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LA’s Camphor Was Born From Happy Accidents

Chefs Max Boonthanakit and Lijo George first worked together at Alain Ducasse’s Blue in Bangkok. Boonthanakit later was chef de cuisine at LA’s Nightshade, where he was named an Eater Young Gun in 2019. After Nightshade closed, Boonthanakit and George transformed the space into what is now Camphor. The duo recently collaborated with Horses’ Liz Johnson and Will Aghajanian for Outstanding in the Field at Coachella.

MAX BOONTHANAKIT: I’ve just kind of taken all of everything I’ve learned from everywhere I’ve traveled and used it at this restaurant. The basis of it is French, but it’s also very global. Lijo and I worked together at Blue by Alain Ducasse in Bangkok. The experience was amazing—the whole company and the chef there, Wilfred Hocquet, they’re awesome.

Photo: Eugene Lee.

Us working together again was a happy accident. The pandemic happened, and we were both separated from our families for a long time. Him with his wife, me with my wife. Lijo asked me, “Is there any way to go to Australia or the U.S.?” And then all of a sudden, Cyrus Batchan called me a week later and asked if I knew anyone that could take over the old Nightshade space. And so we went from there. I asked Lijo, “Hey, do you want to go to LA?” We just worked on it right then and there. It was crazy. I wasn’t expecting myself to cook after Nightshade closed. I was going to go home and just work on Boon Sauce.

LIJO GEORGE: Honesty, working with Cyrus and Max was a big support for this restaurant and myself. If I wanted to open a restaurant myself, I think it would be very hard because I’m new in town, and I didn’t know exactly what people were looking for. But Max knows what people are looking for, and we decided to take a big step forward. It’s not easy, but it’s a more relaxed way to open a restaurant.

Photo: Eugene Lee.

BOONTHANAKIT: Lijo came to LA November 2nd. We worked pretty much from November and into December. Then we opened up in the beginning of January. So it did happen really fast. We had Cyrus supporting us the whole way. He’s really good at what he does. For the menu, we sat in my apartment for a couple of hours and just figured the whole thing out. The whole month afterward, we worked on the menu and worked out all the little kinks. Then we opened. It wasn’t easy, but it happened pretty fast. We don’t really do big changes to the menu, but we do little tweaks just to get better and better. Nothing’s ever finalized here.

Typically, Lijo and I come up with a dish by blurting out something that we want to eat, or an ingredient we want to use. And then it’s a 15-minute conversation of, “We should do it like this.” And then he’ll say, “Yeah, we should use this sauce.” And then it’s back and forth. Okay, what about texture, how about we change this? In 15 minutes we have a dish, and then we make it. It’s pretty cool. We just work very well with each other.

Lijo asked for us to be co-executive chefs. I think it’s actually a lot easier to have this dynamic—I don’t know why a lot of other chefs don’t do this. It really lightens the load. A lot of chefs now are very creative, but you’re also running a business. You have to be very business-savvy. I think for some restaurants, it’s just too much for one chef to handle.

Cooks today are way more willing to ask for what they want, which is amazing. Before, you would just do your job. If you didn’t like it, you would still do it. In the restaurant industry, the old-school way was a little too toxic. We’re very open with our folks, our employees, our servers, and everyone. I think the pandemic gave everyone this freedom. They realized that life’s a little too short just to do something you don’t like.

Photo: Eugene Lee.

A lot of the inspiration for the menu is from my time eating in Paris. I really love the bistros there. Chez Denise is one of my favorites. It’s just a really simple, small, bistro. And working with Wilfred in the past few years, he gave me a lot of inspiration, too.

With the pandemic, there’s definitely staffing shortages. A lot of the more experienced cooks have their own businesses—especially pastry chefs. Also, the supply chain issues are real. Everyone is having problems. Our food is way more expensive. Eggs are double the price. A couple of weeks ago, a case of limes was like $170.

We knew it was going to be really hard and difficult from the beginning, especially with this type of cuisine, which is a lot more involved than others. The most surprising part is the staff shortage—just the amount of people who don’t want to cook anymore. I heard about it when I was in Thailand, and I was very separated from that. When I came back, I was like, “It’ll be fine.” Now I’m realizing everything everyone said about staffing right now, it’s all true.

GEORGE: For the management in the kitchen, obviously the first thing is to train the new staff in the kitchen. That’s a big challenge for me and Max now. A couple of cooks in the kitchen are really very green. Some of them have not even worked in the hospitality industry, but they wanted to learn how to cook, so we will have to train them. Of course, once we teach them from the ground up, they know exactly what to do. Staffing is challenging not only in LA, but everywhere in the world. After the pandemic, a lot of people have online jobs and different kinds of jobs paying extra money. So when managing a small restaurant kitchen, we have to keep an eye on everything. But we’re trying to do our best every single day and make it better.

BOONTHANAKIT: It’s crazy right now. We do have to raise prices because of that, but they can’t get too high because everyone complains. We’re just trying to find that middle ground.

We actually do a lot more verbal specials now just because ingredients are so inconsistent. One day, the supplier won’t have any honey, things like that.

Originally for the mussel dish, we pre-shuck all the mussels, but we were also going to stuff all the mussels, too. You have 20 mussels on your plate, all stuffed with different fillings. With the chicken mousse, we wanted to do a spiral of mousse, but the amount of time it takes and the consistency would be too difficult right now.

GEORGE: We always talk over how we can make that dish better. We work together, and if we have any comments, we share. We take everything positively and we make it better. I mean, there are no arguments. The most important thing is that when our guest is happy, we are happy.

Photo: Eugene Lee.

BOONTHANAKIT: We’re friends with the folks over at Horses. Before we opened Camphor, I would go there once or twice a week. Will Aghajanian and I actually met at Blue in Thailand and just hit it off. Since then, we’ve always talked about doing a collaboration. And then the partnership with them and Outstanding in the Field just kind of worked out, and the names of both of our restaurants flowed right into each other: Camphorses.

There were 250 people, and we had four courses plus a starting butter or bread course. It was really fun—super dusty, really hot. Outstanding in the Field did a really good job. They were super organized.

We saw little bits here and there of the musical acts. We used it just as a quick break from the kitchen. We had to keep all of our folks at the restaurant just to hold down the fort. So I brought my wife’s parents, my high school friend—none of them cook, and they were all, like, turning vegetables.

GEORGE: That part was amazing. I mean, every one of us cooking together.

BOONTHANAKIT: Cyrus was peeling carrots like crazy. It was really awesome to see.

Photo: Eugene Lee.

In the future, there’s going to be some menu updates and reformatting. We’re working on a bar menu, too. Originally we were supposed to be a lot more casual, but we just kept adding things and making it bougier. So we’re kind of bringing it back down at the bar now. At the bar, you can do croque monsieur or a trout almondine—more classic French dishes, but still done in our way. With the whole India and France concept, I’m realizing it would make more sense to see it as if India and France were actually neighboring countries, and we were sitting right on the separation wall.

I like eating other countries’ foods in different countries. I love eating American food in Asia. Even if you’re eating Chinese food in France, it’s seasoned a little differently. I felt like it’d be really fun to take that concept and do it here. Just do French food as it would be done in India, but actually here in America.

It gives every dish a purpose when you make it. At some restaurants, chefs can just create whatever they want. But after the pandemic, a lot of people miss traveling and going to places for certain things. I thought we could do something so outside of LA that it would feel like you’re traveling. Having that one goal for the whole kitchen—and it’s for the front of the house, too—helps keep everyone going in the same direction and guide them. It’s also easier for us when we trade dishes.