Gabriela Cámara immediately strikes you with her gracious nature and energy. We recently sat down at a table in her San Francisco restaurant, Cala, to discuss her take on sustainable sourcing in the Bay Area as a single window washer worked away on the front of the restaurant. Gabriela looked on, worried about how long he’d been standing precariously on his ladder and noting how meticulous he was in his work.
The way Gabriela cares for and interacts with her workers comes as no surprise. After all, she’s received significant press for her practice of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals to staff her restaurant. While this certainly came up in our conversation, I was here first and foremost to learn more about her experience and thoughts on working with local farms to create her much-praised menu.
As most people know, Gabriela first came to fame in her native Mexico with the opening of Contramar, and currently owns four restaurants in the capital city. Contramar’s focus is fresh fish and seafood –- something that wasn’t being done anywhere in Mexico City at the time of its opening in 1998, Gabriela says. The inspirations that shaped Gabriela's restaurant concept came from the U.S.; of most consequence -- Chez Panisse. “My experience eating there was truly transformational. I realized that thoughtfulness behind the scenes and awareness of impact could bring the eating experience full circle for everyone involved,” Gabriela reflects. Now, Gabriela herself enjoys the company of Alice Waters as a fellow restaurateur, and will be traveling to Terra Madre with her at the end of the month.
“How does sustainable sourcing in Mexico compare with the process in the Bay Area?” I ask. “Mexico is still building its system for responsible sourcing, whereas in the Bay Area that system is already built,” she states. For a chef, it’s a dream to be tapped into such a system, but, of course, there is an adjustment period to pricing, particularly when coming from Mexico. Still, it’s important to Gabriela that farmers are paid well, and that’s where there is plenty of room for improvement in our local food system. We agreed that the general population still needs to be educated about the true costs behind food production.
How did Gabriela first tap into the local food community to source her ingredients for Cala? One key event occurred in the most unlikely way -- through a fellow parent at her son’s school (a parent who also happens to be an Ambassador for Kitchen Table Advisors). Given the easy connections characteristic of our tight-knit Bay Area food community, Gabriela has been able to build first-name basis relationships with many farmers, including several in the Capay Valley in Yolo County -- Say Hay Farms, Fiddlers Green Farm, and the pioneering Full Belly Farm. She’s also tapped into the local farmers market scene and buys twice a week from Frog Hollow Farm, Dirty Girl, and Star Route Farms at the San Rafael and Ferry Building farmers markets.
Gabriela is excited for a fresh bounty of new vegetables to arrive with fall so she can build her new menus. To celebrate the season, she plans on contributing a squash ceviche and bean dish to the Grazing at the Kitchen Table menu. In the meantime, the summer harvest is keeping her busy. “The tomatoes right now are amazing!” she enthusiastically shares.
As Gabriela and I were wrapping up our conversation, we reflected on the social justice components that link her strong belief and practice of hiring those coming out prison with supporting sustainable agriculture. It’s a commitment to disrupting systems of inequality and placing humans at the center of the system. Gabriela’s personal and professional ethic certainly does this –- from the farmers who grow her food, to the workers who prepare it, to presenting her guests with the opportunity to enjoy a meal with the knowledge that everything behind the dish is made with respect and integrity.
Let’s not forget the practical angle in the midst of the larger ethical argument, either. Before I left, Gabriela gave me a grilled cucumber taco to try. Grilled cucumber? Yes, it was delightful. “Cucumbers are in season and it's great to incorporate in-season produce when they are abundant so we can keep the cost of our tacos low,” Gabriela shares. As of this writing, her tacos are $3.50 a la carte or three for $12. A steal by San Francisco standards.
I've always been moved by the Gandhi quote "Be the change you wish to see in the world." This is what came to my mind as I enjoyed my visit with Gabriela Cámara. She is certainly a change agent we are fortunate to have in the Bay Area.
Come be a part of the change that Chef Cámara is bringing to Bay Area food during Grazing at the Kitchen Table. The event takes place from 6.30pm to 9.30pm on Thursday, September 22, 2016 at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale now--don't wait to reserve your seat! Follow #GrazeAndGive2016 for updates.
Photos courtesy of Cala.