Game Changer: Gabriela Cámara

The first time I visited Mexico City on my own was in the early 2000’s. I had three goals: The first was to visit the National Museum of Anthropology; the second was to educate myself about regional Mexican flavors at Patricia Quintana’s Izote; the third was to spend a lazy afternoon soaking up the scene over tuna tostadas and tequila at Contramar. Contramar was the brainchild of Gabriela Cámara who, at 22, while finishing up university, decided that the up-and-coming neighborhood of Condesa – at the time inhabited mostly by artists – needed some better food. She envisioned a spot that served exceptional seafood with a vibe that called upon the weekend trips that her and her friends would take to the Guerrero coast. Simple enough? It seems so. 20 years later, Contramar is still going strong, and the Mexican-Italian Cámara is having a serious American moment.

When Gabi, as her friends refer to her, moved to San Francisco in 2015 and opened Cala, her first U.S. restaurant, Mexican food in San Francisco was largely uninspiring, found predominantly in the taquerias of the city’s Mission District. On the East Coast, the country was just starting to hear the buzz about Mexican cuisine’s endless bounty following the 2014 opening of Enrique Olvera’s Cosme in New York City. After Cámara saw the Hayes Valley space that would become Cala, she knew she had something to add to the conversation.

Like with Contramar, Cámara’s intention was not to create a Mexican restaurant, per se. Rather, she wanted to open a seafood restaurant that celebrated Mexican flavors and ingredients, showcased regional produce and fish, and create an atmosphere of community that would leave diners with an urgent desire to return. Success again. From the jump, Cala was lauded by critics and diners alike, joining other exceptional, original spots — including Cosme, the Misson’s recently opened Californios, and Mixtli in San Antonio — in giving Mexican food an important new narrative.

The success of Cala brought the limelight to Cámara’s door. In addition to Cala, she has two Tacos Cala locations, one at San Francisco International Airport. This year alone, she has published her first cookbook My Mexico City Kitchen: Recipes and Convictions, found her restaurants at the center of a Netflix documentary, and is opening her next restaurant in Los Angeles — a joint project with Sqirl’s Jessica Koslow at the Santa Monica Proper Hotel — this summer. A tireless advocate for prison reform, an involved mother, and a bi-national power player in the restaurant worlds of both Mexico and the United States, Cámara is also taking on what could be her most challenging role yet when she moves back to her Condesa apartment later this summer to accept a position as an adviser to the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obra­dor.

For these reasons and more, Gabriela Cámara is our latest Game Changer. We recently caught up with Cámara by phone to talk about the juggling act of her life and what’s next as she heads back to serve her home country in ways that transcend food.

New Worlder: What was your upbringing?

Gabriela Cámara: When I was born, we lived in the slums of Chihuahua in a really cool house that my parents had built after living in a commune. We lived there for very little time. But I do remember it. I remember things about it. For example, the kitchen and cooking. I remember the tortillas puffing up on the stove. I remember the garden and the rabbits and chickens that we had. We had solar ovens and my parents always cooked together. Cooking was a communal activity that we all enjoyed.

Can you remember your first food memory there?

Ripe peaches. I don’t know why peaches comes to mind, I just remember tasting peaches and thinking they were most extraordinary thing. I have to say, though, my house has always been filled with good food. I remember always eating well.

How did you come to find food as a passion?

I had this boyfriend who had a café. I think one of the most attractive things about him was that he had a café. I’m not kidding. It was in Condesa. In the late 90’s, before Contramar opened. When Condesa started being, sort of, taken over by hipsters – well, not hipsters — but it was still very out there, not very many people lived there. There were artists, people who had bought apartments for really cheap after the earthquake, but it wasn’t really popular; it certainly wasn’t what it is now.

But I do remember very distinctly that I was interested. Very soon after, I moved there, got an apartment there. My parents always enjoyed places that had an approach to food that was more progressive, more than fancy food. I think I was very influenced by that appreciation. I thought that all of these inexpensive places that were serving the artistic community were places that interested me. But I also realized there was a need for better food. Putting two and two together, we found this space that was extraordinarily huge. And we just went for it.

The dining room at Contramar in Mexico City

Clearly you didn’t expect it to become the beloved hang out it has become over the years? Did you see early on that it was going to be big?

On one hand, I really didn’t. But I don’t know, maybe I did, because I always remember that time that Carlos Monsiváis finally came to Contramar and I thought that this is exactly how it’s supposed to be. Monsiváis was a very prominent intellectual and public figure. And when he went to Contramar it was clear that the restaurant was a success in terms of the varied public it attracted.

The tuna tostada is the iconic dish of Contramar’s fame – for you, too?  

Yes, of course! I think the tuna tostadas were a very easy thing for people to have, and they became very popular very fast. Of course I identify with that, also the pescado a la talla. I think what’s really close to my heart is more a style, in general. It very clearly became a place where the quality of the fish was what was most important. That became the staple of Contramar, the quality, and I think that’s what people were into.

How did you decide on San Francisco for your first U.S. restaurant? 

We moved to San Francisco because that’s where Lucas’ dad wanted to live. And there was all this interest around Mexican food and particularly in Contramar. Since Contramar started being successful, I’ve been offered to do things every week. Here, in Miami, in different cities in Mexico. It’s a total honor, but with here, I just came to live and then I saw the opportunity for something. When I saw that space, I fell in love with it. It made so much sense. It wasn’t in the Mission. I didn’t like the idea of something in the Mission.

I always knew that opening in San Francisco was an off choice, but I always really enjoyed that. The fact that I could make a restaurant that wasn’t that obvious – because the most obvious would’ve been NY or LA – and I was happy not to do that. It was about coming and living here rather than just making a successful restaurant. I knew that San Fran would be very challenging, to say the least. And that’s exactly how it’s been.

Speaking of the Mission, so much of the Mexican food in San Fran is defined by that part of the city. Cala’s location isn’t obvious.

I was always very taken by that. I like that. I like that it wasn’t part of the Mission. I like that I wasn’t making a point of teaching anybody what Mexican food should or shouldn’t be. And Cala was just a thing besides everything that already existed here.

When you saw the space, you obviously had ideas on what you wanted to bring to Cala. What are some of those things?

Fresh food. Fresh fish. Mexican in a way that Californian food wasn’t. I wanted to make a seafood restaurant. I was attracted to San Francisco being by the water. That made sense to me.

Were there certain tenets of San Francisco’s Mexican food scene that you felt were missing and thought perhaps Cala could fill a void?

Yes. I felt that there was a need to stress how great ingredients could make Mexican food in any place. I wanted to make Cala not only a Mexican restaurant, but also a world-class restaurant that could hold its own. I don’t want it to be good because it’s Mexican.

Contramar was never meant to be a Mexican restaurant. It was just a restaurant with that type of food. Then it turned out that it was a Mexican restaurant. Of course, it was a Mexican restaurant. But at the time in Mexico, if you remember, nobody was really into Mexican restaurants. Chefs were not looking to cook Mexican food. A sense of place and pride about Mexico was missing. Slowly, that changed. When I think about Hugo D’Acosta in Valle de Guadalupe at that time, who was using what he learned in Europe and France in Baja, he was bringing this incredible pride back into the region’s food. That’s what I wanted to do with Contramar, and what I wanted to do again with Cala.

You’ve gotten a lot of press for your hiring of previously incarcerated staffers at Cala. To what do you attribute this altruistic spirit? 

That altruistic spirit always came from my parents. It’s just sort of what I grew up with. Immigrants from everywhere were always coming through my house, people from all walks of life being a part of my childhood and our lives. One of my assets in running restaurants is that I have always been capable at dialoguing with the different actors of restaurants – the staff, the dishwashers, the servers, the fancy customers. In restaurants, you have a wide range of people and it’s important to be able to speak to all of them. You wind up working with people with rough pasts and I was never scared of that. It took me some time to have them halfway respect me in Mexico, as the owner. Nobody thought it was cool to work for a 23-year old girl.

I’m sure you have a million stories about customers asking for the owner, and when they saw it was you, you were dismissed or disrespected.

You have no idea. So many times. Soooo many times. “Is this your husband’s business? Is this your family’s business?” It’s always something I’ve really fought for and been intensely proud of.

Sorry, I interrupted you. Some might balk at the idea of putting a business on the line for those in need of a second chance, how and why did you decide this was important to the success of Cala?

When coming to San Francisco, one of the issues of opening Cala that I was concerned about was how I would staff it. I couldn’t see only having legal Mexican workers. I didn’t see the viability of only having professionals. I have nothing against professionals in San Francisco, but they have a way that I find somewhat troubling sometimes. I think it’s great having people so knowledgable, but I want people that would create the best experience — much more so than talking about their latest travels or where they last staged. And I have always been open to the possibility of hiring people from different walks of life.

I have worked with people with “rough pasts” for quite some time in Mexico, so it is no new thing for me to work with people who need a second chance.  At Cala we started a more formal program with the city and various institutions who work with the previously incarcerated so they can be reinserted in society once they have served time.  Emma Rosenbush, who was my assistant at the beginning and has been the GM at Cala from its opening, had been a clerk at a prison law office and knew about the issue of recidivism, so she was aware of this big issue in San Fran from before we opened Cala, and she has been our liaison to most of the organizations we work with on this front.

You’re opening your 2nd U.S. restaurant in Los Angeles — Onda — with Jessica Koslow later this summer. How did you come to your partnership with Jessica?

On one hand, L.A. is obvious for Mexican food. L.A. is exploding with all kinds of cuisines and restaurants and everything is very much happening in L.A. in terms of food. I’ve had many offers to do things in L.A., even before San Francisco, but with Jessica, we always laugh at how they would always say, “Jessica Koslow is going to be in this project,” to make it attractive for me. And they would tell her, “Gabriela Cámara is going to be in this project,” to make it more attractive for her, and we would always check in like “Are you going to be in this thing in London? Oh, you’re not…they told me you are! OK, let’s not!” One day Jessica called me and said “You know what, I actually have an offer that I think you and I can’t refuse and I really want to do it with you.”

The Proper Hotel asked her to do the menu, she had wanted to do something in the west for some time, and it just made sense for her, on the beach, Santa Monica. In the past, say, two or three years, Mexican food has really exploded to a degree that it hadn’t — not even when I opened Cala or when Enrique opened Cosme. It’s really just booming. I always think about it, it has to do with so many things — it has to do with Trump, with people being fascinated by Mexico City, more Americans wanting to look for roots that aren’t on this side of the border. For all sorts of interesting reasons, L.A. is an important place for me to be in now.

But more, it’s a really important dialogue between these two cities – L.A. and Mexico City – that are so intertwined, there are so Mexicans in L.A., at all different levels. It just makes sense.

What do you bring to Onda that Jessica lacks and what does Jessica bring that you lack?

First, since it’s going to be a restaurant in a hotel, which we’re both pretty terrified about, it’s great to have someone to do it with. But more important, it’s good to have Mexican with a California twist, and California with a Mexican twist in Los Angeles. Jessica is really great at doing breakfast; I’m really good at doing restaurants. It’s always risky, though. Restaurants are tricky, so who knows!

The dining room at Cala in San Francisco

First cookbook, yes? How was that experience?

It took me some time to make the cookbook. I have this thing about restaurant cookbooks and I didn’t want to do a cookbook only about a place, Cala nor Contramar. But when it did come up and happen, it was because, I think, in the United States there are certain things you have to do here in the States. You just have to. There’s certain expectations, so I just had to. This thing of becoming this personality, this figure, that in Mexico I was always very proud of not having to be. In Mexico, I was doing everything to not be that person. Here I am, now, in the U.S. with this restaurant that needs more presence of the owner or chef or whatever. This fascination with who makes the behind the scenes attitude that in Mexico, we are just getting to. I do think it comes a lot from the Western world and the U.S. market, this fascination with characters.

That U.S. voyeurism into the reality behind the experience… it’s a lot, right?

Yes, totally. I know! The book sort of comes from that place. But I’m really happy that it’s worked. That I’ve been able to write about who I am in a way that I never thought I would. And I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed it very much.

What recipes from the book are closest to your heart?

The tostadas are a Mexico City thing, but I love the notion that everything can be a taco. Tortillas can be served with anything – with sweet, with salty, anything. That is something that I live with — these are the ways and principles that I was raised eating. These things are basic, so it amuses me that a book about them can become a bestseller.

You have two restaurants, an upcoming restaurant, a bestselling cookbook, and now — what everyone dreams about — Netflix calls for your story! That has to feel incredible.

I have no merit in that one. I mean, I guess I do, but like I said, it’s that voyeur thing. The political issues have really benefitted Mexico and the appreciation and interest in our culture and for diversity in a way that wasn’t the case. Sure, there’s been interest in street food, cooks and how we eat. But I think it’s been only recently that it’s become center stage and this documentary has to do with that.

I thought of not doing it because it was going to be such a pain for our staff. But it was Netflix; I had to do it. I love the director and how it came out.

Now, at the height all these projects, you’ve decided to step away and have accepted a position with the President of Mexico. Are you especially political?

Yes, I always have been. I remember always going to political gatherings and meetings. I used to protest. Since I was really young, I come from a really policitized background and family. I’ve always been more progressive and left wing, and this president has always been a candidate that I’ve supported. I know him, I trust him; I like him; he has many assets. Politicians are a breed of their own that I don’t strive to understand, but I do think that of all the people we could have in Mexico at this point, he’s the best we could have. If I could do anything, I want to do it.

Can you tell us more about what you’ll be doing in his administration?

I was originally offered a job heading up the tourism board, which was a big job with a big budget. When that board’s funding went to the Mayan train project, he said, “Well, you’ll just have to be my adviser.” I said, “On what?” He said, “On anything, on everything.” So I said okay. My son will finish fourth grade here. We’re moving back to my Condesa apartment, which I never gave up, later in the summer. We’ll see how it all goes…

The Game Changer Five

Last supper, last cocktail?

Whatever’s good. The best things wherever I am. I hope that I never have to actually think about that! Such a difficult question for me.

Next up on your travel bucket list? 

Patagonia

Mentor/Idol/Girl Crush?

Idol: Diana Kennedy / Girl Crush: Samin Nosrat

Best lesson your mother taught you?

So many. To think deeply about other people’s motives.

How do you inspire the next generation?

By enjoying what I do and making it enjoyable for others.

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