Lupe Camarena is all too familiar with cooking and caring for others. The Mexico native, who comes from a family of 16 brothers and sisters, was only 15 years old when he joined the crew at Ha’ Penny in Westminster.
Charlene Prager, Han’s wife reminisces, I worked with Hans and Lupe at The Ritz and at The Bell and Crown, where we met Lupe. What Hans said about Lupe on a regular basis was ‘What an incredible hard worker he was — hours meant nothing to him!’ and ‘that Lupe was a sponge: anything Hans taught him, he retained.’ Hans taught him everything!”
He began in the back of the house as a dishwasher and, shortly after starting, was moved to the pantry. In 1976, the legendary restaurateur Hans Prager bought the Ha’ Penny Inn, transformed it into the Bell & Crown and became Lupe’s guiding force taking over as mentor, following Lupe’s father’s lead, a chef at a Mexican restaurant whom he says, “pushed me toward the business.”
Camarena evolved through the pantry and the front line, giving him the opportunity to observe and learn from Hans every step of the way. When Hans conceptualized his next project, the little Ritz Restaurant (where 21 Oceanfront – Newport Beach now stands) there was never a question, Lupe would definitely make the move — Camarena was honored to be a part of it.Chef Lupe has been with the Ritz since its beginnings in Newport Beach – that’s about thirty years of service! Five years after its debut, the Ritz decided on the new, bigger location in the Fashion Island Center that offered Hans the opportunity to design the space to his specifications. Camarena spent two years on the line and was then promoted to Executive Chef.
Becky Rogers, who is now General Manager, has been a part of the Ritz staff for as long as Lupe and was so pleased when she heard of his step up to chef. “Hans saw a lot of potential in Lupe – he had a way of seeing something special in people that they could not see in themselves,” Rogers said.
Lupe has come a long way since his dish washing days. He had the privilege of working side by side with Hans at multiple locations and his ways rubbed off on Chef. Hans is described as being meticulous in the kitchen. From the dipping sauces, kitchen management and food preparation, every detail of the kitchen was thought out and precise.Lupe took full advantage; he listened, watched and absorbed the ins and outs, the techniques and the how-to’s of the business, all guided and perfected by his mentor Hans.
Approximately six years ago the restaurant was sold to Fred Glusman who respectfully recognized Hans vision for the Ritz and has worked hard with the staff to keep the standards and values it was built upon. Hans Prager passed away five years ago and has been dearly missed. His wife Charlene reminisces, “I worked with Hans and Lupe at The Ritz and at The Bell and Crown, where we met Lupe. What Hans said about Lupe on a regular basis was ‘What an incredible hard worker he was — hours meant nothing to him!’ and ‘that Lupe was a sponge: anything Hans taught him, he retained.’ Hans taught him everything!”
Camarena, now the leading force in the kitchen, heads up a staff of 29, taking care of all matters including training, scheduling, ordering, pricing and dealing with purveyors. “There are a lot of challenges in the kitchen,” Camarena says. “private parties, special dinners and working the line.” All of which Lupe seems to balance with ease. He says he likes the rush of things: “It’s almost like adrenaline. I like that it’s different day by day.”
To change things up a bit, Lupe and the Ritz have added several items to the menu within the last few years. There’s more choices of chops, steaks, prime cuts, and they now serve stone crabs (October-May). Also, at Freddie’s insistence the Ritz added, now popular, menu items with Italian flair in honor of their sister restaurant Piero’s, in Las Vegas.
When Chef Lupe Camarena isn’t working to perfect his signature Bouillabaise, he spends time with his wife and four kids Raquel, Abraham, Daniel and Isiah Hans.
Chef Lupe Trivia
IMPORTANT COOKING MEMORY:
1976- at the Bell & Crown in Westminster. I started in the pantry and then moved to the frontline.
WHAT FIRST INTERESTED YOU IN THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY:
My first job at he age of 15. I was a dishwasher at the Ha’Penny which later became the Bell & Crown.
IF NOT A CHEF, WHAT WOULD YOU BE?
I never thought of being anything else. Being an executive chef is my life, in my blood.
FAVORITE KITCHEN GADGET OR TOOL:
FAVORITE KITCHEN APPLIANCE:
Kosher salt & pepper, saffron
BIGGEST MYTH ABOUT WORKING IN THE KITCHEN:
That it’s glamorous and easy but in reality it is a very complex area. Everyone needs to perform to their highest potential and leadership by an executive chef who leads by example in every area is necessary for success.
The Ritz Restaurant & Garden
880 Newport Center Dr
Newport Beach, CA 92660
Lunch-Mon-Fri 11:30-3 p.m.
Dinner-Mon-Thurs 5:30-10 p.m.
Dinner-Fri 5:30-11 p.m.
Dinner-Sat 5-11 p.m.
Dinner-Sun 5-9 p.m.
Average cover for one guest including beverage:
Wild Mushroom Cappuccino
8 oz Portbello mushrooms
8 oz Cremini mushrooms
8 oz Shitake mushrooms
8 oz Oyster mushrooms
8 oz Chanterelle mushrooms
1 oz Morels – dried/ground to powder
1 C Port wine2 C Red wine
5 oz Shallots – finely chopped
2 t Thyme – fresh
1 t Rosemary – fresh
1 t Black Pepper
4 oz Sweet Butter
3 Qt Stock – chicken or vegetable
1 C Heavy Cream
2 oz Olive oil
Sea SaltSteamed Milk
Clean mushrooms by removing stems, rinsing caps in cold water and toweling dry. Dice mushroom caps and stems 1/2 inch in size and separate in two equal portions.
In a 6 quart sauce pot, melt 2 oz of butter, add 4 oz of shallots and brown over medium. Add half of the diced mushrooms. Pour the port and red wine immediately, add the thyme,rosemary and black pepper. Let reduce over medium heat until dry.
Add stock and reduce by 1 quart. Puree the stock finely and strain though a medium size mesh, making sure that the mushrooms paste is pushed through the sieve. Return stock to the sauce pot, simmer for 15 minutes and skim the surface of broth. Season to taste with salt.In a large sauté pan, combine 2 oz of butter with 1 oz finely diced shallots and 2 oz olive oil. Sauté second half of the mushrooms for 2 minutes on high heat. Season to taste by adding the mushroom broth.
Serve in a coffee or cappuccino cup (8-9 oz. capacity). Fill each cup 1/2 inch from the rim and top with steamed milk. Sprinkle the morel powder and a touch of paprika and serve with a Parmesan twist.