When you think of camping, what image comes to mind? Childhood fishing? Building a campfire? Roasting s’mores? This classically nostalgic activity is about gathering those closest to you for a weekend of connecting, eating and drinking. After all, don’t we all know that a camping trip done right revolves around food… and the campfire? That’s the exact feeling, memory and emotion Carlsbad’s most unique restaurant, Campfire, is bringing to all who gather there.
John Resnick, a veteran in the San Diego culinary scene, bundled up all of the aforementioned warm-and-fuzzies as well as the smoky, soulful tastes of the campfire to bring this sensory experience to Northern San Diego. Resnick’s deeply rooted history and love for the ocean, outdoors and yes, food, has brought his passion from Point Loma to Little Italy and finally, to its permanent home in Carlsbad. Read along while Resnick shares his inspirations, passions and the road that led him to opening up his long awaited dream, Campfire.
MEET CAMPFIRE OWNER, JOHN RESNICK
Hey John! Tell us about yourself in 3 sentences.
I’m an incredibly lucky fella whose life, at home and at work, is filled with passion and purpose. I’m married to the best girl I know, have two rambunctious damn beautiful kids, own a restaurant that I dreamt about for years and work with people that I admire and make me laugh. Isn’t that cool?
New York City
Favorite dish growing up?
Stouffer’s Mac & Cheese (I know, not that inspiring)
First ever alcoholic beverage?
Describe your ultimate party.
I think I would have given a much better answer about 10 years ago, but now I’d say my ultimate party would involve good friends hanging out in the backyard, grilling some food, sitting around a big fire, drinking beers and making cocktails. Then going to bed at 11pm. ULTIMATE!
Any favorite holiday food traditions growing up?
Thanksgiving is THE food holiday, and that’s very true in my family. Lots of relatives, including halves, steps and distants, made our Turkey Days pretty large. We would gather at my grandparents’ house in upstate NY and just feast. The conversations around the Thanksgiving table always made me realize how much I loved and respected my family, and to be grateful for them.
How have these traditions inspired the way you cook now in your own home?
Well, I’m still grateful when other people cook for me. Seriously though, most of the time if I’m cooking, it’s because we have friends over and I’m cooking for a big group. I love sharing food with a group of friends, and we try to do that as often as possible.
Most memorable gathering moments?
When I was in grad school, my classmates and I would often meet up by the lake and grill lobsters, fish and steak (or when our wallets got slim, hot dogs and buns). We would drink beers and talk about the stuff we loved, the many things we had in common and learn about the things we did not. Those were some of the moments in my life I would most love to travel back in time to.
Did these gatherings have any influence on your culinary path and your role in owning a restaurant?
Definitely, they helped to reinforce my already existing desire to own my own restaurant one day. The feeling of sharing food and drink with people you care about is truly one of life's great simple pleasures, and I knew that I wanted to try to have those kinds of experiences define my professional life. But for me, the idea of owning my own restaurant first took hold when I was 16 years old. That was the year my dad asked what I wanted to do with my life, and I gave him a typical answer from a 16-year-old: “I want to have fun.” But that was also the year I read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. I think those two things started me down this path.
Tell us a little bit about your culinary background. What led you to owning one of North County’s most unique and successful restaurants?
I started working in restaurants when I was in high school (shout out to Johnny Rockets!), and kept at it until I graduated from college. It wasn’t until a couple years after graduation that I realized the hospitality business was what I was most passionate about. So I went to grad school for Hotel and Restaurant Administration and after graduating, moved to San Diego to help open the Hard Rock Hotel. Got laid off in 2008 when the economy tanked but then Greg Strangman (now a good friend, and partner at Campfire) gave me a shot managing the restaurant at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma. After that, I joined my friends at CH Projects to open Craft & Commerce and a few years later, Ironside Fish & Oyster. But in the year before Ironside opened, my wife and I bought a house in Encinitas, up in North County. Our daughter was born two months after Ironside opened and it was then that I really decided that I wanted to be closer to my family and add something to the North County community, something I felt folks up here needed. That was Campfire.
Before Campfire, you were at Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar, tell us about your transition from seafood to wood-fired American fare?
Well, back in college I worked for 4 years at a wood-fired seafood restaurant, so the transition was kind of a no-brainer. But really Ironside and Campfire have a lot in common: they are both places that were created for their communities to gather in, places for people to share in conversation, good food and drink. Sure, Ironside cooks more fish and we use more wood, but at the end of the day we are really trying to do the same thing.
Proudest moment so far?
Professionally, that would be a tie between two moments: when the staff gathered outside of the restaurant and we finally cut down our “Coming Soon” sign as we first opened our doors — and a couple weeks back, when we took the whole staff camping to celebrate our one-year anniversary. We talk a lot about community but the people who work here at Campfire are our most important community, and to see the 70-some-odd folks that work here having so much fun with each other, to see how close they all are, the relationships they’ve created with each other and how much Campfire means to them, really made me feel so, so good.
Any advice for others looking to launch their own restaurant?
Make sure the concept is something you are passionate about AND something you really feel the community wants and currently lacks. You’ll need both of those to truly be successful.
THE STORY BEHIND CAMPFIRE
Where did the overall idea come from and how did your team bring it to fruition? Why the fire concept?
I knew I wanted to open a restaurant that had great food, cocktails and hospitality, in an environment that encouraged people to talk to each other, to share conversations and ideas. One day a few years back, I was reading a magazine article about campfire cooking and I realized how perfectly aligned camping was to the kind of restaurants I love. When you camp and sit around a fire, you are usually sharing food, drink and conversation with people you care about and it’s almost always memorable. That was the kind of restaurant I wanted, a place where the community could gather in the spirit of communion, where they share good food, drink and stories. If we were gonna try to celebrate the spirit of the Campfire, it made sense that we would focus on live-fire cooking. Our kitchen hearth would be fire that we would all gather around.
How does Campfire bring the “cooking over the fire” concept into the way you prepare your dishes?
We have a 96” Grillworks Infierno grill and a J&R Little Red Smokehouse. Sure, they cost as much as a Porsche but damn if they ain’t awesome. The vast majority of our menu comes from the grill or smoker and we use the wood fire (grilling, smoking, burying things in embers, cooking on the plancha, etc.) to highlight the flavors of the incredible products we get, whether produce, meat, or fish. Chef Andrew (Bachelier) is very careful and deliberate to not let the wood or smoke overpower any of the dishes and instead uses the live-fire to compliment them.
What inspired the Campfire design?
We wanted the space to feel just nostalgic enough, just enough on-theme without feeling inauthentic. We believe that restaurant design plays an integral part in the guest experience, serves as a point of conversation and can make the time people spend here that much more memorable. For us, a big part of that is the lack of screens, as there are no TV’s in the joint. But really, our friends Jason and Barbara at Bells & Whistles (our designers) deserve all the credit for the look of the restaurant. We’ve known them for about 9 years and I knew that when I told them about the concept and what we wanted the place to feel like, they would just get it. And man, they did and then some.
The decor I am sure sparks nostalgia for many that may have used the same camping gear while on their own camping adventures... any cool stories you’ve heard from guests?
I’ve heard old camping stories from a lot of guests but the thing that really strikes me is that so many stories focus on adventures from childhood, whether family trips, or summers at camp, whatever. The other thing that is so cool is that somehow the place reminds people of their own adventures no matter where they were, whether their trips were spent in the desert, or in the woods of New England. Seems really cool that so many people are in some way touched by the spirit of the place.
We love the shareable dishes concept. Was this inspired by the campfire scene?
Absolutely. Sitting around a campfire, you share food and drink with friends. That’s the spirit we wanted to celebrate here. So for us, it’s not a tapas restaurant nor a family-style joint, it’s simply about the enjoyment that you find when food is in the middle of the table and you share delicious stuff with people you care about.
What has been your most memorable day since the restaurant opened?
Definitely not day one. I literally don’t remember it, all a blur. I would probably say the most memorable would be the day, about two weeks in, when our hoods decided to go down at 5pm on a Saturday night, the restaurant filled with smoke and we couldn’t use the grill or smoker for about 3 hours. That was a pretty interesting night but our insanely badass team fought through it and we found a way to make our guests happy. Well, most of them anyway.
What should Campfire rookies expect?
Their minds blown. Other than that, I would hope that they could expect to enjoy some food and drink that they’ve never had before, to feel the place is slightly foreign yet somehow also hitting on deep-seated memories they forgot were there.