An arsonist set fire to Rocio's Mole de los Dioses in Sun Valley on Sunday, officials said, gutting the kitchen and smothering the acclaimed Mexican restaurant with smoke.
Chef Rocio Camacho, nicknamed the "goddess of mole," said the restaurant's recovery could take up to a year, if she is able to reopen at all.
Fire investigators have not named any suspects, said Rosa Tufts, an arson investigator for the Los Angeles Fire Department. Camacho's business partner, Alonso Arellano, said he doesn't know who could be responsible.
"Who has the motive to do something like that? Competitors, disgruntled employees? I have no idea," he said. "We never expected anything like that."
Intruders had stolen from the cash registers several times over the last few months, Arellano said, breaking windows to get inside. He found windows broken again on Sunday. No cash was taken, however, since Camacho had begun leaving the registers open and empty.
Camacho and Arellano are now salvaging what they can from the kitchen, which measures roughly 2,500 square feet. The charred equipment, not covered by insurance, may represent hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.
"Everything, everything burned," said Camacho.
The chef, a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, who calls herself a "fighter woman," is brainstorming ways to keep the business going, especially to supply jobs for her 20 employees. Opening a food truck on the restaurant's parking lot could be an option.
Arellano said he plans to launch a "Go Fund Me" page to collect donations for repairs. To reopen, the restaurant will need to pass health and safety inspections as if opening from scratch.
Meanwhile, Camacho will keep dishing out her moles at Rocio's Mexican Kitchen in Bell Gardens, which she opened last spring. Equipped with a few tables outside a take-out window, the restaurant is much smaller than the spacious and colorful Sun Valley location, which opened in 2012 next to a cactus tortilla factory.
Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who has been following Camacho's culinary rise for the last decade across some of L.A.'s most inventive Mexican kitchens, said Camacho's influence will persist, even without her flagship restaurant.
"Camacho is the Johnny Appleseed of mole in Los Angeles, concocting the complex family of sauces with flavors both traditional and off-center, and bringing them to areas of the city that had never seen them before," he said. "The loss, even temporarily, of her most famous kitchen is huge, but it is impossible to imagine the landscape of Los Angeles Mexican food without her."
Camacho's customers are also expressing support.
"Both Rocio and my family, we feel the love from our customers," said Arellano. "We knew we were liked, but this goes beyond that."
"We've received a lot of support from a lot of people," added Camacho.