Chef Cameron arguably Delaware's best chef, is quite literally a walking cookbook. His body and his brain are filled with the thousands of books he's read and the hundreds of places he's traveled to learn global cuisine. Produced by Megan Raymond
On Hari Cameron's left arm, from his forearm to the top of his shoulder, there are colorful images of vegetables tattooed forever. On his right arm, near the message that predates Buddhism, are sausage and brine ratios from Michael Ruhlman's cookbooks. In case Cameron ever forgets, which he likely won't, three parts meat and one part fat will make a sausage.
Chef Cameron, 35, arguably Delaware's best chef, is quite literally a walking cookbook. His body and his brain are filled with the thousands of books he's read and the hundreds of places he's traveled to learn global cuisine.
Cameron, chef and owner of a(MUSE.) in Rehoboth, is a three-time semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation Award, once in 2013 for Rising Star Chef, and twice more, in 2015 and 2016 for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. He's won countless statewide and regional awards, and even cooked at the James Beard House in New York.
When preparing for an interview, he wondered if he should put on his white chef coat. These days, he said, he practically never wears it. As a chef, he said, there wasn't much left for him to prove. So sitting in the dining room at a(MUSE.), the eclectic and innovative modern American restaurant on Baltimore Avenue, Cameron, wearing flip flops, shorts and a relaxed denim top, talked about what's left to achieve in a career that's been more fulfilling than he ever imagined. If he never wins another award again, he said, he'd be perfectly happy.
“When I initially started cooking I wanted to be regionally great," Cameron said, having achieved that years ago. "I wanted people to drive out of their way to come experience some of the great things that Delaware has to offer. I’ve never cooked for awards. You have to cook first for guests. If they don’t want to eat your food, they won’t return. But if you’re only cooking for others and you’re not cooking for yourself, then it will be futile. So you have to cook the food that you enjoy and cook food that you believe in and you feel is delicious.
"I try to prove it every day with every plate. Every plate that we send out of the kitchen has our name on it, has our signature on it. It’s a place in time in Delaware history. Some of my best artwork has been passed the next day.
"A chef is only as good as his last meal. So I have something to prove every day."
Cameron and his team at a(MUSE.) have been proving it since 2012, when Cameron opened the restaurant after working at Nage for nine years. Growing up in a family that moved around a lot, Cameron spent his youth in Sussex County, Ithaca, New York, Washington and elsewhere. He was introduced to cooking at The Buttery in Lewes, where he was a front-of-house employee forced onto the salad station one day and fell in love.
That love took him to other kitchens in the area and eventually to the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia.
Growing up with parents (Stephan and Nina) and relatives who liked to explore different cuisines, Cameron remembers eating Ethiopian food, Indian curries and Russian food. He remembers his grandfather taking him for sushi as a kid and recalls the tobiko popping in his mouth.
All of his experiences combined with the aforementioned books and traveling have created a monster. Cameron and his team create things in a(MUSE.) that you'd have a hard time finding in any other kitchen on Delmarva, hence the awards.
And if you ask the people Cameron has worked with in the past, none of this is really surprising. Chef Kevin Reading, owner of Abbott's Grill, hired Cameron at Nage and had a front row seat for the transformation. Cameron, self-described as "super ADD," was always thinking ahead and needed to be reined in.
Reading, who was splitting time between Nage and the former Espuma at that point, remembered hiring a head chef at Nage who Cameron worked under. Things weren't working out and Reading decided to keep Cameron and fire the head chef.
“I saw something in him that I just had a feeling he was destined for more,” Reading said of Cameron.
"More" these days has Cameron's mind expanding to the growing world of fast casual concepts. With his brother Orion, Cameron opened grandpa (MAC) in downtown Rehoboth in 2015. The concept, with plenty of housemade pastas, expanded to a second location last fall. A third, in northern Delaware, shouldn't be far behind.
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But Cameron's main focus is at a(MUSE.), where he's really able to chase his dreams.
“There’s no such thing as perfection," Cameron said. "There are perfect moments. But to chase the perfection is the most important thing."
Perfection to him comes in mastering new techniques. A recent trip to Thailand inspired a new take on fish sauce. Committed to showcasing Delaware's local products, Cameron makes his version from Delaware silverside minnows.
A big proponent of Delaware's soil, Cameron said there are currently 30-40 different kinds of local tomatoes in the restaurant.
"This is the fertile valley of the Jolly Green Giant," Cameron said.
On the sidewalk outside the restaurant are pots filled with items Cameron uses for dishes at a(MUSE.), like a buttery pea flower used in a broth, hairy holy basil, dill flowers, ginger, geraniums and much more.
Some mornings he takes his 2-year-old son Maxwell on a walk near their home along Junction and Breakwater Trail to forage.
Cameron seems obsessed with ingredients and fueled by exploring techniques. If not for the awards, this is why he cooks. Look no further than the fact that he's growing aspergillus oryzae, known in English as koji, on grains for deeper umami. Koji is a filamentous fungus used in Chinese and other Asian cuisines. The brown rice Cameron grew it on was used in making a six-month sesame miso.
They've taken that sesame miso and made a play on hummus with a chickpea dip that you can't really call hummus.
“His level and his approach to food is much more complicated than a lot of your average chefs,” Reading said.
“I find happiness in the creative aspects of it," Cameron said.
Creativity comes in collaboration, too.
Cameron, who loves family traditions in cooking, recalled asking a dishwasher named Skinny once what his favorite thing to eat was growing up. Skinny, whose family came from Baltimore, said his grandmother used to make a white potato pie. Similar to a sweet potato pie, a white potato pie was made when there weren't enough sweet potatoes.
After doing research, Cameron realized white potato pie was popular in the Delmarva region during the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
Naturally, he took the recipe, modernized it and made it his own, putting it on the menu for a bit at a(MUSE.).
Sometimes you write your own cookbooks.