Soul Chef Cullen Campbell – No Culinary School Required
I’d been talking to Chef Campbell for about twenty minutes, casually covering a range of topics. He’s a chill, friendly guy, so I was enjoying the conversation, whilst rich, smoky aromatics from the kitchen wafted around us. But even though I’d been listening intently, something he mentioned apparently didn’t sink in until I glanced down at my notes. “Wait.“ I stopped him. “You didn’t go to culinary school?!”
“Nope,” he shrugged. “Completely self-taught.”
My jaw dropped. Here is a guy who owns and operates two successful Phoenix restaurants, has received rave reviews in high-profile publications around the nation, and was even invited twice to cook at the James Beard House in New York City. Talk about raw talent, amazing drive, and battle-tested business acumen.
Cullen was born in Arizona but grew up in Memphis, Tenn., with lots of family nearby in Arkansas. He spent his childhood heavily and happily immersed in southern traditions and hearty eats. Something that really made an impression on him during these years was the method his family used for cooking. “They did everything on wood or charcoal, no gas grills whatsoever. There’s always a little bit of home in my cooking somewhere.” Part of that is thanks to the fact that Cullen stayed true to that tradition of non-gas cooking, and uses only wood-fire grills in his restaurants.
“When I was in high school,” he says, “I was always looking for something kind of artistic to do, whether it was going to be drawing, painting, or photography. Then for some odd reason, I started watching Food Network—“ (I hastened to interject that it’s never odd to want to watch Food Network),“and I thought it seemed really artistic and really fun, so as soon as I graduated from high school, I went and found my first cooking job at a little place in Memphis.” Granted, he may have done more dish washing than cooking initially, but it was Cullen’s first introduction to the industry, and he was hooked.
FIGURING THINGS OUT
Unsurprisingly, as Cullen’s interest in cooking grew, he strived to emulate culinary icons like Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali. “Then it became Rocco DiSpirito,” he says. He was so in awe of DiSpirito, in fact, that even though still relatively young, he decided that he was going to experience the superstar chef’s restaurant in New York City for himself. It did not disappoint. “I saved up my money and went to his restaurant, and it was AWESOME.”
Another experience that greatly influenced Cullen was when he visited San Francisco, and was invited to dinner at Jardinière, an exclusive downtown destination, particularly popular to patrons of the arts. The opera house next door drew an elegant and avant-garde crowd; still does today, in fact, as you’ll find Jardinière listed in the 2017 MICHELIN Guide. “That dinner,” says Cullen, “was pretty much my first fine-dining experience in a famous restaurant.” And that’s when he knew: he wanted to be a chef, and he wanted a restaurant of his own.
There was only one problem. His family wouldn’t pay for culinary school. At least, not until he’d received a four-year degree from an accredited college or university. Cullen wasn’t deterred. He moved back to Arizona and enrolled at Arizona State University where, strategically, he studied business management. He knew that when (not if) he had his own restaurant, he would have to deal with the operations side of things—something that makes most chefs shudder. “So that’s why I did it. I worked in kitchens all the way through college.” The cooking jobs kept him focused on his goal, while giving him years of valuable experience, and the schooling gave him the knowledge he needed to run a business. Once he graduated from ASU, he was raring to go. Culinary school wasn’t even on his radar anymore.
Even though he grew up in an environment that was about substantial pieces of meat, hearty portions, and heavier, richer foods, he learned, through various travels and experiences, that he was exceptionally fond of a much more delicate type of cuisine: raw fish. “I would go hit up the sushi bars around here, and quickly realized; it’s not just rolls. Real Japanese cooking is something totally different. That’s really where my love of raw fish came from.” He went to Nobu, in Beverly Hills, and had one of the most amazing dining experiences of his life. “The toro tartare with ossetra caviar on top blew my world. I was like, This is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten! Every now and then, when I’m in L.A., I’ll still go get that dish.”
Is it any surprise, then, that Cullen’s first restaurant (co-owned with master mixologist Micah Olson) would be named after the Italian word for “raw”? Using that wood-fire grill, Crudo offers modern, progressive Italian food, expertly composed and presented. However, not everything on the menu is raw. In fact, my favorite dish there is the Crispy Pig Ears. I commented on the funny dichotomy between the two very different concepts. “Yeah,” he chuckled, “You can’t go wrong with the pig ears. That recipe was definitely a southern influence.”
Crudo, very much a labor of love, has been open a little over seven years now. “I did not have a bunch of money when we opened this place. A friend of mine invested, and other than that, I saved up as much money as I could; even took a title loan out on my car. We started the kitchen with one refrigerator and a couple of prep tables, and every time we had a good week we’d just buy another refrigerator and add on a new station. It was pretty intense for a while.”
Cullen’s second restaurant, Okra Cookhouse & Cocktails, (also co-owned by Micah) has been open for about two years now, and is also garnering rave reviews. “The cuisine there is more to my southern heritage. Barbecue and fried chicken; burgers and wings; good stuff like that.”
If I’ve learned one thing about this chef, it’s that he’s ridiculously driven, so I had to ask if there are any other culinary ventures in the works. “The two restaurants are plenty for right now,” he smiles. “I find myself running around between the two more than I do cooking, which is kind of frustrating.” Not to say that he won’t consider something in the future. “I’ve always got something in mind, but I won’t do it unless it’s like the absolute best deal.”
I have no doubt that if and when Cullen does delve into a new project, it will be an automatic success. His hard work, passion, and of course, amazing cooking are incomparable, and Phoenix is lucky to have him. Thanks for your time, Chef. Now let’s be having some of those pig ears!
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