Lifestyle & Culture

This Top Chef Wants to Become the ‘Human Rights Watch for Mexican Food’

Celebrated restaurant owner Gabriela Cámara will move back to her native Mexico to advise the new president on food policy.

07.06.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by Christine Siracusa on Unsplash
Photo by Christine Siracusa on Unsplash

It’s impossible to think about Mexico, shaped by waves of Aztec, Mayan, Middle Eastern and European influences, without thinking about its food— the rich depth of Mole stew, the stuffed and steamed tamales, the corn-like elotes, the tacos, the burritos, the enchiladas, the fajitas.

What’s particularly interesting is that for all of this culinary hegemony—you’d be hard-pressed to find a major city devoid of a Mexican restaurant—Mexican people have long been treated with shocking levels of abuse and discrimination, particularly in the US. One of the most powerful men in the world is capable of both smearing Mexican people in the country as ‘criminals and rapists’, while appropriating the culture’s food, tweeting that ‘the best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill.’

Top chef Gabriela Cámara, now the subject of a new Netflix documentary about her uber-successful San Francisco and Mexico City restaurants Cala and Contramar, is well aware of this social complexity. As quoted in the New York Times, she says in the documentary that opening a Mexican restaurant in the US “is a paradox no matter how you look at it”.

“Yes, there is a lot of curiosity and respect for authentic Mexican food. On the other hand, there is a larger culture that despises Mexicans.”

But Cámara has also long recognised the power of food to bring communities together. The NYT adds that Cala established the chef as both an “eloquent translator of modern Mexican food” and an “advocate for social justice”. The employees serving out her raw trout tostadas and corn sopes are often recruited from former inmate programmes.

Continuing this momentum, Cámara has now been appointed to Mexican President Andrés López Obrador’s Council of Cultural Diplomacy. She will responsible for advising the government on food policy, joining figures with separate responsibilities including a principal dancer of the Staatsballett Berlin, Elisa Carrillo Cabrera; and the first woman president of the Colegio de México, sociologist Silvia Giorguli Saucedo.

“I want to be like Human Rights Watch, but for Mexican food,” the chef told NYT, explaining that this translates into a desire to be an unofficial advocate for traditional cooking, modern restaurants, tourism opportunities and the challenges posed by global food manufacturers.

It’s a good time for her to do so: The threat of trade tariffs and the famous southern wall have ensured that tensions with Mexico’s neighbour, the US, have never been higher. Perhaps her proven social track record—and, as her most recent book details, her ‘recipes and convictions’—can help Cámara turn widespread interest in Mexican cuisine into global respect for Mexico and Mexican traditions.

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