The first time walked into Lorena's in Maplewood, I felt as if I were walking into someone's home; kindness at the door, and great aromas from the kitchen.
Lorena's is owned and operated by Chef Humberto Campos and his wife, namesake for the restaurant, Lorena.
Chef Humberto's cooking is as initimate as the space he serves it in. And though intimate, the fare is unwaveringly upscale and masterfully executed.
There's a bit of a coincidence to this story as well. Lorena's is located in the former location of Jocelyn's, another acclaimed NJ restaurant that was owned by Chef Mitchell Altholz, who also named it after his wife, Jocelyn.
But on with the story! I recently spoke with Chef Campos about his his journey to celebrity chef status.
MK: How did you develop your passion for cooking?
It’s funny; I tried pretty much everything else. I worked in retail, construction, and a bank, but nothing really spoke to me. I got bored very easily.
Did you attend the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) immediately following high school?
No, I went to college first - Lynchburg College in Virginia. I thought I wanted to be an English teacher and minored in early childhood education and psychology. Then I ended up cooking for family and friends at a shore house and I really enjoyed doing that and people noticed I enjoyed it. So I said, “I’m going to get a job in a restaurant.”
Where was your first job?
My first job was at Loucas in Edison. I got a job as a waiter. I told the owner I wanted to get into cooking to become a chef and I heard the chef’s chuckling in the background. So I got a job as a bus boy, and on my days off I was allowed in the kitchen. After the first week in the pantry, I knew that was what I wanted to do and spent more time in the kitchen, and got out of the dining room.
Then, I decided to move on to a higher end restaurant, and got a job with David Drake at the Stagecoach Inn, in 1993 or 1994. It was really intimidating, high end French Cuisine. At the time, the Stagecoach Inn and the Ryland Inn were really the two top restaurants.
I fell in love with the food, the service, the rush to get your mise en place ready. There was a constant need to make the chef happy so you’re always pushing yourself, and it encouraged me to work harder.
Then you attended the CIA?
Yes, Chef Drake said I was ready and I applied, and got in. I did my two years, and during my last two months at the CIA I was able to spend weekends at The Ryland Inn. And once I graduated they had a position for me.
Fast-forward a few years to June 2005 when you opened your restaurant, Lorena’s, in Maplewood with your wife, Lorena. Explain the dynamic between you and your wife, Lorena?
It’s definitely a challenge to spend every waking moment with your significant other. It’s hard to really keep work out of the home. We spend our days off working, and there’s always something to be done. We have to force ourselves to make time for ourselves and get away; it’s a challenge.
But I recommend it because if you want to succeed in business there’s no better partner than your husband or your wife. I couldn’t stress that more.
Lorena’s is a very intimate, nine table restaurant, how does that affect your cooking style?
I think cooking in general is intimate; it’s an intimate gesture. I really put myself into every dish. Whether my food at Lorena’s is more intimate? Well, people may feel that way, and that’s a good thing.
In a sentence, how would you describe the cuisine at Lorena’s ?
Simple, but inspiring.
Lorena’s is a BYO. In that regard, how do you try to enhance the dining experience to your customers?
Well, patrons call me to see what they should bring; we get at least ten to twelve calls a week just on that. A customer may call and say I’m contemplating between a Pinot Noir from Oregon or something else. If there is a special wine, I’ll even prepare a special menu or tasting just for that.
Is there an ingredient or method of preparation that you’re very excited about at the time?
The change of seasons. I’m excited when new produce comes around the corner, ramps and Fava beans.
But I’m not excited that the price of everything is going sky high. The profit margin is razor thin to begin with, especially that we’re a BYO in a high-end town with high rents.
As far as what’s happening in the food world, I never jumped on that boat. I never got into molecular gastronomy. People eat food to nurture themselves and to fulfill hunger. I feel that a lot of that molecular gastronomy is a hoax.
It’s not intimate?
No. My version of molecular gastronomy is a couple of gelees.
How do you feel about the celebrity chef culture?
People joke around and say , hey you’re a celebrity chef. I chuckle at it, because I certainly never got into this business to be in the limelight. Our idea of opening a restaurant was to make a living. So all those extras things are cute, for conversations.