Walking into LA’s Osteria La Buca, I have to stop myself. How had I never known this was here? Gorgeous brick walls, minimalist aesthetic, wooden beams and romantic lighting… it's that rustic Italian restaurant you always want to come back to. It feels like home.
The Buca menu is simple but elegant. Each bite you take confirms there is a master at work crafting the Dunderi Ricci (trust me you want to find out what this is! ), the gorgeous Rib-eye Cap with Summer Squash and Anaheim Chili, and Spaghetti Cacio Pepe that makes my heart pound.
Sitting down with Executive Chef Cameron Slaugh, it's clear this chef coat and apron have seen a lot of action. Slaugh is thoughtful and quiet but also self assured. He has that steadfast certainty which can only come from years of culinary experience. Yes, he's usually soft spoken and humble, but there's a cheekiness that pokes through with a wry smile.
Slaugh grew up on a farm in Utah, raising livestock, foraging for mushrooms and vegetables….living off the farm was the norm for his family. “I didn’t at the time think that much about it- I thought a lot of people had that,” he reflects.
“When I got older and started to cook, I realized what I had and the difference between being able to go to the back yard to grab some eggs, or some tomatoes. I am inspired by what I had. That is something I still believe in which has created the direction I’m striving for.”
Slaugh got his culinary start at seventeen and like any neophyte, he struggled through the grueling schedule, demanding executive chefs and the challenging learning curve of working in a busy restaurant. Then the addiction to the creativity of cooking set in - the love of making something beautiful and satisfying for others to enjoy. It wasn’t long before he was focused on creating with food instead of just producing it.
Within two years Slaugh decided to become a chef. He moved to New York and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute where he pushed himself and graduated with top honors. “I feel like everyone should have something to reach towards no matter where you are in life. At that point, the closest thing for me was to tell myself that I could get all these awards just because I could. I got five awards and there were only five to earn. Once you accomplish your goal, then you find something else to reach towards.”
While at the French Culinary Institute, Slaugh sought work at Park Ave Summer, a New American restaurant on the Upper East side. Though the restaurant was not hiring at the time, Slaugh found his way into a job starting with a day or two a week and quickly increasing to full time. “I wanted to become a sous chef within a year and I did. You’re always setting goals for yourself and that’s how you achieve things. Like every day you have a list of things to do or you won’t get them done.”
Slaugh credits Park Ave’s Executive Chef Craig Koketsu as his strongest influence in his culinary training, “He taught me everything I know as if he was a father - he taught me how to cook, he taught me about finesse…Craig believed in me. ”
In 2010, two years in to his Park Ave stint, Fourth Wall Restaurants (of Smith & Wollensky fame) was opening their latest endeavor, The Hurricane Club. Slaugh was asked to be the opening sous and he took the job.
“That was the best and worst experience of my life. Six hundred covers (guests) a night, it was just chaos all the time. I was working insane hours, every day from seven a.m. to three a.m. We had four boards of tickets and it just doesn’t stop. That chaos allowed me to find a voice, to find a sense of leadership.”
In 2011 Slaugh staged at the famed 3 Michelin star Eleven Madison Park and he resolved to do whatever it would take to work there. It took him one year but he persisted, and once again started from the bottom, slowly working his way up through all the positions, eventually reaching sous chef.
Eleven Madison Park (EMP) honed Slaugh’s skills further. “I learned about being very detail oriented, mastering how to set up a station, properly organizing for a successful service or event. It was very different than any other restaurant- of course it’s strict and shit has to be the best and perfect all the time. It can never be just ok it needs to be amazing at all times. You are taught to always ask yourself, is this amazing, is this the best I’ve ever made it? But at EMP everyone also respects each other - there’s no bashing. You go in and you’re expected to do your job very well, everyone wants the same thing and we do it as one. You feel very welcomed, it’s a home and a family.”
After three years at Eleven Madison, Slaugh was in need of change and ready to try something new. He gave a three month notice without a plan for the future - his first time. He ultimately met Stephen Sakulsky and Jonny Moezzi, (owners of Osteria La Buca), through a mutual friend. What followed were weeks of conversations, exchanging of thoughts and ideas and examining possibilities for La Buca. Not much was set in stone before Slaugh began the move cross country to Los Angles for a restaurant he had never stepped foot in.
Osteria La Buca opened its doors eight years ago and its approach has always been to genuinely care for every guest, especially its regulars. The challenge remained in finding a chef who understood the values of the restaurant and could maintain basic dishes which honor the guests but still take on a creative path. “When I first got here it was a very mom and pop feeling, very very rustic,” says Slaugh.
Slaugh has been working over the menu since the day he stepped foot in the restaurant, starting with the dishes he felt needed to change immediately. The bolognese is a prime example. A handmade pappardelle pasta with a rich yet light ragu in a slightly sweet tomato sauce… it is a distinctly different dish from its forebear.
Slaugh took this approach to each item on the menu, sectioning parts off, refining and tweaking. The process was not overnight and consisted of weeks of fine tuning and correcting recipes and sauces.
Not everything about the Buca menu has been overhauled. Specific dishes such as Chicken Parmesan remain as an ode to guest favorites and the classic simplicity that lies at the heart of the restaurant and its values.
“Slowly I took the food in a path Stephen and I wanted to take - more fresh driven. I like to take certain ingredients and highlight them in multiple ways, showing their beauty. Our salad is a perfect example. In the salad you will find eleven different lettuces on one plate, all picked from our farm.”
Slaugh’s is a smart approach, using technical plating and fresh ingredients to elevate his food and the meal experience. His dishes are thoughtful and he strives to put out honest, consistently great food.
The farm he speaks of is the immaculate Buca Farm, stashed away in a corner of Brentwood on a sprawling private estate, an enchanted place for any one who ventures to visit.
Walking through the gate I'm met with the fragrance of lavender, of herbs, of fruit, of soil. The farm is quiet and comfortable yet somehow electric with the growth of nature. It is exciting to see the beginnings of Slaugh’s culinary innovations!
Slaugh explains that each vegetable and every herb were planted intentionally and purposefully. There are ingredients you don’t get to see everywhere, and they are masterfully highlighted in his new summer menu.
“I want to make these ingredients shine. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I’m just trying to cook food that I believe in and build an experience out of it. We just are doing the right thing and showing the food off on the plate.”
There is a hard-to-see but very important component that ties everything together for Slaugh…something that allows him to continue to create and grow: a steadfast and passionate team stands behind and beside him. This is the “X factor” of La Buca which sets it apart from most and it must be experienced in order to be understood.
Slaugh explains it best: “I like to call it culture. It’s something I noticed right away when I came from EMP to La Buca. I saw a lot of similar things. A sense of culture and family are the same. I think that’s why I wanted to work at EMP in the first place. The energy, the staff, the way people talk to each other - it’s something you want to be a part of. Here, we don’t say FOH (front of house) and BOH (back of house), we say dining room and kitchen because we don’t separate ourselves into two different teams. This restaurant is one team, one piece can’t function without the other. You have to think of it that way. We acknowledge that in everything we do every day. Everyone is close, I always hang out with severs and bussers, we’re always talking. Everyone’s role is important. It is all there and necessary. I think a lot of restaurants don’t get to share that. I’m happy that we are able to continually do that, it’s a beautiful thing.”
It is all there and necessary…and it all works. You can see it in the staff and in every dish. When Slaugh sets before me his elegant, seemingly ordinary salad, you know he’s plucked the greens hours ago, and then when it’s a plate of conchiglie, he’s rolled it himself… and with every bite of the simple yet complex assortment of flavors you feel alive. And in that moment his job is done; their job is done.
Words and story by Marissa McCarthy,
Editing by Jessica Rounds.
Photography by Mary Costa and Stephen Sakulsky