Pierre Khodja grew up in Marseille and, like the author after whom the restaurant is named, had similar experiences of being Algerian in a place that identified as French. The choice of name signifies Khodja’s return to his Algerian roots, and Camus is a celebration of the food of his homeland.
Pierre, you’ve been a chef in a few different countries, France, England…you’re Algerian but have you ever worked in Algeria?
No I left when I was seven and went to Marseille. I worked in Paris and I worked in London, for 26 years.
When did you come to Melbourne?
Where would you call home?
Now it’s different because I have an Australian passport too. It’s here basically. Especially now I have this place. It’s been wonderful.
So did you do your training in Marseille?
Yes. I worked as a kitchen hand first and worked my way up to commis chef and then I went to Paris and started my career there. That’s when I started taking it seriously. Most of my career was in London. I worked at Michelin star restaurants and I won a lot of awards and things really started happening for me. Then I came to Australia in 2001 and got a restaurant in Mornington called Albert Street and then I sold it and went to a restaurant called Canvas in Hawthorn I was there for five years and from there I left and went to Flinders Hotel to Terminus, the fine dining restaurant there, and I ran the whole show. I won chef of the year there in 2013.
Then from there, I got this place. It took me a year and a half to get it ready. It was very plain before. We had to polish the floors and re-do the walls.
You’ve really made the most of the bones of the building.
Yes we didn’t want to disturb the original feeling of the place. We did all the work ourselves.
The reason we called it Camus is because Albert Camus was born at the same time I was born. He played soccer, I played soccer. His parents were very poor, my parents were very poor. His mother as a cleaner, my mother was a cleaner. My father passed away. We had so many connections, that’s how we came up with the name.
And now you get to cook your own, more nostalgic, food.
I had done fine dining for many years. What I am cooking at Camus is still technical, but it’s very simple food. Well the word, simple, as you know, is very hard. We arrive at work at 9am to prepare for the night service. So it’s not that simple.
I’m very surprised that the Northcote community has accepted us so easily. W have been chockablock every night.
Well you have had very good write-ups. Congratulations.
It has been good.
I heard someone describe your use of spice as very subtle.
That’s right. I learned that in the very early days. I am very keen on spices and how they work. They have all been created for a reason. We are what we eat. I believe if you cook the spices the way they should be cooked, you will be the healthiest person in the world. You won’t need any tablets or medicines. All those tablets have been created purely for business. So cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, fenugreek, they all have healing qualities for cancer, depression, bones. That’s what I believe. The food I cook is very healthy. If you use too many spices, it will be bitter. If you don’t use enough, it won’t work. That comes from my childhood. My mum was like that. I remember going to the market and the bag was bigger than me. We would also eat as a family. We were quite poor but my mother went out and bought beautiful little simple cuts of meat. She fed us well. It was wonderful. That’s my food now.
That’s what I do. You can see all the spices I have in the kitchen. I get them from Myanmar, from Israel, from Jordan, from Iran. A lot of the spices that come from India aren’t right.
So are you sourcing those yourself?
Yes. Of course I have people that bring in things in as well. I think that today people are very aware of what they eat. It’s my philosophy and not everyone believes it but I think cancer comes from bad food. Especially the meat. You only have to look at the videos of meat production. And fish, if you see all the metal that is used, that’s not right. And they mixing a whole lot of different meats together and call it a lamb sausage. How can it be lamb sausage?
In Europe it’s different. In Europe a tomato is a tomato and a capsicum is a capsicum. Here a capsicum is full of water and tomatoes are grown artificially.
That’s why I’m very careful what I use. It’s my job to feed people properly.
Within the context of an Algerian menu, can you still cook seasonally and source what you need?
Absolutely. I’m an ambassador for Victoria Tourism. So me, Shannon Bennett, Ben Shewry. I have access to a wonderful produce from Mornington Peninsula; tomatoes, potatoes, asparagus, honey, cheese. It’s all there. That’s what we are trying to do. What’s the point of having something on the menu that comes from Argentina or America? I prefer to tell the customer, look asparagus isn’t in season but when it is I’ll have it and it will be beautiful. We try to keep things as local as possible. We use local goat. I go through three or four goats a week.
When people come to eat at Camus, what’s the experience you would like them to have?
I want it to be like sitting in my dining room. It’s simple, clean, beautiful. Everything is elegant without being stuffy. I want them to sit down and have a nice meal, with good wines to go with it in beautiful surroundings but without breaking the bank to do it. I want them to come back. People have children and mortgages and it doesn’t have to be very expensive to feed people otherwise they won’t come. I want to give them good food. That’s what I like. That’s what’s important for me.
61 High Street, Northcote