Camphor — the luxurious Arts District restaurant from chef duo Max Boonthanakit and Lijo George — recently received a Michelin star and has earned countless glowing reviews from local critics. That’s not too shabby for any restaurant, but it’s all the more impressive considering that the fine dining spot has only been open for a year.
Boonthanakit and George, former coworkers at the Alain Ducasse restaurant Blue in Bangkok, opened in the location that most recently housed the short-lived Nightshade from chef Mei Lin. To call the food that the pair cooks “French” might be overly simplistic, seeing as the flavors draw from around the globe: The mayo in the steak tartare is seasoned with dashi, for instance, while shell-on fried shrimp are seasoned with Indian-inspired “gunpowder spice” heavy on the pepper. In fact, George often imports fresh spices from his hometown of Kerala, India, which influences the cooking.
Add excellent cocktails, a minimalist space decked out with marble tabletops and gold accents, and a duck-and-beef bar burger that’s been named one of the best in the city, and the accolades make a lot of sense. Resy recently sat down with the two chefs to recap their first year and the lessons they’ve learned — and to find out what they think about the state of fine dining in Los Angeles.
The simplest way to describe the food you serve at Camphor is “French,” but that doesn’t feel quite right. How would you describe it?
Max Boonthanakit: It’s French with just small little influences from our backgrounds; I would say it’s French as if we were cooking in France, which wouldn’t mean cooking purely French food. In France we get inspired by other parts of the world, as well.
How has the reception been to the restaurant within the Arts District community?
Boonthanakit: We weren’t really too sure what to expect. Los Angeles loves French cuisine, but we didn’t know if adding Asian influences would sit well with people. But it’s what we wanted to cook, adding spice and lightness to the cuisine, and so far, people seem to be enjoying it.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in this first year?
Lijo George: We’ve had a lot of challenges on the operations side. It’s been very hard to get talented cooks and chefs in the back of house. After Covid, everyone wanted to step away from hospitality, so it’s been hard to find the right people, which has made it challenging to operate at a certain level.
Boonthanakit: There have been a lot of external factors like the egg [price hike] scenario that you just couldn’t predict. Limes skyrocketed as well. Dealing with all this new craziness of ingredient prices, and the fact that it’s been hard to find full-time cooks, we’ve been trying to figure out the balance of running the restaurant.
What have been the biggest wins in the first year of Camphor?
Boonthanakit: Really dialing in on the cuisine. It feels more focused. It started as this idea or vision, and it’s been kind of crazy to see it all come together. It’s been amazing.
George: From my point of view, when you put so much effort in the front of house and the back of house and someone recognizes the place like Michelin, it makes us better and definitely pushes the restaurant.
What lessons have you learned in this first year?
Boonthanakit: I feel like we’re learning something new every day. The industry needs to figure out how to run a restaurant differently, because the old way is not sustainable. Lijo and I are trying to figure out how to do that. You can’t have everyone burning out; the last year was pretty eye-opening, especially after the pandemic.
What are your overall thoughts on the state of fine dining in Los Angeles?
Boonthanakit: Fine dining will always have its time and place; I think it might be less popular for a while because people can get burnt out by it. But there’s always a desire to go somewhere and be pampered. We try to hit somewhere in the middle, where you can be pampered or come and get a juicy burger and fries.
Any big plans for 2023?
Boonthanakit: We’re just thinking about our customers, so that they come back and so we retain our star. We just want to make good food and have a good time.