So Sri-eal! Chef Srijith Gopinathan heats up Campton Place
|Map||340 Stockton Street, San Francisco, CA 94108|
“Just call me Sri,” says Chef Srijith Gopinathan. For those guests who might stumble on the name, a warm smile reassures. It’s okay.
In fact, it’s all good at Campton Place where simple reminders of San Francisco’s gracious past endure, like a couth exterior that gives little away, an old-school bell cap who, foretelling, holds the door or summons his whistle to halt a fast cab on Stockton Street. There's, Nikolas Weinstein’s contoured glass tulip installation that still casts its orange firelight across the upper reaches of the dining room as it has through the changing of the guard: From Chef Jann Birnbaum to Bradley Ogden, Todd Humphries, Laurent Manrique and Daniel Humm.
The last of the list, Humm, has triumphed. When he first walked through the doors at Campton Place, Humm, Swiss, didn’t speak a lick of English. Now, he's readily considered one of America’s most respected chefs, elevating New York’s Eleven Madison Park to the highest rung of fine dining. Sri is a fan.
But Sri emanates his own special glow. So do his dishes that interpret India’s intensity and mystical nuances.
Take typical fare-- hoppers--extruded stringy rice noodles, steamed, and served for breakfast in a traditional Indian household. In different parts of the country, they might arrive at the table in a sweet stew. Sri modifies the usage. At Campton, hoppers are a dinner item, prepared with prawns and galvanized by savory strokes of coriander, cumin, pepper and black mustard.
Another shrewd presentation is Sri’s “Potli,” an Indian word that means ‘purse.’ To make his Potli, Sri forms a samosa-style dough with flour, water, a little butter and cumin. Fresh Dungeness crab perfectly calibrated with tumeric, coriander, and tomato fill the interior. The Potli is steamed and served with a refined shrimp coconut-curry sauce.
A guest who recently ordered the dish because it sounded “fancy” was blown away. The unexpected flavors bridged time and place, taking him back to his childhood in India 35 years ago.
“His reaction made me very happy,” says, Sri. “I haven’t forgotten the flavors of my roots.”
Sri hails from Southern India’s smallest state, Kerala, where the spectacle of life mystifyingly splices with the serene on Malabar’s coconut-tree covered coast. Cardamom, rubber tree sap, Tellicherry pepper and the petrichor perfume of a southwest monsoon quench the equatorial air.
The Kerala Tourism Bureau has a slogan for this arresting beauty: “God’s own country.” It is India’s cleanest state, the country’s most literate, least corrupt, and the alluring sandy beaches, network of backwaters (rife with deluxe houseboats), thousands of plant species, and large elephant population appeal to the bio-diverse, eco-tourist set.
Imagine growing up amidst such a robust backdrop. Srijith did. His mother is a high school botany teacher, his father a member of the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation), that’s the equivalent of America’s FBI. There are eight doctors in the family. Srijith’s wife has an MD in Indian Medicine. Srijith calls himself the “black sheep.”
Sri was 12 when the family’s first television was installed. Despite broadcasts being government-owned, television was a huge deal. Early 90’s economic reform led to a relaxation of the airwaves and in came limited satellite broadcasts. Sri was in high school during the explosion of cable television, truly revolutionary for India--and for Sri.
Glued to the family set, he watched food programming streaming in from England. There was Marco Pierre White. Rick Stein. And, of course, Julia Child. Sri wanted to replicate the dishes he saw. The multiple courses. The stylistic contrast to his culture was sharp. In India one eats with the nose, less with the eyes.
But, it wasn’t easy to go against a traditional grain.
“Indian is a food of extremes. Of sweet and spicy. It always reaches the tip-top of intensity. Aesthetics rarely matter; taste is key. And, aromatics rule,” explains Sri.
Sri moved in with his father who was working at a CBI unit in Bangalore, the “Silicon Valley” of India. He studied Hotel Science at the University of Bangalore.
“He worked and I went to school and did the cooking.” When his dad was away on business, he and his school chums experimented in the kitchen. “I’d make caramel custard in a pressure cooker,” Sri says.
Stand-alone restaurants were not the places to pick-up Western-style tricks. The hotel chains had all the access—from ingredients to networking. He worked the luxury hotel circuit in Bangalore and was offered a job as Chef de Cuisine of the fine dining restaurant at Taj Maldives, cooking “contemporary Mediterranean.”
There was no resisting this unique coral archipelago set against turquoise waters. It was an oasis of tranquility a world away. Where fresh produce arrived on small boats from Australia at low tide.
But that halcyon picture was erased in a matter of seconds.
Sri says, “I was standing in the lobby talking to a guest about the previous night’s dinner when I noticed the waterline looked higher than normal. I saw one wave, then two waves…”
There was no time to move to higher ground. The Indian Ocean, jolted by a megathrust 9.1 earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia on December 26, 2004 had triggered a massive tsunami, overwhelming coastal communities. Including the Taj Maldives.
“The third wave went above me--and I’m 6-feet tall. All I saw after that were electronic gadgets and furniture floating in what looked like a deep sea. It was a nightmare. In just a few moments, everything was gone.” Sri shakes his head. “It was surreal.”
With the hotel shut and evaluating damage, Sri took time to renew old interests, and learn from those chefs who inspired him in the early years. In Oxford, England he staged at Raymond Blanc’s two-Michelin star Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons.
“A lot of my cooking is filtered versions of classic French,” he says. Sri delighted in Blanc’s kitchen garden that was affectionately tended by its own culinary team. “Learning this finesse and how to handle produce was my greatest inspiration.”
He returned to a completely re-built and re-named Taj ‘Exotica’ Maldives, but didn’t stay long, courted by Taj’s newest sister property, Campton Place, some 9,240 miles away.
In San Francisco, Sri cooks to his own beat, capturing the rhythm of India through unfamiliar fragrances, mindfully aware of color, and flirting with the subtleties and force of spice. He carefully merges cultures, but not just on his menu. His son, Arnav, whose Indian name translates as ocean, was born five years ago--in the Maldives.