How Ojai Valley Shaped International Chef Campbell Whitman-Riemens
I am a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris and a chef of 14 years who currently works and lives in The Netherlands, but my culinary education dates back to my roots in two places known for their love of world cuisine: Los Angeles and the Ojai Valley.
Food has been an influential part of my life since my youngest days. It came from my mother, Carmel, and her gardening on our quarter-acre lot we called home in North Hollywood. Her care for all her little plants and the eliminating of all the snails she called "the enemy" became an important way of eating healthy.
Sometimes I helped plant, water, pluck, clean, cook and eat the bounty from this earth. In addition, we composted all of our food waste, which went towards the maintenance of said garden, keeping it healthy and teaching me the cycle of plant life.
My father, John, a talented yet untrained home cook, for fun created exotic and sometimes very sophisticated dinners, which interested my young and easily influenced food brain. Our holiday food traditions like Thanksgiving and Easter came from his side of the family, complete with recipes passed down through a few generations, of which I am now the proud owner.
In truth, I believe my father's sophisticated palate became a driving force for how our family ate regular meals at home, as well as the choices of establishments we frequented as kids living in Los Angeles. Only the best and the most authentic for Daddy, or nothing at all!
My grandmother purchased a pretty large chunk of land in the Ojai Valley in 1976, which is now known as the Old Creek Ranch Winery. Prior to buying the property, my grandparents would drive to Ojai from Encino just to eat dinner at the Ranch House, where my parents also celebrated their engagement. And if you skip to 1981, the year I was born and the first year we bottled wine, I was a regular visitor too. We barbecued in the late summer sun and ate local foods from local restaurants.
BBQ tri-tip sandwiches from the original Oak Pit in Oak View became essential. Next, fish tacos from Sea Fresh were eaten at least three times a month. A few years after that, Lalo's Fast Food on the Avenue became a religion for weekly stops on the way to the winery for work.
After my parents moved from Los Angeles to our second home in Ventura, new traditions formed: where we shopped for our groceries like our turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, which was always bought fresh not frozen from Westridge Market, and any fish I ever bought was from Gus at Sea Fresh.
After those experiences, I began to frequent the Ojai Valley to get all my organic necessities at Rainbow Bridge, which opened my eyes to a greener way of shopping, not just eating. But what was most important to me was my weekly ritual of "the round" at the Ojai Certified Farmers' Market with my many canvas bags, my favorite of which was from the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy for its incredible sturdiness and wide opening. It still lives on in Holland with me to this day.
This process shaped me as a chef, just as much as an eater. Ojai's farmers' market became my Holy Land for fresh, organic and well-cared-for farmed foods.
When I talk about missing my homeland, this is one of the first things I think of, along with driving with the windows down, the sunshine and occasional In-N-Out pit stop. This was my true fairy tale. I yearn for it in ways I never expected to. I feel as if a small piece of me is missing without it. And because of that, I will always be a California girl, no matter how far away my new fairy tale has taken me.
My path to The Netherlands started at 19, when I got my first restaurant job as a prep cook at what is now Café Nouveau in Ventura.
I learned so many basics, making salad dressing, lasagna and proper tomato-based sauces (marinara, Bolognese and puttanesca) in the two days a week I worked while attending California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
A year later, I moved up to working at Café Bariloche, where I learned valuable skills in herbs and spices and how to make such special things as empanadas, which are consistently among my repertoire to this day. But I really moved up the "food chain" by getting a job at the Sidecar Restaurant, where I learned the majority of my chef skills from chef Tim Kilcoyne.
He gave me the basics in traditional French cuisine using local and fresh ingredients and it was there where I first came to the decision that maybe I needed to get a real degree in the culinary arts and, of course, in Paris.
While attending Le Cordon Bleu in my late 20s, I met my future husband, Ivo, a rather handsome, tall, old-fashioned and particularly confident Dutch world traveler. I was in love with Paris! I was in love with their food, their culture, their farmers' markets, their wine and their way of life.
I was the head chef of a very successful wine bar called Ô Chateau in the first arrondissement, within a short walking distance to Le Louvre, where history was alive and well, and so was I! But eight months after we met I moved over yet another border to be with him.
When I moved to The Netherlands, it took me a year to get settled into my new role of housewife and stepmother. After lots of rainy days and lots more tears, I finally found a job working as a line chef at a well-known "world cuisine" restaurant called Specktakel in Haarlem.
My chef skills came in handy there because of my specialties in French and Latin cuisines, plus with my recent explorations of Thai and Vietnamese cooking in Paris. I quickly moved up the ranks to regularly creating specials for their ever-changing daily "Umami menu," which is a four- to six-course explosion of bold flavors paired with interesting ingredients like sting ray, fried grasshoppers, smoked miso dressings, kangaroo tataki, curried crocodile dumplings and salt-and-pepper squid with exciting dipping sauces.
The restaurant really tries to "wow" you in both cuisine and décor, which leaves you feeling like you have eaten a star-worthy meal in a sort of jungle for half the price and none of the mosquito bites. I have been working there for almost two years and I have fed more people than I can count because its popularity is as explosive as its flavors.
But no matter how much flavorful food I am cooking or how much I love my husband, I always dream of coming home to my mecca for fresh ingredients.
California and its produce set such a high bar in regard to standards of freshness with options in varieties within each season that at times it seems unmatchable. In truth, Paris (well, most of France, for that matter) has the same Californian ideas of fresh ingredients and, I believe, the French were locavores before we even created the word.
The California farmers' markets, most specifically Ojai's, changed my view on perishable ingredients – forever. Period.
When you talk to someone running a stand, whether it offers just one specific ingredient or more than you can count on all your fingers and toes, their information is not just informative but passionate.
You can feel that someone grew and tended to these items with care for the product as well as its future recipient. You also have all different kinds of people selling a product. Sometimes it's the actual dirty-nailed field worker who speaks of the ingredient with a real understanding from being in its environment day after day; sometimes it's a hippie who just really loves the product; and sometimes it's the owner of the company, like Alice from Ojai Olive Oil.
The best part is they all speak of the ingredient(s) the same way. There is authenticity in Ojai and you can feel it so richly at the market while walking in the heat of the California sun. I have looked for this feeling in every country where I have lived, and I don't know if it will ever be matched.