Gabriela Cámara: I met Monica when she became the sous-chef for Álvaro Vázquez, whom we hired to run Caracol de Mar [part of Cámara’s Grupo Contramar, which also includes Itacate del Mar, where López Santiago is the chef] in 2021. I’m always impressed when I taste her food: with how cerebral it is but also how evocative.
When I opened Contramar 25 years ago, the food scene was nothing like it is now. It was the peak of molecular gastronomy — all guy chefs, supertechnically trained, with this macho culture. So I did my own thing. If mentoring means building teams and inspiring them to want to be part of your project — hiring right and treating people right — then I’ve been mentoring forever. That’s a legacy that transcends food. It’s a way of living.
I’ve also been lucky to have many mentors of my own: my parents, my grandmothers, my aunts — and, of course, women in the industry like Alice Waters and Diana Kennedy. What’s wonderful about having people you look up to and having people look up to you is that you give them a bit of yourself because you’re also getting a bit of them. Or no — you give them a lot of yourself because you’re getting a lot of them.
I’m looking forward to working with Monica on our next project and seeing her come into her own voice. I only realized I had a voice by working with other people who could identify it with me. For now, she’s still trying to please me, but I’m always asking about her recipes and her process. That creates a space of trust. In food, tasting is dialogue. It’s the language we speak.
Monica López Santiago: I grew up in a town called San Francisco Teopan, about 90 minutes from Oaxaca City, which is where my family still is, but I moved to Mexico City at 12. I always missed my mother’s food, which is how I knew by high school that I wanted to be a cook. When I started studying, I learned about the world of restaurants, including Contramar: Gabriela became a particular reference for me because she was a woman.
Back home, there were always moles and barbacoas for special events; making those dishes meant forming a team of women — women who’ve done this work for a long time. But there’s so much machismo in professional kitchens that kept men from acknowledging our importance and our capacities.
For me, our restaurants Caracol and Itacate are spaces of liberty. We’ve made moles, adobos, tamales — dishes you’d never imagine on the Contramar menu. The name says it all: An itacate is something delicious you take home with you at the end of a meal. Here, it’s the flavors we’ve all brought from our homes into the kitchen, which, ideally, is a community where everyone teaches and everyone learns.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.