Apiece Apart Woman: Gabriela Cámara
Photos by Maureen M. Evans
Story and styling by Su Wu
In the course of our Woman series, which pursues with sincere inquiry the ways in which women have constructed their own lives, there seem to have arisen two general career paths, though of course how each is enacted is as varied and distinct as the women themselves. Some people appear to have been sure from the outset of their talent and what they wanted to do with it. Others, like Mexican chef Gabriela Cámara — the acclaimed owner of Contramar in Mexico City and Cala in San Francisco — offer recollections of serendipity, in Cámara’s case of studying Art History and then opening a restaurant without any formal kitchen experience.
As Cámara’s deserved international fame now shows (and at 45 she is already poised to join the mantle of canonical restaurateurs) you should not need to study in school what you make a life of, and you don't even need to be certain about what path you're headed down when you venture forward.And while we must find ways to grant more people this openness of opportunity and space to figure things out, such as by demanding anti-racist and non-predatory lending, we can take as collateral what Cámara positively oozes, which is a stand on principles — of knowing how you want to be while doing it.
Cámara is fiercely loyal to her staff, many of whom have worked at Contramar since it opened in Mexico City’s then up-and-coming Roma neighborhood in 1998. Before the quarantine, it was often called the most important dining room in Mexico City, without hyperbole, serving simply prepared seafood like raw tuna tostadas and grilled butterflied fish to a buzzing cross-section of politicians, power lunchers, and artists. (She arrives a bit late for our appointment but all is forgiven when she explains that she was celebrating the birthday of a waiter with a round and then another of breakfast tacos.) At her San Francisco restaurant Cala, health care and other benefits are provided to all full-time employees, many of whom were recruited from job programs for the formerly incarcerated. This is not only idealism; it is entwined with her reputation as an astute businesswoman running a successful enterprise with longevity. And neither is Cámara saccharine. When she was appointed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to oversee Mexico’s national tourism board, she recommended instead that the notoriously wasteful organization be eliminated. The president supported her, and the remaining funds, about $300 million according to the New York Times, were redirected to public transportation.
In what feels like another life pre-lockdown, we meet with Cámara in the garden of the gallery House of Gaga in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood, before heading across the street where we are greeted by her rescue dog in her plant- and light-filled apartment, with “art made by people who I care about, or sold by people who I care about.” Our conversation continued later after Mexico City, and Contramar, shut down in accordance with quarantine guidelines.
You are well-known as a magnet for people, for ideas. What beliefs are of timeless value to you?
Simplicity. And the belief of doing what you love in a committed and thorough way. In restaurants, specifically, it all has to do with the commitment to the people who make it happen, and with the sustainability of what we eat and how we eat it. This only happens by providing the best work environment for my team, and a lively, happy place for conviviality which translates into a unique dining and service experience for our guests.
I love people. I’m fascinated by individuals and adore interacting with a diversity of humans and learning about and from them. I mostly am constantly in awe and am a fervent admirer of the complexity of human nature, and of life. I guess this endless capacity of being in awe and always learning is what I value in myself as well.
Can you share a bit more about yourself, your background, your upbringing?
I was born in Chihuahua, in Northern Mexico, and then we moved to Tepoztlán, Morelos, a town south of Mexico City. I grew up mostly there, with my progressive, intellectual parents and my brother, in an ecological home full of interesting people who would visit from different parts of the world. We also travelled quite a bit because of the academic work my parents needed to do abroad, and spent extended periods of time in Italy and the US where we have family. Good food was always a central part of my upbringing, and family time was often spent gardening, cooking, and in happy conviviality around the table.
How did you start your business, and what are some things that have changed from the first time you took the risk, and, also, what has stayed constant through every new project?
I started my business in a serendipitous way. I was studying History and was quite certain I would specialize in contemporary art when a group of friends and myself decided to open a rather experimental project of a seafood restaurant in Mexico City in 1998. We wanted to recreate a seafood palapa or shack in an unpretentious environment, with great quality produce and good service, so we opened Contramar in the up-and-coming Colonia Roma. This was the beginning of what actually became my career. There was nothing like Contramar in the city, and I have to say it still is pretty special. Soon after we opened, it became an important restaurant which in many ways changed the restaurant scene in the city and the way people ate. In a way, Contramar was a bit ahead of its time, but always had a classic and unpretentious undertone which I believe is the reason it has stayed constant and relevant through the years. After 22 years, it is not only a landmark of Mexico City, but a place that is constantly reinventing itself, which makes it always lively and interesting.
In light of ongoing protests and conversations about equity and anti-racism, could you describe a vision for how food culture can contribute to creating a more equitable country, society, and world?
Let me start by stating that I honestly believe the world would be a better place if we could make sure every human being has access to good, clean, fairly grown and well-prepared food. Social justice starts with having equal opportunities, and access to food cannot be an exception. I am thinking of good food, not fast food produced in factories and coming from industrial agriculture. I am thinking of food that is nutritious in all ways, and serves as a binding element not only in the way it is produced, but along the whole food chain: From the fields and the farms to consumers. If we guarantee food for everyone respecting a healthy relationship to the environment, biological cycles, resources, labor — beyond that very basic human necessity which is eating — we guarantee a more equitable society and world. Food is a complex system. From the growing of ingredients to eating them there are ways in which to be inclusive and respectful that, with the state of things in our world, we better pay attention to and start changing for real. If all humans have access to good food, health, and education, I am convinced that we would be a better, fairer, healthier and happier ecosystem and society.
How have you gotten better at what you do?
By loving what I do and putting my life and soul into it. I study a lot and put a lot of critical thinking into what I do. I am always ready to learn and innovate, and also very strict with what I want to support and the messages I want to convey as a restaurant owner. Mostly I’ve gotten better by working hard.
In much of the world, and in so many aspects of the day, normal life feels uncertain or uncharted as we enter the second half of 2020. What guidance would you give — spiritual, emotional, and financial within our abilities — to those of us who love restaurants and owe so much of our lives to the community that they create, to the meals that have nourished us, to these homes away from home?
We will have to think up new ways to strengthen our community and nourishment through these places we love so much. Until we can get the experience we were used to having because it was something we could take for granted, we should keep on supporting these restaurants and the people who made them special and dear to us so that they can keep on existing in all sorts of new formats. I believe, even if it is through some new type of conviviality which will need to include distancing and keeping safe, we will find ways to interact in actual spaces because as humans, we need interaction with other real humans to feel like life is worth living.
I believe people will go back to restaurants as soon as it’s safe. The conviviality that takes place at restaurants goes beyond good food and service, and it has been one of the most missed aspects of life in isolation. Humans are social animals and restaurants have historically served as places for socializing. I believe it will take some time still for that to actually happen as we knew it before COVID, but in time we will find ways to recover, I trust.
An unexpected food/flavor pairing I love:
Lentil soup with bananas
Something that’s overrated:
Something that’s underrated:
Last book you read or gave as a gift:
The book I’m reading now is “What is Health? Allostasis and the Evolution of Human Design,” by Peter Sterling. And the last book I gave as a gift was my own book, “My Mexico City Kitchen”!
Beauty essential item:
In my fridge you’ll always find:
Hot sauce of some type
Go-to easy dinner I make myself:
Pasta with whatever I have around
When was the last time you did something for the first time?
Today! I attended my son´s lower school graduation ceremony online. Yikes.
How do you spend the first 20 minutes of your day or the last 20 minutes before you go to bed?
I try to spend them in somewhat of a meditation of what the day will look like, and what it was.