Executive Chef Cameo McRoberts, formerly of Kathy Caseys Food Studios and Little Water Cantina, is now at the helm of the rechristened Vessel kitchen. There, McRoberts is embracing the unexpected, including the challenges of a smaller kitchen, and juggling motherhood with being a chef.
Photo provided by Vessel
What's your vision for the menu at Vessel?
We've been trying to come up with what our concept is, and I wanted to stay away from modern bar food because that sounds like a fancy dressed up version of spinach dip, or poppers. It's not traditional bar fare. Most of the food is developed to compliment drinking in that there is rich food, and most of the rich foods have that pickled element to break that up. The lamb sandwich that we're doing has a lot of the ingredients that go into bitters. We did the Muffuletta because we wanted to do the Muffuletta and Pimm's Cup for lunch.
It's slightly European in concept: small plates, high quality ingredients, just kind of simple. I always like to have a good blend of richness and tartness and something kind of crunchy and fresh. Each dish has a bit of that.
Will the dishes be rotating or will they be fairly constant?
We're going to have a small constant menu. Lunch has about three salads, and three or four sandwiches. Dinner has about six or seven different share plates, and some of those are cross-utilized. I have the freedom to do specials. I hired a really awesome kitchen staff. Everybody has really good ideas, and I want them to put together specials. For seafood, I designed [our crudo plate] so that we'd go to the market, buy five pounds of something and come back with that. That one will constantly be rotating throughout the year.
It's more of a cold kitchen than a hot kitchen. We have an oven and a Panini press and a couple of induction burners. So it's been a transition trying to work in a kitchen that doesn't have six tops and a bunch of ovens. [We're] learning how to pare stuff down, and cross-utilizing stuff without everything having the same ingredients on it.
Congratulations on your pregnancy! How are you managing that along with opening up Vessel?
I keep making this joke now like, I have two babies now. One is in the oven, and the other one has an oven. It's kind of interesting because it happened very suddenly. It's something that I was thinking about and I knew I had to make a decision soon.
The opening of Vessel worked out really well because had we opened four weeks ago, I would've been really tired and nauseous. Now I'm in my second trimester and I've gotten a lot of my energy back. It's a lot of work, but the kitchen, they're awesome. They're like, "Don't lift that!"
I try not to be a delicate flower, but I still have to know my limitations. I think thus far, as long as I keep in perspective the time and rest that I need, everyone else is kind of watching that too. They're supportive and they're working with me. They're all like, "You can bring the baby in the bassinet and put it in the back kitchen," and I'm like, "Don't tell me that, because I will!"
Do you feel any anxiety about balancing motherhood and Vessel?
Yeah. I mean, it's a bar, and it's a hard job. My life has been pretty unorthodox thus far so I'll make it work regardless of what happens, but they've been super supportive with me. It hasn't been any sort of a weird thing. I feel like with the people I hired, when I'm not here, I don't feel like the kitchen will blow up or anything. I think in six months, it'll be fine for people to step away for a while and assess the situation. We'll see if we'll need to figure this out or if we can make this work, at least on a part time basis or a consulting basis. I definitely want to stay as involved as possible just because they're great people to work for. I want to be able to honor that because they've been very cool with me.
What's on your to-do list with Vessel's opening, or in general, what does an executive chef at a newly opened restaurant have to do?
Well, for the third restaurant opening in a row, I have forgotten that Merlino's doesn't deliver on Saturdays. It's like, you would think I would learn my lesson after time number two, but there I was on Saturday like, "Where's my Merlino's order?" Someone replied, "Merlino's doesn't deliver on Saturday," and I'm like, "Aww gawd, every time!"
Opening with a limited menu has been a blessing, because it's pretty charcuterie heavy so it's easier to prep. I had the recipes fairly developed because I had about a year to work them out in my brain and test them at home, but with the equipment that we had and storage we had ... Like in order to roast tomatoes, we have to order tomatoes for that day, because there is not enough space to store the tomatoes in the refrigerator unless they're roasted.
For a little while, we didn't have any racks in our oven before we opened. We were baking crackers one half sheet tray at a time on top of a perf pan to get stuff ready for dinner. We've had those kinds of hurdles, but because nobody else freaked out, I didn't freak out either.
[We're] learning how to run the kitchen, finishing up on things so I can feel confident in showing it to someone else to do, and just bulking up everything so that on Monday, we have food for lunch. It's just tweaking the recipes a little bit because when you develop recipes at home, it's not like when you're developing for a lot of orders.
So there was a delay in Vessel's opening, how would you explain the cause of the delay to those who are wondering?
[Building a restaurant is] a slow going process and every restaurant owner goes into it hoping to open it as soon as possible, because they have a vision and they have an idea that they'd like to see come to fruition. Sometimes, it just takes time. There might be one piece of metal that doesn't come in, and it'll set the construction back three weeks. Also, everything in here is hand-designed; [Vessel co-founder] Clark [Niemeyer] designed everything. Good things take time. I know that sounds like a cheesy, cliché thing to say, but it's true.
We were open with a limited menu for a few days, and it's been busy. It's great to see how many people have wanted us to open. I mean, there are people lining up here before we even open at 6 [p.m.] It's great to have that kind of support. There are people who have been here for more than one night in the [first] four nights. I think in a month, nobody is going to care when they said they would open, because they're going to be here and they're going to like it. The food has gotten a lot of really positive comments just because it didn't have food before. It's a great addition to being able to drink, and there are a couple of things like a meal, and there are a few things that are very sharable. I think it's going to work out pretty good.