In the restaurant world, the quest to stand out from other eateries is never ending and one way to rise above the rest is to create a fun environment. Places that offer a fun experience are places that most people will return to.
Caramba has perfected fun. The open kitchen concept allows food fans to watch, as their food is prepared. Chef Micah Lloyd says kids who visit Caramba are encouraged to try their hand at making their own pizza, getting to toss pizza dough in the air and get a real feel for the pizza process.
"Sometimes we'll have 20 kids lined up there firing pizza dough around, flour everywhere," says the chef on a Wednesday afternoon before Caramba opens to offer dinner service. "It's fun."
He adds that customers often take a front row at the open kitchen and engage with the cooks by asking questions and conversing with the kitchen staff. The fun and casual environment allows that kind of interaction between staff and customer.
A fun environment helps to bring people back but serving food that tastes good is always the most important thing for a restaurant.
Lloyd knows his team has that down, particularly in the preparation of Caramba's Calamari A La Plancha, fresh grilled squid with olive oil, garlic and lemon. He says people from around the world have heard that it is the signature Caramba dish. What makes it such a popular dish, Lloyd says, is the quality of the squid they use and the consistency of the product.
"It's just done simple," says Lloyd.
That word simple takes us to the wood-burning oven customers see as they enter the front door. On this day the temperature gauge says the oven is 416 degrees with a few pieces of maple burning away, red-hot embers glowing and pushing the temperature up to the dinner service maximum.
Cooking with a wood oven is much different compared to using propane or electric ovens.
"It is really nice to cook with," Lloyd says. "We bake some of our breads in there during the daytime when the fire isn't on."
The oven is heated with hardwoods like maple, alder or birch. Lloyd says dry hardwoods are ideal in the Caramba oven because they don't produce sparks that can land on the food and create burn marks.
Those with acute taste buds can tell what type of wood is being used. Lloyd says he likes to think he can pick out the difference, especially the difference between maple and birch.
The wood varieties even burn differently. Maple is the least dense of the hardwoods used in the oven, so it creates the least flame off the top and burns the longest. Lloyd has learned in his more than 10 years using the oven that birch bark is good to get the fire started at the beginning of the day because it comes up fast.
"The alder burns the same all the way through," says the wood-oven fire expert.
"Maple is the best, it is the most sought-after."
Lloyd laughs and says he's always pressuring the supplier from the Fraser Valley to bring maple. Every two months the supplier brings five cords of dry firewood. The restaurant has a storage area beneath the restaurant and each day enough wood for the day is brought up and stored neatly beside the large oven.
Lloyd says the owner of Caramba, Mario Enero, has a saying. Enero's slogan for the restaurant is: "Dine with a difference, share with a friend."
Like all good restaurant operators he demands fresh food from his suppliers, which includes a chicken farmer in Salmon Arm, potato suppliers in Pemberton and a short list of items that are imported from Spain and Italy. Lloyd says the products can be found closer to home but Enero's insistence on consistency and quality move him to source ingredients like paprika, olive oils, cheeses and prosciutto from the people who produce the best products and the best happens to come from people in Europe who have long histories of producing those foods.
The English word "wow" is the translation for Caramba. The kitchen has gradually been ramping up and Lloyd is ready for the fun to start on this Wednesday as the Caramba customers start coming through the doors for Mediterranean delights.
Caramba Double Cut Pork Chop
1/2 cup Pommery Mustard
6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tbsp. freshly ground pepper
3 1/2 lb centre-cut pork rack double-cut into four chops
2 oz olive oil
2 tbsp. course sea salt
Combine first three ingredients and mix well. Evenly rub chops with marinade. Place in fridge for 24 to 72 hours.
When ready to barbecue remove excess marinade and brush with olive oil, allow chop to come to room temperature, season with coarse sea salt and grill.
The Dijon will begin to cure the pork, resulting in a very juicy and tender chop. Serve with lemon to help brighten the flavors. Sprinkle with virgin oil and enjoy with some spring asparagus.