In April, a few days after Donald Trump tweeted out a threat to close the U.S. border with Mexico, Jessica Koslow and Gabriela Cámara cooked dinner together for the first time.
Koslow, mastermind of an all-day-breakfast revolution at Sqirl, her café on Los Angeles’s East Side, and Cámara, the chef-owner of Mexico City’s most beloved restaurant, Contramar, where languorous weekend lunches are a social institution, were making the opening statements in what they called “a conversation between two sister cities.” To the assembled diners, here were tantalizing glimpses of Onda, their joint restaurant, which opens in Santa Monica this summer: heirloom corn nuts and lacto-fermented jalape?o; a ceviche of striped bass cured in pickled carrot juice; a crispy rice salad with curls of tofu skin en adobo.
“The language is still a bit blurry,” Cámara says the next morning. Maybe the ceviche’s marinade was too bright; maybe the jackfruit mole was too weird, spilling out of a blue corn sope like a sort of vegan Sloppy Joe. “Cooking is trial and error; if it doesn’t work here, put it there. It’s funny to think of that dinner as a kind of protest against closing the border, since here we are in Los Angeles, the city with the most Mexicans after Mexico City—more than Guadalajara, more than Monterrey. You can’t think of L.A. without thinking about Mexicans. And Trump says we don’t need any more.” She squints and shakes her head. “What an interesting moment.”
For the last five years, Cámara has been living in San Francisco with her nine-year-old son, Lucas. (Lucas’s father, Pablo Bueno, is one of the partners in Contramar and divides his time between San Francisco and Mexico City.) In 2015 she opened the restaurant Cala there, an extension of the ambitions of the mother ship in Mexico City and already an institution in its own right. She recalls a night two years ago when her friend Andrés Manuel López Obra-dor came to Cala and told her that if he was elected president of Mexico, on his third try, he would need her back home, working with him. López Obra-dor won in a landslide last July, becoming the first left-wing head of state in modern Mexican history, and so at the end of the summer—without a precise job description or a contract or a salary—Cámara will move back into her house in Condesa, a short walk from Contramar, and take a desk as an adviser in the presidential palace.
To appreciate the peculiar logic of this career transition, it is important to understand that Cámara, 43, is a chef constitutionally incapable of hunkering down in the solemn laboratory of her culinary imagination. In what may be one of the great confidence moves in the history of restaurants, she opened Contramar in a sprawling Roma warehouse at age 22, in her final year at university, never having cooked anywhere but in her own kitchen. The idea, hatched over drinks in the final hours of a New Year’s party, was simple enough: Bring the beach food of weekend trips to Zihuatanejo to the city. Immediately, hungover locals who couldn’t get out of town would come for late lunches of tacos and micheladas, staycation cuisine if ever there was one. Within months, lines had formed outside Contramar. Within a year, the street was choked with luxury cars.
“I thought, Oh, God, it’s become fashionable; please don’t let it go downhill,” recalls Cámara, whose dark-red manicure might raise questions about how much time she spends in the kitchen (though she points out that her San Francisco neighbor Danny Bowien, of Mission Chinese Food, cooks with his own pristine gels). Instead Contramar, 21 years later, wields a kind of soft power: Its vast, open dining room hosts a miscellany of artists and businessmen, stylish Mexican families and visiting pilgrims, all made somewhat giddy by the dissonance of fish tacos and waiters in white jackets and black bow ties racing through the room with giant dessert trays held high. Contramar is raucous and genteel and warm and glamorous, a pure expression of its chef-owner.
“I have no political aspirations,” Cámara says. “I don’t want to be the governor of anything. But did I want to just sit at home in Dolores Park and run my restaurant and try to win a James Beard prize? I’ve never cared about that. But this is a very important time in Mexico, and having a chance to help more people than just the people who work for me in my restaurants and their families to have a better life—how can I say no to that?”
Friends of Cámara invariably point to her own family as the wellspring of the breezy self-belief and magnanimity that permeate her restaurants. Her father, a professor of education, comes from a large and prosperous family in Mexico City, and her mother, an art historian, is a Florentine who grew up in Philadelphia. The Cámaras met at the Catholic Center at Harvard as graduate students (Gabriela’s father is a former Jesuit priest, and her mother once had dreams of becoming a nun), and Gabriela was born in Chihuahua City, where her father had moved with the Jesuits to build a school and a health center. They were eventually joined by her mother, who completed a doctoral dissertation on mosaics in southern Italy. Gabriela and her brother were raised mainly in Tepoztlán, a town in a picturesque valley south of Mexico City that is a frequent weekend destination for families from the capital.
The Cámaras were bourgeois hippies. The house in Tepoztlán had dry toilets, solar ovens, a system to catch the rainwater, compost. Gabriela’s grandmother was an early subscriber to the Whole Earth Catalog, the late-sixties counterculture magazine devoted to self-sufficiency. Though he was an educator, Gabriela’s father doubted the usefulness of mainstream schooling and said yes when his daughter requested a yearlong sabbatical at age eleven. The family spent months at a time in the United States and Europe. “Growing up with parents who are very different from everybody else’s parents everywhere you are is challenging,” she says, “but I was always very proud of them. And wherever we went, I always felt that we belonged. This is all to say that I was raised in an environment of total freedom by two people who believed I could do whatever I wanted.”
Gabriela’s mother, focused on her research, had little personal interest in cooking. “I remember feeling mortified that in my house nobody made fresh tortillas,” Gabriela recalls. A housekeeper taught her how when she was seven. Her parents flung their doors open to old colleagues from Catholic charities, and when friends from Amnesty International would pass through with refugees from Nicaragua or Guatemala on their way to Canada, Gabriela cooked with them. But her mother’s mother, an excellent home cook who during Gabriela’s childhood divided her time among Cape Cod, Florence, and Tepoztlán, was her great teacher. She had little patience for the fumbling of children, but Gabriela watched her carefully. “You had to be good to cook with her, so I got good.” On weekends in Zihuatanejo, her grandfather took the children fishing, and Gabriela learned to shuck oysters and prepare octopus. By the time she was a teenager, she and her brother were throwing dinners for big groups of friends. “It wasn’t like we were foodies. It was simple. Chila-quiles. Ceviches. Big lasagnas.”
Cámara has always been asked where she was from—except in Italy, where people see something familiar in the broad, polished planes of her face. At the end of every family visit to Italy, her mother would weep. “This wasn’t because she was unhappy,” Cámara explains. “It was a kind of an emotional transition. We still make fun of her: Every time she hears the bells of the church in Florence, her chin starts to quiver. But because of her, I’ve always had a consciousness about what non-Mexicans will easily take from Mexican food.”
That Contramar’s most iconic and imitated dish is its tuna tostada continues to amuse her; after all, it is itself merely a riff on the tuna tartare on a crispy wonton skin that was a hallmark of nineties fusion in the heyday of Nobu Matsuhisa. That tostada will surely appear in some form on the menu of Onda, as it did in April, when Koslow gave it a respectful Sqirl-ization, steeping the fish in Cara Cara orange juice and liquid amino acids. But if there is a dish that is synonymous with Cámara, it is her pescado a la talla, the spice-rubbed and grilled snapper that can be found up and down the coastline of Guerrero, usually served with a dish of black beans and a stack of tortillas and eaten as a taco. At Contramar, one side of the butterflied fish is coated in the traditional dried chile paste, while the other is painted in a garlic-parsley dressing that is purely Italian—Cámara’s twin heritage on a plate.
“This is sort of a secret,” says her friend the chef Ignacio Mattos, of New York’s Estela. “You can put out a plate of food and be good at it, but creating an environment where you allow people to forget everything—that is hard. You enter Contramar and you don’t want to leave. You just feel that you’re in the right place at the right time with the right people.” Mattos was in Mexico City on the day of the Mexican election last July; he and Cámara had planned to take their kids to Isla Holbox for a few days after she voted, but when the results came in, Cámara told him she had to stay. “I said, ‘You have to do it.’ We need people like Gabi involved in the political process. She has a way with people that is unique. Especially in this period of turmoil and uncertainty, she is a natural ambassador, a person who is able to talk to anyone at any level.”
In California, Cámara has become known for her practice of hiring previously incarcerated people to staff Cala. She has partnered with government programs that support prisoners preparing to return to the community and has become close to mayor turned governor Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Though she has lost some employees to recidivism or addiction, ex-convicts make up nearly half the front-of-house staff of Cala. “There are people who have issues with drugs and alcohol,” she explains, “and I’ve done the Twelve Steps with them. I’ve read the fucking book. I will tell someone, ‘If you have money in your hands and you can’t go to your house without stopping at a prostitute or at the bar, leave the money here on the table.’ Maybe I need a good therapist to explain to me why I love the role of taking care of people.” Cámara is among the San Francisco chefs who have added an additional service charge to restaurant bills to cover health insurance for their employees. “I’ve always had the idea,” she says, “that if you can’t pay a decent wage to everyone who works at your restaurant, then you shouldn’t be feeding rich people.”
Uniting as they do issues of nutrition and health, agriculture and the environment, labor, and economic disparities, restaurants are a natural incubator for activism even among those at the top of the pyramid—Alice Waters with her edible schoolyard, José Andrés in post-hurricane Puerto Rico, Massimo Bottura’s crusade against waste, or Jamie Oliver’s campaign to keep junk food out of children’s hands. In the year since the ascension of López Obrador, Cámara has been offered an array of potential roles with long names and vague descriptions. Last summer the president asked her to take over a tourism board that he suspected was rife with fraud. She swiftly closed it down.
“I said, ‘What can I really help you with other than listening to you and telling you my very uneducated opinion about your very complex political actions?’ ” Cámara recalls. “I can give you my common sense, which doesn’t necessarily amount to much. I think he just enjoys my company.” Friends have joked that Cámara will be López Obrador’s Valerie Jarrett, a close adviser whose role eludes easy definition. The details remain hazy, but this fall Cámara will take charge of a presidential commission on food whose goal is to ensure that major corporations’ practices in Mexico promote health and protect the environment.
López Obrador has become an enormously popular president by making big promises. He is fanatical about corruption and trimming government fat and has championed social programs. But some critics have expressed concern that he may well have too much power, and Cámara says that she has often found herself needing to reassure certain friends that he has no intention of remaining in office for 40 years. “No rich person wants to lose their privilege,” she says.
As soon as it became clear that she would be taking a position in the government, Cámara’s current boyfriend, a professional poker player turned real estate developer, suggested that she try Game of Thrones. A great skeptic of television, she nevertheless watched seven seasons straight through. “Who gets to have what? It’s still such a crucial question,” she muses. “I have always found that food, in practical terms, is what brings together all the most important issues that the planet needs to solve.” If world affairs do get decided over a round of palomas, it will be on Cámara’s watch. Summer is coming.
Sittings Editor: Lawren Howell.
Hair: Nikki Providence; Makeup: Sandy Ganzer.
Produced by Preiss Creative. Prop Styling by Sophia Moreno-Bunge of ISA ISA.