LA camphor was born from happy accidents

Chefs Max Boonthanakit and Lijo George first worked together at Alain Ducasse’s Blue in Bangkok. Boonthanakit later served as head chef at Nightshade in LA, where he was named 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 kind of took everything I learned from everywhere I traveled and used it in this restaurant. The base is French, but it is 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, are awesome.

Photo: Eugene Lee.

The fact that we were 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 a way to go to Australia or the United States?” And then all of a sudden, Cyrus Batchan called me a week later and asked if I knew anyone who could take over the old Nightshade space. And so we went from there. I asked Lijo, “Hey, you wanna go to LA?” We just worked on it right away. It was crazy. Didn’t expect to cook after Nightshade closed. I was going to go home and work on Boon Sauce.

LIJO GEORGES: Honesty, working with Cyrus and Max has been a great support for this restaurant and myself. If I wanted to open a restaurant myself, I think it would be very difficult because I’m new in town and 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 Los Angeles on November 2. We worked roughly from November to December. Then we opened in early January. So it happened very quickly. We had Cyrus supporting us all the way. He’s really good at what he does. For the menu, we sat in my apartment for a few hours and got it all. For the next month, we worked on the menu and sorted out all the little problems. Then we opened. It wasn’t easy, but it went pretty quickly. We don’t really make big changes to the menu, but we make small adjustments just to get better and better. Nothing is ever finalized here.

Typically, Lijo and I create a dish by dropping something 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 be like, “Yeah, we should use that sauce.” And then it’s a round trip. Alright, what about the texture, how about we change that? In 15 minutes we have a dish, and then we do it. It’s really cool. We just work very well with each other.

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

Today’s cooks are much more willing to ask for what they want, which is amazing. Before, you were just doing your job. If you didn’t like it, you would still. In the restaurant industry, the old-fashioned way was a little too toxic. We are very open with our people, our employees, our servers and everyone. I think the pandemic has given everyone that freedom. They realized that life is a bit too short to do something you don’t like.

Photo: Eugene Lee.

Much of the inspiration for the menu comes from my time dining in Paris. I really like the bistros there. Chez Denise is one of my favorites. It’s just a very simple little bistro. And working with Wilfred for the past few years, he’s also inspired me a lot.

With the pandemic, there are definitely staff shortages. Many more experienced cooks have their own businesses, especially pastry chefs. Plus, the supply chain issues are real. Everyone has problems. Our food is much more expensive. Eggs are double the price. A few weeks ago, a case of limes cost around $170.

We knew it was going to be really hard and difficult from the start, especially with this type of cuisine, which is much more involved than others. The most surprising part is the shortage of staff, just the number of people who no longer want to cook. I heard about it when I was in Thailand, and I was far from it. When I came back, I said to myself: “It will be fine. Now I realize everything everyone has been saying about staffing right now is absolutely true.

GEORGE: For kitchen management, obviously the first thing to do is to train new kitchen staff. It’s a big challenge for me and Max now. A couple of cooks in the kitchen are really very green. Some of them didn’t even work in the hotel industry, but they wanted to learn how to cook, so we will have to train them. Of course, once we teach them from scratch, they know exactly what to do. Staffing is a challenge not just in Los Angeles, but all over the world. After the pandemic, many people have online jobs and different types of paid jobs. So when you’re running a small restaurant kitchen, you have to keep an eye on everything. But we try to do our best every day and make it better.

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

We actually do a lot more verbal promotions now just because the ingredients are so inconsistent. One day the supplier will run out of honey, things like that.

Originally for the dish of mussels, we pre-shelled all the mussels, but we also stuffed all the mussels too. You have 20 mussels on your plate, all stuffed with different fillings. With the chicken mousse, we wanted to make a spiral of mousse, but time and consistency would be too difficult at this time.

GEORGE: We are still discussing how we can improve this dish. We work together, and if we have comments, we share. We take everything positively and 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 Horses people. Before opening Camphor, I went there once or twice a week. Will Aghajanian and I met at Blue in Thailand and hit it off. Since then, we have always talked about collaborating. And then the partnership with them and Outstanding in the Field kind of worked, and the names of our two restaurants came together: Camphorses.

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

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

GEORGE: This part was amazing. I mean, each of us cooking together.

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

Photo: Eugene Lee.

In the future there will be updates and reformatting of the menu. We are also working on a bar menu. Originally we were supposed to be a lot more laid back, but we just kept adding things and shaking things up. So we’re bringing it back to the bar now. At the bar, you can make a croque monsieur or a trout with almonds, more classic French dishes, but always in our own way. With the whole concept of India and France, I realize that it would make more sense to see things as if India and France were actually neighboring countries, and we were just sitting on the separation wall.

I like to eat food from other countries in different countries. I love eating Asian American food. Even if you eat Chinese food in France, it is seasoned a bit differently. I felt like it would be really fun to take this concept and do it here. Just do French food like it would be in India, but actually here in America.

This gives each dish a purpose when you prepare it. In some restaurants, chefs can just create whatever they want. But after the pandemic, many people miss traveling and going places for certain things. I thought we could do something so outside of LA that it would feel like traveling. Having this one goal for the whole kitchen – and it’s for the front of the house too – helps keep everyone in the same direction and guiding them. It’s also easier for us when we swap dishes.

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