#MondayMotivation: Offering Experience, Not Demanding It

Chef Gabriela Cámara on her decision to staff up with ex-cons.

February 8, 2017 ● 3 min read

An incredibly important part of dining out is having great service. The food doesn’t sustain itself — the friendly and welcoming environment is what makes your restaurant experience worthwhile.

When I ran a restaurant in Mexico, Contramar, the service was totally outstanding not because of its formality, but because of its realness, and staff’s genuine interest in creating the best experience possible. That’s because in Mexico, being a waiter is still a profession. You can keep moving up the ranks and make a good amount of money, so you can really commit to a place.

When I moved to the Bay Area and opened my restaurant, Cala, I wanted to create that same environment, but I didn’t know how to find those kinds of staffers who would be willing to stay for the long haul. People were literally fleeing the city because it was so hard to make a living there.  

At the time, one of my employees had worked in a prison law office in California, and she told me about how there is this big reentry issue with people who served their time and could not find a job. She suggested looking into hiring these people. I immediately thought, Maybe this is how I can find people who will become really invested in the restaurant, and who could take ownership over this place. Ex-cons have fewer opportunities than, say, a musician, who will work at a restaurant for a little bit and eventually leave to pursue their profession. Restaurants are a perfect opportunity for them because by being a hard and good worker, you can actually move up. You don’t need to study, like with architecture or engineering — working in a restaurant is a craft, and it’s about getting the experience. I decided we would offer them good salaries and full benefits — and hopefully, they would want to stay. I started going to San Quentin State Prison and interviewing people who were ready to come out. 

At first, the training was really difficult. Some of these people had never had a glass of wine, or didn’t know the difference between sparkling and still water — they came from a totally different context. The biggest issues were with people with addictions. I had an amazing waiter, a former Navy Seal who used to be a heroin addict — he had the most extraordinary ability to interact with people — but after only six months, he went back to shooting up. And that’s really hard. But then there were the people who were smart and willing to do the job, who have moved up really fast. Like one of my hostesses — she is now finishing up her college degree, she is articulate — she knows how to speak to customers and purveyors. It’s rewarding to watch them succeed.  

In this society, as an ex-con, it can be really hard to keep yourself together. Some people see it as easier to be on the street and shoot up if you don’t have money than to go to a job and make a shitty wage and barely scrape by for your rent and food. But if you are at a place where you’re taken care of, and you take care of the place, it creates a community. And unlike those short-term rehabilitation programs or halfway homes, we offer a long-term solution — to help people get past those initial challenges once they leave prison, which is the hardest part.  

Overall, I think our decision has really worked out. You come into our dining room, and you can’t tell who is an ex-con and who is not. We give hope to these people. Maybe you can’t buy a house after a year of working at Cala, but after a few more years, yes — and maybe some of them will be able to open their own restaurants. 

It’s amazing to be a part of that. 

As told to Priya Krishna | Original photograph by Aubrie Pick for the San Francisco Chronicle