No crazy paintings on the wall
by James Casey; photo: courtesy of Masienda / Ben Jay
James Casey is the founder and editor of Swallow Magazine. Born and raised in Hong Kong, it is still his favorite place to eat in the world. After working in other publications, he started Swallow in 2008, focusing on gastronomy in specific regions worldwide.
Several types of professionals compose the restaurant industry: chefs, critics, investors, customers, and fanatics, among others. We all eat out, right? And most of us love everything that has to do with food. So, what happens when three food experts sit down together and share a meal? In this case, Swallow Magazine Editor, James Casey, Mexico City trend-setting restaurants’ owner, Gabriela Cámara, and the chef at Estela in New York City, Ignacio Mattos, share their different points of view about evolution and what “being good enough” means when your life spins around the gastronomical trade.
Gabriela Cámara has been in the business for 16 years. She is a real entrepreneur, with five successful restaurants in the trendiest zone of Mexico City. When she opened the first one, Contramar, it was just an old neighborhood with large houses to restore. It is thought that Gabriela started the refreshment of the restaurant concept in this city, becoming what it is today.
Ignacio Mattos’ is a chef from Uruguay who became well known for his special touch and unique contemporary cooking at Brooklyn’s restaurant Isa. Today he is the chef and one of the owners of New York’s Estela, which is quickly rising to the top of the lists of the best restaurants in the United States. His food is not easily described by critics but loved by everyone who tries it.
In the middle of summer, Masafest was taking place in New York City: an all-day festival to celebrate culinary traditions and cultural significance of quality corn in communities around the globe. Among the special guests were Gabriela and Ignacio. The fact that Casey had them one in front of the other allowed him to “compare and contrast their similarities and differences”. Even though he could imagine them against each other, the reality of the conversation was both of them raising the other’s achievements.
JC: What are the similarities, if any, between your restaurants? It’s not just about food, is it? It’s about space, community...
IM: Contramar is exactly what I would like this place to be. It lives exactly within the parameters of where we took inspiration. It’s what a restaurant is supposed to be...
GC: That is really interesting as I’ve never thought of Estela as a place like Contramar. To me, Estela is much more sophisticated in terms of the food. Even the design of the place –a contained space in New York–, whereas Contramar is a huge warehouse in Mexico City where there was nothing before.
IM: Estela is not very obvious either, even if you are in the middle of everything.
JC: The food at Estela is continuously evolving, whereas at Contramar a lot of effort goes to keep things, if not the same, at least constant.
IM: We do evolve a lot here; it’s not so much me but the city that demands it. The customers are like: “You haven’t changed the menu yet!?” It’s a New York thing. There’s always demand for something new and it’s never enough. There are certain dishes that are constant though, and they might be here till we close down! The core is the same: there’s always a beef dish, pork dish.
JC: But if you changed, say, pescado a la talla at Contramar, there would be a scandal!
GC: I have changed it. If you had tasted it 16 years ago, you would see it was totally different. Contramar opened 16 years ago, Estela only one. The concept of people eating out is so different now. 80% of the places that are trendy in Mexico didn’t even exist! Still, anyone could like any of these restaurants.
IM: You know when a place stops being a trend? When they come back two to three times a week, then you’re part of the community. You have your champions.
GC: What they have in common is that you could eat here everyday if you wanted to. It’s not a fight against trends, but more about how you make a place that is sustainable.
JC: So how do you engineer a restaurant, then? Good food is obviously not enough. How do you create the right space? How do you get the right customers?
IM: Stay true to what you like. It’s being true to you. We picked random common chairs, we picked marble, which could have been pretentious, but it’s how you use it. We spent a little, but this place is utilitarian. It feels real. Contramar has that; it’s smartly put together.
JC: What about places that labor too hard? Some places never work. What’s that about?
IM: Egos. Ego of the architect, the designer, the chef, the owner...
GC: I think your ego is what gets things going. Why would you make a restaurant if you have no ego? It’s not a social project.
IM: There are other good egos, though. The dishwasher, the waiter, being proud...
GC: Those are the egos to take into account. But when you build a place you should focus on not paying too much attention to the architect, the designer, etcetera, as you can get distracted and that’s why places fuck up. There are too many distractions that deviate you from the idea of a certain thing and getting that right. It’s important to have a clear idea of what you want.
IM: At the end of the day it’s about editing. It’s about whatmatters, what do you want, what do you want the place to be? Do you want a special occasion place with a high price range? Financially it needs to make sense. If you have to pay for a chair that costs $600, that changes everything. It’s a combination of little elements. We want this to be a day-to-day place where you don’t feel ripped off. It’s fair.
GC: That’s really important. You can always get better things. At restaurants there is always a show, and the next day is another show. You have to manage with what you have for each day, and know what’s good enough. Restaurants are an everyday exercise in that way.
JC: How does hospitality fit into this?
IM: There’s no point in doing something that people wouldn’t enjoy.
JC: That’s pretty democratic for a chef!
IM: I know it sounds crazy, but that was my idea for this place. How can we make everything good enough? Sometimes people keep pursuing something new when “good enough” is right in front of you. How can you be universal? How can this Chinese delivery guy, a guy from Mexico, and a guy from Iowa have the same reaction to the food?
GC: You have that story of the African dishwasher and Susan Sontag having the same dish and the same expression on their face...
IM: [at the same time] the same expression on their face...
GC: You make food for people to enjoy it.
JC: Now, in this escalating culture of “chefdom”, we’ve entered the era of the auteur: the cook who demands your attention, the chef who insists on defining how and what you eat.
IM: If you cook, it’s because you love taking care of people. If you’re not doing that, then you’re doing it all wrong. You’re not being true to yourself. You have to please people, make them happy, feel satisfied.
GC: But do you think all chefs do that?
IM: It’s back to the ego thing. Some people have lost focus. If it doesn’t make people happy, it doesn’t work. As long as I work in that circle, I can do whatever the fuck I want (even if some think this is not as casual as I think).
GC: That’s what I love about Estela. It’s extraordinary food made for people to enjoy. That’s quite rare in the world! Chefs are at the height of their egos. They are considered artists... And yes, they can do what they want, but it takes the whole business into a new dimension that won’t work in the long run. The whole point of restaurants is for people to go enjoy something. People now go to restaurants like they go to exhibitions, but how often do you want to go to an exhibition? As much as you like it, you don’t go there to feel comfortable. You might go to see new things, to be surprised, but it’s not the same as being taken care of, looked after...
JC: You’ve been doing this for 16 years. How have you maintained Contramar? The city is now in the throes of a new food culture, how is your restaurant still the place to go? How do you balance the politicians with the artists, the cool kids with their grandparents?
GC: I’ve always had an idea of the place and the food. We never stop improving, but we also never wanted to go over the top and over the limit. We would never evolve into the general trend of new places. Keep on being who you are.
IM: You have this pressure to keep things moving, being exciting, etc. But also in keeping people comfortable. You try to be timeless. There’s not too much to get tired of here, no crazy paintings on the wall.
GC: It’s not a place to be trendy, here at Estela. It’s comfortable, anyone could come. I was here with my father and my son, and they both enjoyed it.
IM: Everyone here works together towards one goal. We do it for ourselves, for everyone.
GC: You always have to make it interesting for yourself, but also for those who work here; first for yourself and then, once you find it appealing, you can translate it to the team, and then to the customers.
IM: Once you incorporate everyone into it, then it works. At Contramar it was important to see how eclectic it was. Both places are eclectic with a mix of people, all having a good time.
The conversation went on. It was a moment between three food-fans who were finding each other in the same spicy spot, although they all came from different places. Well, food is about making people enjoy, and that is what they were doing...