Campton Place Restaurant is Taj Campton Place San Francisco’s Michelin-starred restaurant that serves a unique Cal-Indian cuisine. Chef Srijith Gopinathan, executive chef, Campton Place Restaurant is changing the architecture of California cuisine as he blends California fresh ingredients and the use of its smoke, fire and brining techniques with India’s multi-faceted regional dishes, aromatics, and traditional spice blends. He has earned the Michelin star eight years in a row, including the coveted Two Star recognition in 2016 and 2017. In conversation with Akshay Nayak, Chef Gopinathan speaks about his journey in culinary space and how he presents Indian flavours to the Californian palate
What were your initial inspirations to pursue culinary arts as a professional career?
Good food was always very important in my life so was cooking for fun. But being a professional cook/chef was something which I developed while I was doing my bachelors in hotel management, in my late teens. I quickly realised cooking was something I found joy in and I was passionate about.
Later I evolved as a chef over time and I don’t think I can attribute credit to just one piece of training. I feel it is many years of training with different people that had taught me to cook. I picked up something from everyone around, starting from my grandmother’s kitchen to Michelin starred restaurants like Le manoir quat saison and of course one learns a lot from co-workers, and colleagues and friends, who happen to be major influences. I would also say that my tenure at Hyde Park Culinary Institute of America in New York City, where, I must admit I developed a fancier outlook towards a cuisine that has also had an overbearing influence on my culinary style.
What were the challenges and opportunities you witnessed during your journey in this career?
No journey is complete without challenges. I have had my share of them and continue to have them. Probably, they are some of the reasons, we get to push ourselves to the edge and reap the best of benefits. Unlearning and learning anew has been a major challenge every time I embarked upon a new venture in a new location or country. You had been conditioned a certain way and well, you had to let go all of it and begin afresh. That, to my mind has been the challenge that I have been grappling with. However, at this point, I believe I have come a long way and evolved and am in a more fluid, flexible space, where I am willing to reinvent, learn and rediscover.
What special factors, cooking & preparation techniques do you consider to bring authentic Indian flavours as far as in California?
What has really worked to our advantage is California’s fresh produce and cutting-edge cooking technique innovations from India and the amalgamation of both just creates the magic. We have an amazing relationship with certified local farmers and fishermen and hence the availability of what we need is great. The best part about the United States is that you can ask for certificates for everything. We’re very particular about where we source everything from.
The menu at Campton Place has two options, so you can choose between a four-course or seven-course spread, teeming with different elements of nature from both land and sea. We are particular about our vegetarian dishes. We don’t compromise on those elements because, in many restaurants, a vegetarian dish is just a non-vegetarian one with the meat or fish removed. In terms of non-vegetarian options, I would recommend our take on Kerala-style fish curry, but we use Maine lobsters. The sauce is basic coconut curry, but we’ve seen so many people come back for that. We also poach these lobsters very slowly in a spiced butter; it’s almost like a soup. The accompaniments do change, but the core parts do not. Another recommended dish is our Spice Pot. While the menu is always evolving; iconic dishes such as the Spice Pot, an amalgamation of the millennial favourite poke bowl but with potatoes, lentils and tamarind chutney are still featured on the menu along with new dishes such as the white asparagus with fava leaf saag; part of the restaurant’s new summer menu.
What would you advice to the aspiring students considering culinary arts as a professional career option?
Do not treat it as a job, make a career out of it. Also, it all depends on you as to whether you would want to grow to be a chef or a culinary artist. As for me, this is an art and the more you experiment with your craft and stay committed to it, you amaze yourself as much as you amaze the world around. So, my only advice is, look within, be consistent, be flexible and be willing to dare and experiment, that can surely take you places.