This chef’s creativity is more than skin deep
Apparently I hit a nerve last week when I touched on the idea of “taste memory,” i.e., the ability to recall specific flavors from years past. Readers emailed their deep-rooted recollections of hot fried chicken at Sunday supper, their late Uncle Chuck’s chunky chili (I did not make that up), a treasured dish from a long-defunct neighborhood diner, and … wait for it … vanilla Popsicles.
The whole memory thing came around to haunt me again during a conversation with Hari Cameron, the chef du cuisine at Nage restaurant in Rehoboth Beach. His dad was one of the true hippies, working construction from town to town as his son blissfully subsisted on pungent Indian cuisine and sushi - long before it was trendy. Hari treated me to a detailed account of his first sensation of tobiko (the brightly colored roe of flying fish) bursting in his mouth. I love listening to chefs talk about food.
Hari’s a native Delawarean. His love of music, writing and photography prompted him to enroll in communications at Delaware Technical & Community College. It’s amazing how many chefs, restaurant owners, food writers and critics credit an interest in music and the creative arts with their attraction to cooking. Perhaps the muse is equally at work in all those vocations.
Hari got his big break at The Buttery in Lewes when one of the chefs was taken ill and the young server was recruited to man the salad station. He laughs as he tells me how much time he spent fussing over each plate to make it deliciously symmetrical. He quickly learned about that thin line between making it pretty and getting it out before the customer starves to death.
He eventually moved to downtown Rehoboth, prepping salads at the old Ram’s Head restaurant, soon becoming what he calls “sous chef in training” at Cloud 9. After working closely with then chef/owner Kevin Reading at Espuma, he joined Kevin at Nage. Formal training was the next logical step, so he enrolled in the culinary program at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia. He graduated at the top of his class.
The restaurant business got under Hari’s skin in more than one way. Food television has brought chefs out of the kitchen and into the spotlight. In response to their newfound celebrity, they’re not only branding their restaurants, but themselves as well. Hari’s flair for artful presentation began to extend to food-related tattoos. The detailed collage on Hari’s left arm was a long time in the planning stage. He and his artist mapped it out on paper, repositioning specific elements so they would be enhanced by the natural movement of his arm.
The resulting images are remarkable. Hari defends his decision: “I put so much dedication into culinary school that I wanted this to be a permanent expression of that effort.” And he’s not alone. Local chefs with tats include Pete McMahon from Venus on the Half Shell, Marcus Donovan from Skyline Bar and Grill in Ocean City and Nino Mancari from Salt Air, just to name a few.
It’s not just a beach thing either. Food Network’s Guy Fieri sports a Kulinary Gangsta tattoo in rebellion against his parents’ fixation on health food (I knew I liked that guy). Bad-boy TV chef Anthony Bourdain, Iron Chef Michael Symon and Ace of Cakes’ Duff Goldman are all proud of their body art. Contestants on the current “Next Food Network Star” who sport culinary inkings include talented cook Justin Balmes and Las Vegas chef Vic “Vegas” Moea.
No longer the domain of bikers, sailors and rock ‘n’ rollers, tattoos have become a mode of expression for chefs whose livelihood depends on creativity. Imaginative inking chronicles their lives - and maybe even kicks up their macho quotient a bit.
Much of Cameron’s inspiration stems from the Slow Food movement pioneered by restaurateur and food activist Alice Waters. He expresses those principles not only in the kitchen but also through photography and his website, thecombandwattle.com. Hari blends food and writing to celebrate small-scale production and locally grown ingredients in what he describes as “the state that has more chickens than people.”