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Mexican chef Gabriela Cámara on food as a force for social good

Cuisine inspired by Mexico can be found almost everywhere in the United States. But at chef Gabriela Cámara's restaurants — on both sides of the border — dishes with fresh, local ingredients put a unique twist on traditional favorites. Jeffrey Brown caught up with Cámara to discuss why she sees food as a powerful social force.

Note: This story was produced before the widespread international response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additional Material:
Cala | Contramar | Andrés Manuel López Obrador


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: And now the final installment of our series exploring Mexico's vibrant arts and culture scene.

Jeffrey Brown spoke to chef Gabriela Camara, who sees the country's cuisine as a powerful force in Mexico and beyond.

She was recently named to "TIME" magazine's list of this year's 100 most influential people.

This story was shot before the pandemic as part of our ongoing coverage of arts and culture, Canvas.

Gabriela Camara: Take it with your hand, because it usually breaks. It's very -- it's brittle, OK? It's a tostada. It's a fried tortilla.

Jeffrey Brown: Lunchtime in Mexico City, time for a taste of a signature dish of the restaurant Contramar, the raw tuna tostada.

Chef and owner Gabriela Camara started Contramar 22 years ago here in Mexico City's Roma district, very far from the coast, but with a simple idea, based on her memories of time at the beach.

Gabriela Camara: It's Mexican, usually food that you would associate with informal eating in Mexico, either in markets or on a beachside palapa, which Contramar tried to recreate.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Gabriela Camara: That was our intention.

Jeffrey Brown: That was the original idea?

Gabriela Camara: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: And that meant everything fresh, as we saw in the kitchen prep before opening, the tuna loin being cut for those famous tostadas, oysters also just in from the coast, various other fish and shrimp, avocados and mushrooms, and, of course, the salsas and limes, all of it sourced through regular suppliers, many of them local, who farm or fish sustainably.

None of this was the norm when she started out.

Gabriela Camara: It was never meant to be a traditional restaurant.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, I mean, you accept tradition, right?

Gabriela Camara: No, and I embrace it and I respect it.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Gabriela Camara: And I feel that anybody who wants to cook Mexican food should know about traditions in Mexican food.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes. But you're using it...

Gabriela Camara: But then you have to do your own thing, and you have to be creative, and you have to make sure that, if you're able to use certain ingredients in successful ways, that you can do it.

Jeffrey Brown: Camara is plenty successful. Her restaurant is one of the city's most popular.

Gabriela Camara: I'm going to teach you how to make a few delicious salsas.

Jeffrey Brown: And she's among a handful of international celebrity chefs to teach in the well-known MasterClass online education series.

Her recent cookbook, "My Mexico City Kitchen," is subtitled "Recipes and Convictions." She is, as she writes, not your typical Mexican girl, the child of a Mexican father, an educator, and Italian mother, an art historian, '60s hippies, in her telling, who loved to eat, but weren't much on cooking.

Gabi, as she was called, spent some of her childhood in the U.S., and as a girl in Mexico learned to make her own fresh tortillas. And many years later, in her restaurant, we saw the masa, or corn-based dough, being rolled for that day's consumption.

I asked Camara, who, by the way, never had formal training as a cook, or even worked in a restaurant until she opened her own, what Americans get wrong about Mexican food.

Gabriela Camara: Mexican gastronomy is so wide that I think that what you have in the United States is a few things that have made their way there somehow, historically or...

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, that's just one little aspect of it.

Gabriela Camara: But I think it's broadening greatly in the past years.

Jeffrey Brown: But it's not just Taco Bell anymore, clearly.

Gabriela Camara: It's very much more than Taco Bell now.

You know, even in places that are far from the border, it's much more than Taco Bell.

Jeffrey Brown: Camara has been part of that change, opening a restaurant called Cala in San Francisco in 2015.

In the meantime, she's watched Mexico City become a foodie and culture destination.

Gabriela Camara: Art and food in Mexico is wonderful. It has to do with globalization and social media and the awareness of how much richness there is in Mexico, when it's so close to the United States.

Jeffrey Brown: You go back and forth across the border. You know how Americans look at Mexico.

I'm coming from a news program. We're usually here reporting on, not food.


Gabriela Camara: Yes. Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: We're here on drug cartels, violence, corruption.

Gabriela Camara: Totally.

And that is all true.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Gabriela Camara: But it's also true that Mexico is culturally extremely more rich than most Americans realize. And I feel that this fascination with Mexican food also has to do with the fascination of the few people who have discovered it and then feel they want to share it to the world or they want to share it with the world or their world.

Jeffrey Brown: At the same time, Camara is keenly aware that the economics of food and agriculture have a deep impact on inequities in her country.

Gabriela Camara: We have a destroyed country, where we can't find good heirloom corn produced in regions that historically have been producing corn for -- since time immemorial.

Jeffrey Brown: And that's gone away?

Gabriela Camara: And that's been really damaged in the past 40 years. And we're importing a lot of corn from the United States. We're importing industrialized corn that isn't as nutritious, and it doesn't give people the opportunity to work. People who have had to migrate to the cities here or in the United States.

Jeffrey Brown: So, you see -- there is a direct tie between food and migration, for example?

Gabriela Camara: And well-being of the population of a country in general, yes, absolutely.

Jeffrey Brown: I mean, we're sitting in your wonderful restaurant. It's not super expensive, but it's more expensive than many people here can come to, right?

Gabriela Camara: So much more.

Jeffrey Brown: This is a well-heeled crowd, right?

Gabriela Camara: Yes, totally, totally.

Jeffrey Brown: And you have these very strong feelings about supporting the country and bringing up the growth and getting rid of the inequities in Mexico. How do you balance those?

Gabriela Camara: Well, I have rich people come and eat food that less privileged people cook and get very well paid for, and farmers grow and get very well paid for, fisheries bring in responsibly and get very well paid for.

So I think that you're not going to eliminate everything. It's not like -- and I do think a lot about how to make, for example, food more high-quality and accessible in schools or in certain communities.

But the only way you make big ideas happen is if you make them happen in actual contexts. And you need to start somewhere. So I think the only change that one can actually make is the change you can make for real.

Jeffrey Brown: Right here at the table.

Gabriela Camara: Yes, and at the table. That's why it's so revolutionary.

I never imagined being an activist. And now, in my career as restaurateur, I realize how much activism I do in every day of my just normal work.

Jeffrey Brown: Changing the world, perhaps, one filling lunch at a time.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Mexico City.

Judy Woodruff: And a brief update:.

While Gabriela Camara's San Francisco restaurant, Cala, remains closed due to the pandemic, Contramar has reopened. She also has a new restaurant opening soon in Mexico City.

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