Chef says 'always season ... with gusto'

PAM GRIFFIN 654-8444 | @DestinLogPam
Executive Chef Camille Withall at George's at Alys Beach is the Chef of the Month for October.

Growing up in the Philippines, Executive Chef Camille Withall would always watch her mom in the kitchen preparing meals.

"My mom is the best cook," Withall told The Log. "She never measured anything and just used her hands, her instincts, and her senses to make everything taste right. Whenever I would ask her for a recipe, she would only be able to give me the ingredients and not the amount of each."

Growing up, Withall loved to help in the kitchen and was known as "fat kid" of the family. "In Filipino, it’s called 'napabayaan sa kusina' or someone who is left alone in the kitchen," she said.

She also remembers cooking instant ramen noodles and hot dogs with her older sister using toy clay pots their mother gave them every summer when they visited her hometown. But the menu for her family has changed from hotdogs to Paella, a Spanish rice dish, and cheesecake, which her family always requests now.

Although Withall graduated with a double degree in communication and advertising management, she found being in a corporate office setting, sitting still, was just not what she thought it would be.

"I then found out about this culinary school and thought to myself, I want to do that instead," Withall said. "I’ve always loved to cook and going to school would help me develop my skills professionally and hopefully lead me to the path I’m meant to be on. I loved every minute of it and haven't looked back since."

At the American Hospitality Academy in the Philippines, Withall attended the one year course in 2007, fast paced since the normal four year course was condensed into one.

"I appreciated how the school did not glamorize this career for us like how many people perceive it to be on TV. They taught us from the beginning to expect how real and hard it is once you graduate."

Cooking professionally now for eight years, Withall began as a sous chef at George's in 2014, and was just recently promoted to executive chef.

Q: Are there any foods you just don’t like?

A: I love all sorts of food and experimenting with different ingredients. One food I really don’t care for though is okra. Unless it has disintegrated in gumbo.

Q: What is your favorite food to eat?

A: It really depends on my mood. Sometimes I crave Sinigang (a Filipino pork stew made with tamarind) or Spaghetti Bolognese. As long as a dish is really savory and has different layers of flavor, it will become an instant favorite. And I never say no to cake.

Q: What is the most necessary ingredient for the majority of recipes?

A: Growing up to Filipino cuisine, which has strong Asian and Spanish influences, I usually never go without garlic. It just makes everything taste better, from simple vinaigrettes to elaborate soups and sauces. If a recipe calls for mirepoix (onion, celery and carrot), garlic is the instant fourth ingredient.

Q: What is your favorite cuisine to cook?

A: I love cooking French cuisine because there’s almost a methodical way to doing things that I find artistic and almost romantic. From caramelizing things and emulsifying to ending up with a beautiful braised dish. I also love Filipino, Spanish and Italian cuisines for their simplicity but you end up with tons of flavor.

Q: What is the hardest part of cooking for a beginner?

A: Other than the current confidence level that one may have, I think it’s the control of heat. The amount of heat affects the outcome of the food and it takes time to learn to adjust the right amount to specific foods. It’s like learning to drive a car. Once you’ve gotten used to it, it will be second nature.

Q: Best piece of advice you would give a home cook?

A: It’s all about tasting everything as you go along, and going with your gut. Don’t be afraid to experiment with unfamiliar ingredients because that’s how you learn to use them in different applications and create new dishes. And always season ... with gusto.

Grapefruit and Snap Pea Salad

with Lime-Cilantro Vinaigrette

4 leaves Bibb lettuce

2 ruby red grapefruit, peeled and segments removed to make about 2 cups grapefruit supremes

1 cup snap peas, trimmed and blanched

½ cup toasted cashews or peanuts, optional

For the vinaigrette

2 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar

2 Tbsp. fish sauce

2 limes, zested and juiced

1 tsp. Sambal or sriracha

1 Tbsp. shallot, chopped

1 garlic glove, minced

4 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped

½ cup canola or vegetable oil

Pinch of salt and pepper

In a bowl, combine grapefruit segments or supremes and snap peas. Set aside covered in cooler.

For the vinaigrette, combine all ingredients in a bowl except for the oil. Slowly whisk in the oil to emulsify. Season with salt and pepper. Vinaigrette can be made a day ahead and last for two weeks in the fridge.

Pour vinaigrette over grapefruit and snap peas. Toss to coat.

To serve, arrange Bibb lettuce on bottom of a plate. Spoon grapefruit and snap peas on top and garnish with cashews or peanuts. This salad is also great with some chilled or grilled shrimp.