Passionate approach to cooking drives success

Delaware’s superstar chef, Hari Cameron, has started a new chapter in his life: fatherhood.

“It’s really awesome rediscovering things through his eyes,” the 35-year-old said.

Cameron works at his award-winning Rehoboth Beach restaurant, a(MUSE.), until closing time each night and then wakes up in the morning with 2-year-old Maxwell.

“I used to sleep in after working late, but now we get up early,” he said. “When he says, ‘Daddy, wake up, let’s do something,’ I can’t say no.”

It’s hard to imagine the Rehoboth restaurant scene without Cameron and his wife of seven years, Stephanie. He owns a(MUSE.) and co-owns Grandpa Mac; she handles the finances for a half-dozen area restaurants. They were married Oct. 10, 2010.

“I didn’t realize the date would be such a big deal,” Cameron said. “I cooked for my own wedding and eight others that week.”

Cameron’s childhood would play a big role in shaping his culinary style. His family moved around a lot, to places like New York and Washington, D.C., as his father helped a guru set up meditation centers.

“I got to experience a lot of different things,” he said. “I was aware of food culture at a very young age – that it wasn’t just something you ate, it meant something to a lot of people. I got to try a lot of different and diverse foods; a lot of vegetarian and Indian food.”

When Cameron was 11, his family settled in Georgetown.

“We always had a garden,” he said. “Summer meant eating sun-warmed, vine-ripened tomato with mayo, salt and pepper on a sandwich.”

Culinary career

Cameron started working in restaurants for spending money in high school, but it wasn’t until his early 20s that he began to fall in love with cooking.

“I started really thinking about my future, and I set a goal that by the time I was 30 I would own a restaurant,” he said. “I made it happen when I was 29.”

When he landed a job at The Buttery in Lewes, owned by Gary and Lorraine Papp at the time, he started to take interest in cooking technique and asking questions. Later, he took a job at the former Ram’s Head Tavern on Wilmington Avenue in Rehoboth and worked his way up in the kitchen, mastering each station: salad, grill, sauté, fryers.

“It was a busy place and not very refined food, just pub fare. But it really gave me the ability to get my hands dirty. To cook, you can’t have just book knowledge; you need to have a certain amount of chops on the line. You need to be able to prioritize and cook quickly.”

He’d eventually get a kitchen job at the now-shuttered Cloud 9, a beloved Rehoboth Avenue restaurant, and worked in both places full-time for a while.

In 2004, Cameron’s friend and mentor, Kevin Reading, invited him to come work at his new restaurant, Nage, and his career really took off.

Nage has a slew of awards to its name, including "Best Burger" in Delaware by Food Network Magazine and five consecutive “Best Caterer” titles from Delaware Today. Reading has opened several successful and critically acclaimed restaurants, including Abbott’s Grille in Milford and Laurel. Cameron spent nine years with the business, making a name for himself and learning about owning a restaurant.

Eventually, Cameron attended The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia and graduated at the top of his class. Though he took a break from working at first, most of the time Cameron was in school he’d work full-time at Nage and drive back and forth to Philadelphia several times a week. Later he’d take trips to Washington, D.C., where Nage was opening a second location.

“When I went to school, cooking was something I’d been doing for a long time already,” Cameron said. “I was already proficient and knew a lot of the classical French things. Teachers wouldn’t even call on me.”

What the school did teach him was discipline.

“As a chef, you might not want to work long hours or write up a catering contract,” he said. “You need discipline. You also need to be able how to teach others how to do things in the kitchen, and you really have to know something to do that.”

Another part of learning culinary skills in the fine dining world is called staging. It is an unpaid internship or apprenticeship during which the chef-in-training, or perhaps a fully qualified chef, works in another chef’s kitchen to be exposed to their style and technique.

Cameron staged at many renowned restaurants while in school at Walnut Hill and after. He staged at the famed but now closed Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia with French-trained chef Georges Perrier, and at Eleven Madison Park in New York City with chef Daniel Humm. Eleven Madison Park was named the best restaurant in the world this year.

“To see it done on that level is an awesome thing,” Cameron said. “When I stage it’s not to learn recipes or flavor profiles, but it’s really great to see systems of organization and management, the dance that happens in the kitchen when everything’s humming and flowing.”

a(MUSE.)

As of Mother’s Day this year, a(MUSE.) has been in operation for five years. “Amuse bouche” is a French term that literally means “amuse mouth,” and refers to a bitesize piece of food served to prepare a guest for the upcoming meal. Cameron said that’s one of the ideas behind the name.

“I made the name grammatically incorrect on purpose because it has a lot of meanings.”

Cameron describes the food at a(MUSE.) as “modern mid-Atlantic.” His cooking style is a bit harder to nail down. It’s been described as “molecular gastronomy,” a term chefs don’t care for.

“As soon as man put food over fire he was manipulating the molecular process. Everything you do is on the molecular level,” Cameron said.

He categorizes his food as progressive, but firmly grounded in the traditional mid-Atlantic. Sometimes he uses ultra-modern cooking techniques, but only because they’re the most effective way to cook a certain dish.

“We use liquid nitrogen a lot,” he said. “You can blanch spinach with it; it’s called cryoblanching. That way you get cooked spinach with all the flavor and nutritional value of raw spinach. It’s a tool, just like anything else in cooking.”

A new menu is printed daily at a(MUSE.). There are some staples, like a pickle jar dish and potted chicken. Otherwise, Cameron chooses selections based on which fresh ingredients are available.

“It allows a lot of freedom to highlight the best things we can get and celebrate the season,” he said.

Within a year and a half of opening his operation, in 2013, Cameron was nominated for a Rising Star Chef award from the James Beard Foundation, which presents awards for culinary excellence in the United States.

“A lot of people pay publicists to get notoriety. We were really saving our pennies when we opened,” Camerson said. “We didn’t think anyone was paying attention on a national level. We were just cooking the best food we could. But it was really nice to get that push when the business was in its infancy.”

Cameron was nominated for a Best Chefs in America Award from the foundation in 2015 and 2016, too.

Future aspirations

Cameron collects cookbooks. He has about 3,500, and he’s writing several of his own. All of that knowledge, combined with his vast library of experience, makes him an expert in cuisine. Lately, he’s been dabbling in consulting for other chefs and restauranteurs.

In addition to a(MUSE.), Cameron is a co-owner of Grandpa Mac, a modern mac-and-cheese joint named after his grandfather. Grandpa Mac has two locations in Rehoboth and more opening in northern Delaware. He’s been working on a food truck for the venture.

Cameron recently gave classes in Atlantic City at the International Pizza and Pasta Expo and participated in panel discussions in front of thousands of people. He’s shooting a training video for Arcobaleno’s new pasta-making machine this fall.

On top of all that, he’s forged a relationship with the California Walnut Board, a public relations firm, and they’re flying him to the West Coast to harvest walnuts.

Cameron is obviously at a good place in his life.

“Things are great. It’s nice to be in the business five years in,” he said. “It’s always nice have the farmers and purveyors paid, put money in the bank, pay down loans and keep improving and getting better. I am so happy and blessed that I found cooking, or it found me, and that I can come to work every day and do work I love, hang out with people I love and serve food that’s fun and interesting.”

It’s deep summer in Rehoboth Beach, where the population is at its peak. It’s the hottest it will be all year, and Cameron works long hours. He has no complaints.

“I’m in a place where it’s nice to work hard, to accomplish things, to have avenues to do different things in the future,” he said. “Eventually I want to have a nonprofit space to teach people to farm and cook.”

You can check out a(MUSE.) at 44 Baltimore Avenue in Rehoboth Beach from 4 to 11 p.m. nightly. Dinner begins at 5 p.m. Reservations are taken at 302-227-7107; more information is online at amuse-rehoboth.com.