One part simplicity, two parts imagination

Publication Date: Friday Aug 29, 1997

One part simplicity, two parts imagination

Name: Melesio Campos

Restaurant: Osteria, 247 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto

Education and background: "I worked with a man, Orestes Orsi, in San Francisco at his restaurant for 10 years. He was a very good chef from Italy and he taught me how to cook. Then I opened Osteria."

What do you like best about your job? "When you're a chef, you can always create something. You can always be using your imagination to fix something different all the time."

What is your favorite meal of the day? "I love pasta for lunch because it's so light. I have to work lunch and dinner, so I prefer to eat something light."

If you weren't a chef, what would you be? "A gardener. I always work in my back yard at home, and it feels like being a chef because in the garden, you're always decorating--like with cooking."

What was your most traumatic or catastrophic kitchen experience? "When we first opened the restaurant, the owner and I were the only two working here. One time I was making minestrone soup, and when I ground the beans, they splashed up in my face and burnt me. But I had to put medication on my face and keep going."

What cuisine or technique would you like to master next? "I like this one (Italian cooking)."

Where do you like to go out to eat? "I love sushi. If I see any restaurant with sushi, I'll eat in there."

What do you normally prepare for yourself at home? "Nothing. I never cook at home. But my wife does pretty good."

What's the most challenging aspect of your job? "Being here every day. I don't remember the last time I took a day off. The person who cooks with me and I have been working together for the last 10 years. If we've taken two days off in those 10 years, that's too much. This way we get a lot of compliments from people who say the food never changes because it's us two guys cooking it."

For what person, living or dead, would you most like to prepare a meal? "La Madre Teresa (Mother Teresa). That's the person I admire the most because of what she does for other people out of love."

With what person, living or dead, would you most like to eat a meal? "La Madre Teresa."

When did you decide you wanted to be a chef? "When I first came to America, I had a cousin who worked in Orsi in San Francisco. He would invite me over, and I saw how the chef created things. I said to myself 'I wish I could do that.' Before I knew it, I started working there, and it was like a dream come true. I was creating the things I had dreamed about."

What was your first job in a restaurant? "That one at Orsi was my first job. This is my second."

What goes on in a kitchen that diners don't realize? "Sometimes people just want the food so fast. They want the food right away, and they don't realize that it is not waiting back here for them; we have to prepare it."

What cookbook do you most recommend for the layman? "Actually I never use a book, I just go by my imagination. I am always tasting. The guy who taught me said, 'If it tastes good to you, it's going to taste good to them.'"

Three secrets to being a good chef: 1)"It's not a secret, you have to have the feeling to be a good chef." 2) "You have to use your imagination all the time." 3) "Don't let other people do all your cooking for you."

What is your most indispensable appliance or gadget in the kitchen? "There is a lot that is important, but I always have to have a fork in one hand and a dish rag in the other."

Who is your culinary hero? "Orests Orsi, the guy who taught me."

What is your favorite ethnic, regional or national cuisine? "Italian is my favorite, but when you eat Italian every day, you want something different. Let's say sushi."

Is there anything else you'd like to add? Anything interesting or unique about your restaurant or menu? "One of the best ways for a restaurant to be successful is through its menu. Ours is a small menu; it's not a complicated menu--that's a big part of your restaurant. That and the people who work here. A lot of the people who work here have been working here for 11 years. A few of us used to work together in San Francisco, so we've been together for 16, 17 years. Not changing people in the kitchen is very important. If you put different people in the kitchen the food will come out very different." 0<\f>f,1

--Jessica Lyons 

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