‘A Tale of Two Kitchens’ Juxtaposes Gabriela Cámara’s Restaurants in Mexico and the U.S.
We’ve hailed chef Gabriela Cámara as one of the most innovative women in the food and drink industry. After all, no trip to Mexico City's Roma Norte neighborhood is complete without a stop at Contramar to order the Pescado a la Talla, Contramar-style—you know, that red and green whole fish you’ve seen all over Instagram. She opened the restaurant back in 1998, hoping to bring the concept of a beach café with an upscale twist to the city; 17 years later, she adopted that same philosophy in San Francisco when she launched Cala. At this sister restaurant, Cámara's staff includes former convicts, firmly believing that people deserve a second chance. Staff members also qualify for full medical, dental, and vision insurance at 20 hours a week. As a result, the restaurant (on our 2019 list of Great Restaurants to Work For) has historically seen a low staff turnover rate.
“It’s about time that people think about how they’re treating their employees, not just their guests,” Camara previously told Food & Wine.
In a new documentary short called A Tale of Two Kitchens, which launched on Netflix May 22, director Trisha Ziff explores the employee communities at Contramar and Cala—interviewing not only Cámara, but waiters, bartenders, line cooks, chefs, general managers, and busboys as well. In just under 30 minutes, she packs in myriad topics: the complexity of Mexican-American identity, the integral role Latin Americans have had in American restaurants and the food industry, and how coworkers can become family.
“I wanted to make a film about two restaurants that isn't just about the food, but focused on the people,” Ziff told Food & Wine over e-mail. “I watched the waiters working at Contramar in Mexico City and it reminded me of the portraits by photographer August Sander. To me, a portrait is the exchange of a moment of trust between people. I wanted to make a film that embodied that spirit. The atmosphere in both these restaurants impressed me immensely, the camaraderie, the care, the use of the word ‘family’ by the staff.”
A Tale of Two Kitchens is loosely structured to be a day in the life at both restaurants, she says, beginning at Contramar in the early morning and closing at night with Cala. As we hop between the locations and observe the staff, she points out juxtapositions. At Contramar, the floors are cleaned collectively by all staff members, and there is “no distinction between being a waiter or preparing the restaurant;” at Cala, a lone worker cleans the restaurant at night. In Mexico, waiting tables is seen as a profession, and waiters are taught the art of service; here in the U.S., that craft is (mostly) reserved for fine dining restaurants, and people tend to view serving as a means to an end.
At one point, Balo Orozco, sous chef at Cala, says that American restaurants wouldn’t be the same without Latin Americans in the kitchen—“every single place, literally every single restaurant that you go, there’s Latinos in the kitchen,” he says. And indeed, at Cala, the kitchen is filled with staff from Mexico, Argentina, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Therein lies a huge paradox—opening a Mexican restaurant in the U.S., which Cámara explains.
“On one hand, the Americans have Mexico as their nearest country, in terms of interesting gastronomy. There’s a fascination with Mexico, and its thousand-year-old gastronomic traditions they yearn for,” she said. “On the other hand, we have a culture that deeply despises Mexicans. And at the same time, Mexican food is almost a staple food for Americans, specifically in California and the states that used to be part of Mexico. There’s a long-standing tradition, very deep-rooted, of loving the gastronomic culture that they consider Mexican.”
While Cala and Contramar aren’t exactly the same, it’s clear that at both restaurants, the staff is a close-knit community—in fact, there’s even a father-son duo working at Contramar. Mao Bravo, Contramar’s general manager, said the restaurant’s focus is on supporting people, and that having the opportunity to help people is a blessing. “The first person we have to help, listen to and attend to is the one next to us,” he said. “We can’t overlook the problems we have at restaurants, with alcohol, drug abuse, everything. We can’t ignore them or dismiss them.” He says he thinks of Contramar as his home. Cala has a similar vibe—a bartender says it feels like a family.
The last minute or so of the film has everyone gathering together in groups for what seems like portraits—with backdrops like you’d see at school picture day. Ultimately, Ziff wants viewers to take away that waiters are people, and that “they have lives, they have histories, so perhaps treat them with the dignity that they (as we all) deserve.”
“I always think the people who treat servers the best in restaurants are those who have worked as a waiter or waitress themselves,” Ziff says. “Maybe this film will make others think about the people who serve them the next time they go out to eat."
"A Tale of Two Kitchens" is currently streaming on Netflix—you can watch it here.