“After college, I thought I was going to go to California, but I got delayed,” says noted Chef Cullen Campbell, chef owner of the nationally known Phoenix-based Crudo, which he opened in 2012 with mixologist Micah Olson. Last year, the duo, along with Campbell’s wife Maureen McGrath, unlocked Okra, a Southern-themed restaurant with touches of Italy, harkening back to growing up in Arkansas. Although born in the 48th state, Campbell spent time on the Arkansas family farm and attended university in Memphis, where he picked up some of the deep Southern touches that craft the excellent flavors of his sophomore effort. Clearly, he wanted to bring some of that country to Arizona.
Like the Sonoran Desert, the interiors of both places are wide and vast. There aren’t any nooks or cubby holes for clandestine dinners to hide in. The restaurants are boisterous, raucous affairs, letting the diner know they are in for a delicious meal. Crudo is the higher end of the two, with a collage of shutters as artwork at the entrance, but it’s the casual wood-tones of Okra which come across warmly. Both restaurants, though, are a showcase of Campbell’s kitchen talent. Arizona Republic’s restaurant critic Howard Sefetel said in his 2012 review of Crudo, “What makes Campbell’s fare stand out? Certainly, the ingredients are primo. But what Campbell does with them is often highly original and always skillfully executed.”
Since then, the kitchen star has been on the rise, putting Valley of the Sun’s dining and drinking culture on the national culinary map, with noted stories in Sunset Magazine, USA Today, and Los Angeles Times.
What’s next on the horizon for the Arizona cooking wunderkind? “I have a bunch of different concepts I want to try out. Something small and higher end with no more than a dozen tables. Then I have a hot dog concept I want to do with Micah. Cocktails. Beer and wine list all paired for the dogs.”
Whatever Campbell does, we know it will be delicious.
Chef’s Questionnaire (with a nod to Proust):
How long have you been cooking?
I have been cooking for 20 years.
What is your favorite food to cook?
My least favorite food is Shellfish.
What do you always have in your fridge at home?
I have wine, water, & leftovers.
What do you cook at home?
Not much but sometimes, I r&d at my house. I just made some pici, which is like a thick hand rolled spaghetti. I love hand rolling pasta!
What marked characteristic do you love in a customer?
The person wanting to try everything.
What marked characteristic do you find unappealing in a customer?
The person that is scared to try new things.
Tupperware, Rubbermaid, or Pyrex?
Beer, wine, or cocktail?
Wine all the way, especially really great white wine.
Your favorite cookbook author?
David Joachim. Not only has he written his own books, he has also collaborated on some of my favorite books.
Your favorite kitchen tool?
Your favorite ingredient?
Your least favorite ingredient?
Least favorite thing to do in a kitchen?
Clean. I make a mess haha!
Favorite types of cuisine to cook?
I go through spurts. Of course Italian & southern. But I have started playing around with Polynesian.
Chef you most admire?
I have two: Jean Georges Vongerichten & Marc Vetri. One is very refined & the other is more rustic, but they both work with the best ingredients & don’t overcomplicate dishes.
Food you like the most to eat?
Cheeseburger & fries!
Food you dislike the most?
I eat everything!
How many tattoos? And if so, how many are of food?
I only have two at the moment. One of them is an alcohol in Japanese. But I want to get a fork & spoon on me. Also, one that celebrates my restaurants – Crudo & Okra.
Recipe: Semolina Gnocci with Trotter Ragu & Cacio e Pepe
3 cups milk
1/2 cup butter
4 egg yolks
1 cup parmesan
1 cup semolina
Put milk, butter, & salt into a medium pot (bring to a boil).
Add semolina & whisk vigorously for 4 minutes.
Add 1 egg yolk at a time while stirring.
Then add the parmesan and whisk until the cheese melts, about 3 minutes.
Spread mixture on a sheet tray & let cool for 45 minutes.
When cooled, cut out circles with a ring mold.
Sear the gnocchi in a pan on medium heat until golden brown.
Cacio e Pepe
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1/2 cup grated pecorino remano
2tbs fresh ground black pepper
Salt to taste
Heat heavy cream & both cheeses together until melted.
Add roux to thicken & then add the pepper.
5lbs pig trotters
1 yellow onion chopped
1 head of garlic chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
3oz thyme picked & chopped
6 cups da napoli crushed tomatoes
6 cups meat stock
1tbs fresh ground pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
In a roasting pan, brown the trotters in the olive oil.
Add onion, garlic, and thyme & stir until fragrant.
Season with the salt & pepper.
Add crushed tomatoes and meat stock & cover the pan tightly with foil or lid.
Lower the oven to 300 degrees & cook for 3.5 hours.
After pulled from the oven, let the trotters cool down for about an hour.
After cooled, shred the trotters off the bones & mix back into the sauce.
Put the ragu in the bottom of the bowl, arrange gnocchi, & top with a generous amount of cacio e pepe
– The End. Go Eat. –