Today our guest is Gabriela Camara – a world renowned chef, author and activist who just opened her third restaurant in Los Angeles. In addition to running three successful restaurants and promoting her award-winning book, Gabriela also serves as an ambassador for Mexico to California. We’re excited to share more of here story with you all today.
The Source Summit: Gabriela, you began as an art collector. How did you go from there to opening your first restaurant, Contramar in Mexico City?
Gabriela Camara: Well, actually, I opened….I guess I was always an art collector, but I was studying history. , I wanted to study to become a curator. So I, I really, I was in that world academically in a way, but I got Contramar started sort of an as an experiment. I started because I love cooking and eating and it’s, and it’s been, you know, my career shifted after a couple of years of having been open, I decided to dedicate my life to being a restauranteur formally, not just in sort of a partnership of young people wanting to do a cool restaurant in a sort of off the beaten path part of town. So I really believe that, you know, it was sort of, it was really was an experiment. It was sort of a, a desire that I had. I’ve always been fascinated by food, like places, observed the cultural relevance of places that serve food in different contexts. And I don’t, you know, I don’t, I don’t know that it was much more than that when we opened. I really was very naive about it.
The Source Summit: Wow. It’s a beautiful adventure. For the last 21 years, Contramar has been the go to restaurant for people of all backgrounds, art, movies, business, government, international, and locals sit together for our delicious and fun meals. What do you think was the key to successfully bringing together people from very different backgrounds?
Gabriela Camara: I really think that the key was to offer something that didn’t exist in the city at that time. In 1998 the food scene was completely different. And I believe that the fact that these kids that were not in the restaurant business, you know, we came to the restaurant visits with a release, fresh air. I’m actually being ignorant about it, but it was very positive in terms of the result because we didn’t any of the weight that in that moment in history of Mexico city is, you know, the end of the nineties was the government, you know, it wasn’t sort of the, the main, I don’t know. Let me, let me rephrase. Sorry. I, what I, what I feel is that we brought something that didn’t exist. We didn’t, we weren’t part of the industry, so we didn’t have that weight of having to deliver something in particular. We could come out with something new and when we did was something new because it was informal food in an informal context, but with very serious desires of offering it in incredible hospitality with good service and with really quality high quality fluid like no other seafood place was doing at the time.
So we really had a different offer in ours, what we ended up offering was something that didn’t exist in the city and it still keeps them being sort of at the front of the line on so many important issues that have to do with food, which is the sustainability of a restaurant as an institution. Not only in terms of the surveys or [inaudible] or in terms of [inaudible], but in terms of all of those three things and very much invested in how will we in what we offer in offering high quality service off the County ingredients and dishes event. It’s always a place that has fortunately kept on expanding, growing, and kept the alive.
The Source Summit: You open successfully Cala in San Francisco in 2015 – how did you know when was the perfect time for opening a restaurant with mostly Mexican ingredients in the U S? Did you ever consider it as a risky endeavor?
Gabriela Camara: Yes. I mean, and you know, I moved to San Francisco and there was already a huge hype about Mexican food, especially in the United States and on social media and the rest of, you know, in Europe …starting in Asia. And I think of course it’s a risky endeavor. Opening a restaurant is always at risk endeavor. And I live in San Francisco for a year and that year I decided that I really, you know, I had found this extraordinary location and I sort of figured out a way in which a restaurant, a Mexican restaurant that I could make, would work in that location. And there was nothing like that. Again, it’s an offer that did not exist and I believe that San Francisco was writing for a restaurant of that caliber. And I think the United States in general is avid of having like high, higher end Mexican food. That’s what they’ve got. Even if they, you know, everybody loves tacos and everybody, it’s them really with a certain type of Mexican food.
I, you know, when I can offer is sort of along the lines of what any other chef from any other nationality could be offering in terms of ingredients and sourcing and vocality and presidents and working with purveyors and farmers to get the best produce. But putting that in a Mexican context, putting that in as a Mexican with the Mexican, a pouch or with a Mexican sort of underlying spirit and that, you know, with ms skylight is so much more available in the United States and all these spices. Like she lists that, you know, the, this is the variety that you can find that, you know, that comes from Mexico, but also that has grown in California. That’s, that’s been, that’s been really extraordinary. California is very Mexican.
The Source Summit: Talking about social awareness: in Cala, many of your employees are former inmates who are working in the restaurant for the first time since they left prison. How does the program work? What benefits has it brought about for the restaurant? And for you personally?
Gabriela Camara: In San Francisco it’s very difficult just to staff restaurants. The, you know, the cost of living is super elevated and minimum wage, even though it’s the highest in the country, is still not enough to actually be able to live in the city and sustain yourself. So the, the, the idea of hiring inmates came from the desire to find a team that would care enough to make the restaurant very special. I truly believe that in, you know, as much as, of course, it’s been super gratifying for me personally because I always grow from getting to know all the people that I work with. And I think we all grow by taking care of ourselves or actually we learn how to take care of ourselves because we want to be in the best possible conditions to take care of others in this industry.
And I believe it’s been an extraordinary opportunity to work with people both in Mexico and in the United space in, in San Francisco, particularly with the people who have certain kinds of jail or if they have certain kind of prison. It’s been important to be able to give them the security and the care that they need to then care for others. I’ve been very proud, you know, in, in San Francisco there are a few restaurants that offer their employees full benefits. So in San Francisco, what I decided to do was to charge a service charge and would that service charge, I’m able to pay the back of house in front of house. I’m more Elan salary or more even hourly wage. And then I have of course the managers with their salary positions. But in terms of the people who have come out of prison, it’s an opportunity to begin a reinsertion process into quote unquote normal, you know, back into society and be part of the labor force and few places offer these opportunities. And I feel that as a restaurant industry, we should, you know, if it’s a perfect place to do it because we need the people, the people need a job. So we can put two and two together and the city has ever just go. And the government of California thankfully have a lot of programs that help in these initiatives and the city of San Francisco is particularly forward in terms of their initiatives along these lines. So it’s been really wonderful. I’ve, I’ve really enjoyed it
The Source Summit: Onda is LA, just opened, congratulations. What makes Onda different from Cala or Contramar?
Gabriela Camara: Okay, so on that, in the differences are many and the similarities also are quite a few. The differences that, you know, it’s in the city where I don’t live, I’ve never opened a restaurant in the city where I don’t live and it’s adjacent to a hotel. So that’s also a first time for me. It’s also the first time that I collaborate with a chef and such an intimate role in every part of the menu. As outlet. I use service, she does a food or the other way around. Here we are both sort of the mind, you know, the masterminds behind this restaurant and it, and it’s, I think that’s, those are the differences and the similarities is that we’re sourcing the best ingredients from the farmer’s market in Santa Monica from the, you know, which is a local market there as I do for the other restaurants, for the restaurants in Mexico and Fort Collins, San Francisco. And then it’s very, you know, we, we want to make a team that is integrated, that are knowledgeable, that are proud of what they’re doing. We want to make sure that we are offering something that isn’t available you know, around that part of the world. And I think it’s thing nominated in its own way. I’m so proud of that.
The Source Summit: I love your new book you recently wrote “My Mexico City Kitchen,” which I tried already few recipes. It has been named one of the best cookbooks of the season by the New York Times and Bon Appetit. Of the over the 150 recipes you shared, what are your favorites? I can tell you mine later! Everyone loves them. My son that he’s 12 years old, he loves your ceviche. Every recipe, it’s something different with a lot of flavor. All the ingredients are easy to find. So really nice. Thank you for writing it.
Gabriela Camara: That’s the best compliment. You know, I guess that’s why it’s been successful because I really, I wanted to make home cooking or the, I wanted to make the food that I love available for home and also for not very fermented Palm coast. You know, I didn’t want it to be inaccessible as most very illustrated cookbooks are. It’s very difficult to try and make sophisticated Mexican food in the United States, first of all, because of the sourcing of ingredients. So I, I wanted to make that, I wanted to make that available. I wanted to make it easy to understand. I wanted people to fall in love with easy Mexico City iterations of classic recipes.
The Source Summit: Congratulations. You have a son, Luca. How do you manage to divide your time between the restaurants in Mexico and the U.S., promoting your book and being a mom?
Gabriela Camara: Okay. I, you know, I, I juggle, I juggle because I want to be with Luca as much as I can because he’s 10 years old and we just moved back to Mexico City from having been in San Francisco the past five years. So it’s been a, I’m very happy to be back in Mexico. I want him to grow up in Mexico. I am super proud of his by nationality because he truly is both. He’s, he’s American and he’s Mexican just as I am. So I feel very very identified with that, you know, with that condition of his or that condition that I’ve brought him up it and I, I juggled like every mother does. I juggle because I did carry him mostly and I, you know, and I, I wanna as I said, I want to be close to him. I want to do things with that.
So many times that a sacrifice, that one, you know, that that one does in terms of, of one work. And then one work is also a sacrifice that one does in one’s family life. So I tried to keep a balance in as much as I can. I’ve always had great people to help me take care of him. So he’s always been a very loved and taken care of child. He’s my favorite person to be with. I absolutely love, you know, learning things with him and teaching him safe and discovering things would have, and the best thing that’s ever happened to me is to, and I love cooking with Luca. So he has as a part of everything that I do and he knows about, he knows about my life, he asks about it, he’s curious about it. I’ve always really been able to include him in what I do professionally. And fortunately it’s a, you know, cooking and eating is something that you can teach kids easily and you can make them a part of. So we were very fortunate that way.
The Source Summit: You are currently a member of the Cultural Diplomacy Council for the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will you be having a more active role in politics in the future?
Gabriela Camara: I don’t. I don’t think so. I don’t, you know, I’m, well, I’m actually, I have to tell you this because it’s important for you and for the blog that’s for you, but just because you’re in California. I am a, I have been named an honorary ambassador of the government of Mexico City to the state of California. So like from the governor, from the local government in Mexico City to the state of California because there’s such an important relationship and I have just by living both in Mexico City and in California or by having this like by by national bind city existed in the past years have come to really be in touch with both places. And I think that both places want to have these, you know, one to build, one to enforce these bridges that already exists between are these two places and these cultures.
So I think that either was the cultural democracy, the, the pharmacy call. So of the, of the ministry of foreign affairs and the honorary of ambassador to the state of California, you know, they’re just, these are, these are honorary assignment or like honorary titles that just describes what is an informal way of been doing, which is basically, you know, promoting Mexico in California and in the United States because California is such an important state of the United States. So I guess it’s, I guess, I guess it just reflects what I have naturally or organically been doing, you know, without setting out to do that, it’s just sort of what has happened.
Good initiatives that make you know our world better. And I do think that both in the United States and in Mexico, we have so much to do in terms of how we, how, you know, how we eat, how we live, how we manage our resources, how we think of ourselves, our culture altered our tradition. So all of these initiatives as [inaudible] and other, you know, agricultural and sustainability initiatives and educational initiatives have always supported because I think it’s the basis of making our community better. And the only thing we can do is make things better where we are. And that’s, I really, I really live by that.
The Source Summit: Yes, yes. We agree with you and you’re great as source of inspiration. Thank you .
Gabriela Serna is the CEO and founder of The Source Summit, a motivational wellness brand recognized for its leading role in creating impactful conversations that connect and inspire people of different cultures.