This is the year that Mexican chef Gabriela Cámara officially became fabulous

First the cookbook "My Mexico City Kitchen," then the Netflix doc about Camara's restaurants, next an LA outpost

By Manny Howard

Published June 13, 2019 6:00PM (EDT)

Gabriela Cámara (Yvonne Venegas)
Gabriela Cámara (Yvonne Venegas)

Imagine if, in your twenties, you returned home from a vacation with friends in Zihuatanejo and decided that once back home you were gonna open a restaurant just like that joint on the beach you loved so much. Then, not only did your pipe dream work out, that restaurant you opened became one of the most important restaurants in the city you grew up in . . . for the next thirty years.

You’d be pretty sure of yourself, too.

So, when Gabriela Cámara, who owns Contramar in the Mexican capital’s bustling Cuauhtémoc district, publishes a book claiming ownership of Mexico City cuisine — a booming restaurant town and a city she shares with the likes of Enrique Olvera — nobody blinks.

“My Mexico City Kitchen” is both a chronicle of idiosyncratic take on Camara’s Californian-meets-Mexican food and a treatise on right action in the kitchen, after all the book has the subtitle “Recipies and Convictions.” Watch the episode below where Cámara joins me in the Salon Studio to share her thoughts and feelings about how dishes can be both simple and complex, what makes restaurants work and how it is that Americans can despise Mexican people and lovingly embrace Mexican cuisine.

For more food-centric episodes, visit our “Salon Talks” Food playlist.

In addition to the cookbook, Cámara and Contramar and her San Francisco restaurant, Cala are the subject of the Netflix documentary "A Tale of Two Kitchens." In it the staff of the restaurant, many of whom have worked for her for decades, are introduced and the intense focus on service is evident everywhere. It's a commonplace in the industry in Mexico insists Cámara, but the viewer gets the sneaking suspicion that maybe the crew in both of her establishments go the extra mile.The interview that follows has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Some people understand Mexican cuisine to be one specific thing. That's not true,  but rather than say that you're saying: I'm actually not going to talk about all of Mexico, I am going to talk about Mexico City cuisine.

One of my intents was to definitely write a cookbook that people could cook from. I didn't want a cookbook that would be just precious pictures. Pictures are great, and our friend, the photographer Marcus Nilsson did an amazing job. But I didn't want a book that was only a coffee table beautiful object. I wanted it to be recipes that people could actually approach, and I wanted it to demystify the idea of Mexican food being so complex that nobody can make it other than in a small town with the right ingredients, and with the most complex herbs that you don't have access to in North America.

It's a book very much thinking about the U.S. market. It's a book very much thinking about people who might not be exposed as much to Mexican food, but that have this desire to do so. And as you say, Mexican food has been, it's exploded. People are very much into it.

And they are scared of it.

And they're also scared of it. They don't know enough about it or they know only a few things about it. I didn't dare make a book about all of Mexican food because not only is it impossible, it's very ambitious. So I limited it to Mexico City, it became personal because that's where I've been living and cooking before I moved to San Francisco for the past five years. But making it a Mexico City book allowed me to bring recipes from different parts of the country. Mexico is a really large country, and it's very diverse. From the north where you have flour tortillas and carne asada mostly to the southeast. You go through five entuirely different countries. It's really varied.

Contramar was my first restaurant. I opened Contramar in 1998, and that was very much inspired on the food from the Pacific Coast, specifically Guerrero, the State of Guerrero.

The restaurant came from a very sort of straight forward ambition that you and friends had on the beach, right?

Yes. And we wanted to create the feeling of a seaside palapa, in Mexico City.

With the palm leaves, and all.

And we didn't have the budget to make a real palapa, so we put petates, which are the mats, the floor mats. And it became a very simple place, but that it had good food.

The restaurant, people responded to it so well because there's nothing like it in Mexico City.

There was nothing like it. It really was simple, but also I think sophisticated enough that it was interesting or it had food that was good enough so fancy people could go even if the restaurant was very simple. And yeah, we concentrated on the food being really good, and the quality of the food and service being extraordinary, and we still push for that every day, and we keep on being very busy, and we keep on making it really interesting for ourselves.

The Netflix documentary paints a portrait of this room that is so full of generosity, and energy, and enthusiasm, and a very refined level of service, which you don't put all of those things together usually. You just want to run to that room when you see it.

Yes. But you know what, there is a very long tradition in Mexico City of service of that type. In Mexico servers can make a good career if they're good. Restaurants have always brought together people from different walks of life, and it's always been a place where people can sort of access economic stability or economic growth even if they don't have a career or they didn't go to school.

At Contramar people are starting as busboys, and leaving as captains.

Totally. And usually you're not required to have a degree to work in a restaurant. In Mexico, it's still, it's a dignified profession. People aspire to be a good server in a restaurant where they give them massive tips, and where they make good money. And it really is a way of something for their families. Not only in food, but also in terms of the population Mexico City is a place where people migrate to from different parts of the country. Just as they come here in America, Mexicans go to the city. So it's full of people from different towns that have moved to Mexico City, and that's why in Mexico City, and the surrounding, we have almost 25 million people, which is insane. They go to the capital because of the economic opportunities, and restaurants are a source of really good income.

Another thing, switching back from the documentary to the book, you tribute Diana Kennedy in here.

Diana Kennedy is an English born woman who lived in Mexico for almost 60 years now, and she really knows the country like nobody. She's traveled the country like nobody. She has an anthropological interest in food, and ingredients, and edible plants, and vegetables, and knows everything about so many things in Mexican food, and the diverse type of foods in the different parts of Mexico. And she's 96 years old, and she's still a total beast. She's strong, and she's feisty, and she has opinions about everything, so the first time Diana Kennedy came to Contramar I was terrified. Thankfully, she liked it, and we've become really good friends since. I love her.

She's described in the book, you say people call her the Julia Child of Mexican food, and she says, "I'm the Mick Jagger of Mexican food."

Yeah. She thinks Julia Child is an image she doesn't want to relate to.

And what's interesting is that your mom is Italian. And Diana Kennedy's books were the books that your family used or your mom used, right?


I think one was given by your dad's sister, right?

Yes. Yes. Yes. You read the book. Wonderful. One of the things that Diana Kennedy always says when people ask her, "Well, Diana, how do they make albondigas in Jalisco? She's like, "Oh. Read the book." She's always saying, "Read the book."

So Mexico City cuisine is different than Mexican cuisine in a million different ways, but one is the number of influences that it absorbs and celebrates.

Yes. And I don't think that there is anything that could be called Mexico City cuisine.

Well, you're calling it that, right?

Well, I'm calling it My Mexico City Kitchen.

Okay. You're right.

So it's the kitchen from where I cook. It's sort of more of a geographical location rather than a culinary culture. But the culinary culture that is Mexico City it's a place where everything comes together, and it's a place where you can find... I guess this has been discussed internally, you have typical cuisine from Oaxaca, from the southeast Campeche, Yucatan. You have things from Tabasco. You have things from different States. From Mexico City, one of the only dishes that are sort of traceable to this process of integration of different cultures is tacos al pastor, the big sort of kebab. That's pork. And it's port meat that's sort of marinated and slow roasted, which is sort of a southeastern tradition.

Mexico City is an incredible place. It has very good climate, so you can... I guess people used to grow many things there. They still do in the outside, in places like Xochimilco where you have the canals. People grow vegetables or greens, and then they bring animals from farms around there. There's a huge bounty of ingredients in Mexico City. So there's a feeling of liberty that, in terms of traditional food that I don't think you have in other places.

And certainly, now people are into food in a very serious way. Families that are in Mexico City most usually have a grandmother or some part of the family came from somewhere else in the country, and is in Mexico City, so they have their family recipes. It's like my father was born in Mexico City, but his mother was from Campeche, and his father was from Tabasco. The recipes of my grandmother were recipes from the southeast, and she was cooking in Mexico City.

Another detail from the Netflix documentary is about people who, formerly incarcerated people, who come, and work in the kitchen. There's a sort of unwritten enthusiasm for giving opportunities to people who don't have them typically. Is it the same in Mexico, that it is in America where if you come out, people don't want to have anything to do with you?

Yes. Very much so. People in Mexico, it was legal to ask people if they had criminal records. I think you still can.

Still? We only recently changed that in some places in the United States. There were some great scenes in the documetary. The bartender who has been there for 30 years has a great story about applying for a job with you after he left prison.

What I was saying before about how restaurants are a place of opportunity for people that aren't educated. It is stable in as much as they are stable. It's an opportunity that you have even if you don't have previous training or a formal education, but it's an opportunity that certainly requires a lot of effort. It's physically challenging. It's hard labor. It really depends on how well you do, especially as traditionally in the United States, and in Mexico it's been rewarded by the tips from the patrons. Depending on how well you serve them or how well you execute your job in being an efficient server, they tip you. And this is a system that is very... It's problematic. Because in Mexico, at least, you have to take care of social and medical care for every employee, even if they make the minimum businesses have to provide social and medical state insurance. Here in the United States, you don't as a business owner, so tips become much more relevant for the guest to give to the server, but it creates sort of a non-committed relationship between the server and the business. I wanted servers who would really care about the business because Contramar is an extraordinary restaurant. It really is. And when things go well, they go well for everybody.

Restaurants are about teamwork absolutely. A restaurant does not work if the dishwasher doesn't do his job. A restaurant does not work if the chef doesn't do his job. Everybody is important when it comes to service. I think when a restaurant like Contramar has all these extraordinary people working together that are delighted to work together because they know that they share in the joy, and the profit, and the success of the place.

They earn depending on how well the restaurant goes, and they really do, and if we have extraordinary income they have extraordinary income. From the beginning, it was a very much more democratic restaurant than any other restaurant around.

Do you pool tips?

We don't pool tips, but there is a system in which they work in partners, they have couples, and they distribute money to the rest of the... The server distributes money to the rest of the team that he works with, from the kitchen to the different parts. Since I started taking care of the administration in Contramar, I started paying the servers more, more than was usually paid to them at other comparable restaurants. In San Francisco, you don't have this culture. In all of the United States, I don't think you have this culture. In the United States it becomes very important that the business is responsible for the servers in terms of their medical, to pay full medical coverage. I know the U.S. culture is set up so that everybody can pay for their own, but most people who serve in restaurants want cash. They're not going to invest in their medical benefits.

So you're saying the culture is very different in Cala and Contramar because Contramar is seen as a place that you could spend your whole career working?

Right. So what I did in Cala is to try to replicate what happens in Mexico, which is so successful, which is a place... Because in a restaurant you need people to take care of the place. You need people to care about the guests. You need people to care about how the place looks, how the place feels. So I want people to feel responsible for the place, and the people, and the food. The only way to go about doing that by fostering a reciprocal relationship.

So in Cala, that's what I came up with. I came up with the knowledge that the City of San Francisco is very worried about the levels of recidivism. They have all these programs to help people who had been convicted, sort of get back on track, and find jobs that would take them, and it's really based on second chances. But restaurants are based on second chances.

When I was working in restaurants as a kid, the grown-ups around, it was their last job before they went to jail or their first job after they got out of jail. It's not a new thing?

It's not a new thing. Totally.

But the formalization of the industry made it much more unusual to hire the formally incarcerated.  And you make giving people a second chance an unwritten policy of the business.

Totally. And also, if we invest giving people full medical benefits, and making front of house, and back of house more so, even because the thing is the front of the house makes all the money, but they couldn't make it if the food is good, so there's a huge disparity with that system. I wanted to make it more even between the back of house and the front of the house, and to do that you really need to employ people who will be grateful for having a job as a server in a restaurant in San Francisco. San Francisco is a hard place.

Let's jump to Mexican food to Mexican people, and Mexican food. You say that America's a country that vilifies Mexican people and adores Mexican food.

Which is a paradox, don't you think? But on the other hand, it's also normal. I think it's the most complex gastronomy that the United States has or is close to, literally physically close to, and there's all this migration that brings this sort of tasty also easy and cheap. So there's a level of comfort in Mexican food, I think, that has become America's comfort food, also pizza, pasta, noodles.

And I think especially more recently when Mexican food has become such a thing at high levels the gastronomic international scene.

But it must be very hard to watch while the people are vilified and talked about by the President in a way that dehumanizes them, and at the same time, be in a country that is making such a big fuss about the cuisine like you can separate the people and the food.

In this country people have very different opinions ad don’t necessarily agree with the president. I think that there's a great appreciation for diversity that many Americans do have. We don't expect the President to eat tacos, and to want to be knowledgeable about the cuisine south of the border, but I do think that most Americans have a real pride to have Mexican food be theirs in a way, in terms of Europe for example, Americans, I have found, are very surprised by going to Mexico, and finding that it's as complex as Europe when they go further south than Tijuana or Los Cabos. Mexican culture is a millinery culture with so much complexity. Americans have this love for the food, but this total disrespect for the country  but that is also something that happens in Mexico. Mexicans, we're very proud of our roots, and our ancestry, and our traditions, and then we are also the first ones to think the worst to ourselves in a very destructive way. It's very complex. These cultural issues are really complex, and rooted in colonial history.

Manny Howard

Manny Howard is the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

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