a couple at a time, often by two or three cooks working together on individual components.  On Friday and Saturday nights at Campanile there were sometimes 350 people having dinner and paying those prices, and these plates weren’t half as precise as the ones I had served at places like the Federalist and the Harvest.  I remember, in the early going, feeling as though the whole thing was some kind of Hollywood ruse.

Then I began to taste the food, and to put it plainly, my life changed.  The flageolet beans and bitter greens and olives with the ribeye steak, the Brussels sprouts caramelized in Balsamic vinegar and covered with breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese, the Copper River salmon with perfect sweet English peas and feather-like cauliflower puree—they all changed my life.  I grew up eating not just junk but certainly my share of fast food and Drake’s cellophane-wrapped coffee cakes.  I hadn’t ever tasted anything like any of these things.  It was like learning a new language, with a vocabulary of things that came from the natural world.  There were flavors and textures more complex than any of the fine and expensive foods I had known on the east coast.  This was the California cuisine that had been made famous by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and Judy Rodgers at Zuni Café and Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton at Campanile, about which, I soon realized, I had known only very superficially.

The particular word and idea that came to occupy such a big part of my thinking about food, and also about wine, was rustic.  It was a word that I heard tossed around at the restaurant for a few months, and one day I asked Mark what he meant by it.  “A rustic plate,” he said, “is a plate that looks as though it just fell out of the sky and landed on the table and had everything on it jostled around a little.”  There were two implications in this idea that were perhaps the most formative elements in my developing gastronomical sensibility.  The first was that there was no substitute for the finest quality ingredients of every kind.  Whether sourcing English peas or salmon or olive oil, when the intricacy of the plating takes a back seat to the flavors, the quality of the ingredients has to be first-rate.

The second idea was the paramount importance of diversity in cuisine.  What was possibly the most singularly amazing thing about Mark and Nancy’s plates was how uneven they were and how spectacular they were in their unevenness.  In Mark’s sautéed trenne pasta, in which triangular bits of pasta were sautéed crispy and served over beef and kale Bolognese and covered with shaved parmesan, lucky diners found no two forkfuls alike.  Some pieces of trenne had been sautéed hard on one side, and had two remaining sides that were still supple.  Nancy’s rustic apple tart—built like a medieval throwing star, was intentionally constructed to be just a shade fatter in one or two corners of the gloriously browned crust than others.

There is a premise behind this sort of approach to cooking which has it that an avoidance of uniformity, when executed at a high level, is likely to provide an eating experience which is less predictable, and as a consequence, brimming with vitality and sensory stimulation.  But it bears no resemblance to the kind of provocation one sees frequently at fine restaurants that has to do with the unlikely combination of esoteric ingredients.  It is one thing to be confronted by a plate with monkfish liver and persimmon and cocoa nibs, and to consider such an intersection never before imagined.  It is quite another thing to settle in comfortably to a steaming bowl of pasta Bolognese and to savor each bite for its distinction and particular deliciousness.

To say that this way of thinking has ramifications in the world of wine is something like saying that the farming of grapes has something to do with the world of wine.  How obvious the magnificence of, say, Jacques Puffeney’s weirdly oxidative white wines from the Jura seemed when one approached the tasting of wine looking not just for deliciousness but also for distinction.  How very defensive I felt, after watching Jonathan Nossiter’s groundbreaking film Mondovino after it was released in 2004, on behalf of the regional winemaking in obscure parts of Europe that looked vulnerable to consensus and corporate avarice and globalization.  And how much I appreciated it when Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia from Rioja, conducting a tasting 2006, proudly confirmed the variation found from one bottle to the next in her estate’s wines.  “In my family making wine is like making tomato sauce,” she said.  “They can taste a little different, depending on who is standing at the stove.”

As I write this, in the aftermath of Campanile’s closure late last year, it occurs to me that there has never been any variability in the effect that my two years of work at the restaurant had on my career, or even on the person I am today.  For one thing, I opened a restaurant about three years ago—after working in restaurants for more than twenty years—that has Campanile written all over it.  From the colors to the wine glasses to the wine lists to the cuisine, none of the restaurants on my resume influenced the development of Heirloom even half as much as Campanile did.

But there is also, there has always been, the mindset that was created in me from the time I spent waiting tables at 624 South La Brea Avenue.  Nothing could ever be so important to me now, or to the food we serve at Heirloom, as my recollection of the time Nancy Silverton told me that in the early days of Campanile she would walk up and down the cooking line every night tasting every piece of mise en place in every station.  Where would my wine cellar have gone if George Cossette hadn’t explained the primary importance of a dedicated space for wine storage to me?  I remember, like it was yesterday, the tireless food runner Tomas Martinez poking his head around the corner as I was ordering something at a computer terminal at the back of the restaurant, and saying “Man, you better go talk to Nancy.  She’s pissed off.”

Tomas, if you can hear me now, forgive me, but it never, ever turned out to be the case that Nancy actually was pissed off.  She never wasted any time or energy on being pissed off.  It was always the case that she considered feeding her guests the way a general considers a battle plan—with clarity and purpose, and a focus in her steely brown eyes that conveyed some unmistakable truths: that this was serious business, that nobody should be fooled by the slight asymmetry of an apple tart, and that even though it was just dinner, there was quite a lot at stake.