San Francisco (CNN) — Renowned Mexican chef Gabriela Cámara has never been shy about her love for using local and seasonal ingredients in her cooking, but visiting her at her San Francisco restaurant Cala brings her passion to life in the most engaging — and tasty — way.
Today, at the Mexican seafood eatery in Hayes Valley, she’s making her version of a ceviche with squid, onion and satsuma, a citrus variety prized for its sweetness. Though the squid, available year-round in the Bay Area, is a staple in the dish, the other ingredients aren’t.
“We sometimes also add pine nuts or, depending on the season, we do it with other vegetables or fruits,” says Cámara, as she lightly grills the tentacles.
In what seems like a flash, she’s showing off the corn that makes its way onto Cala’s menu time and time again. “[It’s] organic corn, white corn from the Central Valley of California, which we every day prepare into masa,” she says.
An unexpected career
Cámara, who was born in Chihuahua City, Mexico, recently moved back to Mexico to serve as adviser to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, but her San Francisco restaurant remains under her (distant) charge.
In spite of her success in the restaurant industry, Cámara never imagined that she would have a career in food.
Given her passion for politics and criminal justice reform (more on that later), it makes sense she’s entered the political sphere in this very outward-facing role.
But even this isn’t something she foresaw for herself. “I thought I would be a curator for contemporary art. I was studying to do that,” she says. Yet she had always been curious about hospitality and enjoyed good food and cooking for others.
Friends would ask why she didn’t study to be a chef.
“I always thought, ‘No, I don’t. I don’t want to be a chef. I don’t want to be a chef on a cruise ship or in a five-star hotel in Monaco, or like, that was my idea,’ ” says Cámara.
The turning point came with a meal — her first — at the famed Chez Panisse when she 17. She read the menu, she says, and thought, “Oh, this is really intellectualizing food in a way that does appeal to me.”
Starting a craze
Cámara hardly set out to revolutionize Mexican food when she opened her wildly successful Mexico City seafood eatery Contramar in 1998 (just try getting a reservation for a meal).
The restaurant was inspired by her frequent trips to Zihuatanejo on the Pacific Coast. There, she and her fellow vacationers caught and cooked their own fish and ate it with fresh tortillas and black beans. The meals were very simple, she says, yet hard to find in Mexico. She wanted to open a restaurant that would serve this very food and highlight fresh, high-quality seafood.
Chez Panisse and Alice Waters’ commitment to working with local suppliers played an integral role in Contramar’s philosophy.
“It’s really interesting that Chez Panisse was such an influence on me when I opened Contramar. Even though Contramar has nothing to do with Chez Panisse, I think Contramar is a huge, very urban place. It was certainly a reference for my wanting to do things in-house and working directly with the farmers and working directly with the fisherman,” says Cámara.
Contramar quickly gained a cult following that only intensified through the years, and Cámara’s food world celebrity status grew worldwide.
She says that she received numerous offers to open versions of Contramar in the United States but didn’t consider any until her son was 4 years old. “My partner and I wanted to get out of the city and didn’t know how and thought maybe if we do something abroad, it would be a good opportunity,” she says.
Planting roots in the Bay Area
Cámara was initially set to open her first US restaurant in New York but ultimately decided on San Francisco because she thought it was closer to Mexico culturally. She was also drawn to the city’s food community, which she describes as “extraordinary.”
“The food scene in San Francisco was something I had always really respected and the possibility of cooking with the ingredients you can find here,” she says.
But before rushing to open Cala in 2015, Cámara researched San Francisco’s Mexican food scene.
“I did see an area of opportunity making the food that I was making at Contramar,” she says. However, she believed that the food could even be better because the city was close to the ocean, allowing her to use only local fish. In addition, she had access to an abundance of locally grown produce.
Both factors were key. “I really think I am much more moved by tasting extraordinarily ripe fruit or vegetables or, you know, a chicken that really tastes of clean,” says Cámara.
She also believes that locally sourced ingredients are healthier. “You need less of good food to feel very satisfied in terms of eating,” she says.
From the outset, Cámara was intent that Cala, an airy, industrial space in the Civic Center, would not be a Contramar replica. “I wanted it to have its own identity,” she says.
Cámara was looking forward to working with farmers and fisherman to bring her diners the very best ingredients she could get her hands on, but she was concerned about the quality of wait staff she would be able to find.
“Service in Mexico is extraordinary. And I was really concerned that in San Francisco we were not going to get good service ever,” she says. The restaurant industry was suffering, and other restaurateurs she knew were struggling to find good staff.
Cámara’s business partner, Emma Rosenbush, had previously worked at a prison law office and asked her if she would be willing to hire servers with a conviction history.
“You know, I was very keen on it,” says Cámara.
She and Rosenbush collaborated with local organizations that helped prisoners find jobs after they had finished serving their jail sentences and ended up hiring a large part of their staff through them.
For the most part, she’s satisfied. Cala’s waitstaff doesn’t always get it right, she says, but she believes that the service is generally kind.
It may not be a Contramar copycat, but Cala has been a hit in its own right and is a hot-ticket meal for locals and tourists.
Cámara partly attributes its success to San Francisco’s track record of embracing women chefs such as Cecilia Chiang, Dominique Crenn and Tanya Holland.
“There’s a really long tradition of prideful women that have had amazing careers and been very influential for the way this city has been eating,” she says.
And, of course, there’s Alice Waters, with whom Cámara now has a personal connection.
They first met at a Slow Food conference in Italy and subsequently spent time together in Mexico.
“She has gone from being a role model to actually being a very close friend, and that’s extraordinary,” she says. “And I’ve been very lucky to have role models like that.”