There are layers of meaning behind the name of Pierre Khodja's new Northcote restaurant, Camus. Like Khodja, the writer and philosopher Albert Camus, was born in Algeria, albeit many years apart. Both endured impoverished childhoods. Indeed, Khodja credits his mother's ability to work magic with cheap cuts of meat for sparking his interest in cooking.
The writer's preoccupation with the concept of personal freedom resonates with Khodja after a career spent toiling in the kitchens of others, from the Michelin-starred restaurants in which he trained in Paris and London to the likes of Canvas in Melbourne and the Flinders Hotel on the Mornington Peninsula.
"Working for others, it's like you're cooking with one hand tied behind your back," he says. "Finally, with Camus I get to cook with both hands."
The latest addition to the booming Northcote restaurant scene - Camus is only a few doors down the road from Merricote, while Scott Pickett's Estelle Bistro and ESP are just up the hill - is a smart and stripped-back affair that gently references its Algerian roots. Smoky-glassed pendants light the space, and a row of spices lines up along the open kitchen counter. Berber tattoo designs grace the bar tiles, along with references to Camus' famous line "to create is to live twice".
Khodja arrived in Australia 15 years ago following a chance meeting with a Melbourne waiter while on holiday in Tunisia, and has since carved out a reputation as a chef who deftly combines French technique with the dishes and flavours of his homeland, and the broader Mediterranean coastline. He describes the food at Camus as "more finessed than rustic Algerian cooking - without breaking the bank".
"I want this to be a place where people can wander in and have a glass of wine and some snacks, or sit down for a full family-style sharing meal," he says.
From bar snacks such as goat's cheese and spinach borek with spring onion and preserved lemon, and sardines two ways with chakchouka (North Africa's caponata-like vegetable braise) to shareable duck bisteeya and slow-cooked goat with caramelised onion and apricots, Khodja says his mantra is "to feed people like they are in my home".
"This is food I love - and stuff I like to cook for my family," he says.
The wine list is as peripatetic as the chef himself; there are Lebanese and Moroccan wines (he hopes to start importing some from Algeria as well), plus cocktails with an Algerian twist. Camus opens for dinner service on 18 January.
Camus, 61 High St, Northcote, Vic, (03) 9486 3063, camusrestaurant.com.au; open Wed-Sun 6.30pm-late, Fri-Sun noon-3pm (bar open noon to late)