Q & A with Gabriela Cámara

Gabriela Cámara is an international restaurateur and author of My Mexico City Kitchen: Recipes and Convictions. We discussed the popularity of the modern Mexican table, her position on sustainable food, and her commitment to creating equitable work environments.

Author Gabriela Camara looking out the window and smiling.
Marcus Nilsson

This post was part of our Summer Cookbook Club series featuring My Mexico City Kitchen: Recipes and Convictions by Gabriela Cámara.

Gabriela Cámara is a celebrated restaurateur and cookbook author.

She has opened eleven restaurants including Contramar in Mexico City, which she opened at the age of 23 with no professional experience working in or running restaurants. To say she is driven and tenacious is like saying water is wet. She knows no other way.

Aside from being an astute businesswoman, she has been widely recognized for progressive efforts within the sustainable food communities and uplifting the livelihoods of restaurant workers through full-time employment and providing health insurance (rarities within the restaurant industry). When she opened Cala in San Fransisco, California she became part of a growing movement giving second chances to those with criminal backgrounds.

In 2019, Gabriela became a household name with the publication of her book, My Mexico City Kitchen, and a near endless list of accolades.

She was named a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for the second time, named to the 2019 Bloomberg 50 list and recognized as a Fortune Magazine Most Innovative Women in Food & Drink, the documentary A Tale of Two Kitchens about two of her restaurants Contramar and Cala was released on Netflix, and she was also named to the Council of Cultural Diplomacy by the Mexican government.

For the record, this is the abridged version of her success. As a restaurateur, 2020 has come with its share of hardships for Gabriela, but her commitment to quality remains, and her desire to share it with home cooks is clear when you comb through the pages of My Mexico City Kitchen.

"I have been very fortunate in that I am genuinely interested in what I do, and I deeply enjoy it, so I have been able to do it with great enthusiasm, dedication, and ultimately, success," wrote Gabriela Cámara in a recent email interview from Mexico City.

What follows is an excerpt from our conversation.

Q: Has the success of 2019 buoyed you at all through the hardships of 2020 with restaurant closures and restrictions due to Covid-19?

I guess it’s been more the length and duration of my career than the 2019 spotlight. That was wonderful and I could not be more grateful it all came out pre-pandemic. But I did start Contramar the summer of 1998, which now is 22 years ago. That’s the real weight. And the consistency and congruity with which I do what I do—even now, in times of closures and restrictions.

Q: You actively work to create an equitable environment for your restaurants. Much of your staff are full-time, which is uncommon in the restaurant industry. You also provide health insurance for full-time employees. When Cala opened in 2015 it was eagerly anticipated, and much of the media surrounding the opening focused on the idea of how 70 percent of your staff had prior criminal records. What was your initial response when Emma Rosenbush, your general manager at Cala, suggested this idea? Has the model been successful for you? If yes, then why do you think it’s a successful model? Have you employed that same hiring strategy in your other restaurants since Cala opened?

I’ve always worked to create equitable restaurant environments, in all the restaurants I’ve been involved in, one way or the other. At Cala it has been more structured along the lines of second chance employment, as the City of San Francisco has several great programs which support this cause.

Emma was familiar with a lot of these programs due to her previous job. She suggested going through these programs to find the type of full-time team I wanted to build at Cala. We, of course, both loved the idea of being able to go a step further with our hiring practices, but the interest actually came from wanting to have full-time employees form the core of the team for our restaurant.

The fact that we were actively promoting social justice practices at Cala wasn’t even something we wanted to make public initially. It did draw a lot of attention, precisely as it is such an important issue in our society, and also as the whole hiring and remuneration system in restaurant teams has raised so many issues of inequality that we wanted to move away from. It has been a successful model because it makes for an equitable restaurant environment, but it’s still very challenging.

Running successful restaurants is challenging on so many levels, beyond any hiring practice. I have not employed that same hiring strategy in the formal way we were offering second chance employment at Cala, but I have always promoted equal opportunities, pay and benefits in the restaurants I’ve run. In Mexico it’s been easier, as all employees have social security and benefits from the state which employers must pay for.

Q: You were quoted in a recent NYT article as saying you “want to be like Human Rights Watch, but with Mexican Food.” Can you expand on that?

It’s my desire to keep on working along the lines of a better, cleaner, safer and more sustainable food system for all in the world, especially in Mexico.

Q: How has the understanding of Mexican food changed in the 21 years since you opened Contramar?

It’s become a hot topic, to begin with, and it’s drawn a lot of international attention besides becoming a more generalized source of pride for Mexican cooks and the public. People have a new found interest in local, traditional foods, recipes, ingredients and techniques. Social media and our globalized world has been a decisive factor for this shift.

Q: Why did you write this book? Why was it important for you to share your version of Mexican cooking with home cooks?

Because I want Mexican home cooking to be better known and more enjoyed in the world. I want people to have access to simple, everyday recipes from the complex cultural food mosaic Mexico offers.

Q: The subtitle of your book is "Recipes and Convictions." Why was it important to you to go beyond recipes and include your personal convictions as part of this cookbook?

Because I believe convictions are far more important in cooking than has been credited. You are always making choices while cooking or thinking of what to cook, and it’s important to be aware of all the implications around food and how we eat: how we source our ingredients, who we buy from, who we cook for, how we manage waste, or try not to have it, etc.

Q: What is one piece of advice you would give or one hope you have for the people buying your book and exploring these recipes?

That they might have the privilege of enjoying good food always.