Two iconic chefs, Gabriela Cámara and Jessica Koslow, join forces on Onda, opening this summer at Santa Monica’s new Proper Hotel
Words by BROOKE PORTER KATZ
Chef collaborations are nothing new — a pop-up here, a special dinner series there — but it’s almost unheard of for two chefs to truly join forces and build a restaurant together, one that equally celebrates what their talents have to offer. Which is why the upcoming Onda, a partnership between Gabriela Cámara (of Mexico City’s Contramar fame) and Jessica Koslow (of Silverlake’s Sqirl fame), may just be the year’s most exciting opening. The all-day spot will anchor the Kelly Wearstler-designed Proper Hotel in Santa Monica, set to open this July in a Spanish colonial building. Separately, they have established icons in their cities, places that combine a special kind of warmth and hospitality with downright delicious food that tastes better than it looks on Instagram. (We’re looking at you, tuna tostadas and ricotta toast.) Last year, Cámara, whose cookbook My Mexico City Kitchen hits shelves April 30, and Koslow hosted pop-ups at their respective restaurants to celebrate their birthdays, which they just so happen to share. Most recently, the duo kicked off Resy’s 2019 Women of Food series with a dinner at Sqirl, an unofficial sneak peek of what’s to come at Onda. The duo chats about why they’re such a great match in the kitchen, the benefits of collaborating (especially among females) and more.
How did you two meet?
Cámara: We met at the MAD food symposium in Copenhagen in 2016, at a lunch at Rene Redzepi’s house. There were these long tables and lots of people, and Jessica’s husband came up to me and said that she would love to meet me. We just hit it off immediately. We have a lot of friends in common, so it was very natural. And she admired what I did, I admired what she did. It was an easy connection.
“[Koslow] admired what I did, I admired what she did. It was an easy connection” — Gabriela Cámara
What made you want to open a restaurant together?
Cámara: In a way, we have a similar following — the same type of people who love Sqirl are the people who love Contramar. We’re both interested in bright, acidic flavors and mixing ingredients so that they shine. We love good food that’s not fussy for the sake of being fussy and share principles in terms of working with fresh produce. But beyond that, we’re so similar in terms of what we enjoy when we dine out, what we eat at home, and even our taste in art and fashion.
Koslow: I think we also share a similar idea of how we think about hospitality. At Contramar, there’s this feeling of warmth that tells the story of Mexico City, but it’s also about dishes that people crave and want to eat every day. Both of us really care about how our restaurants relate culturally to the voice of a city and believe that dining there should be a holistic experience. And I think that’s rare. I think sometimes chefs forget about that.
“Both of us really care about how our restaurants relate culturally to the voice of a city and believe that dining there should be a holistic experience” — Jessica Koslow
What has it been like to collaborate?
Cámara: Collaborations are a wonderful way of making the most of your strengths. In an industry that is so competitive and demanding, it’s been amazing to find someone I want to go through the experience with. A really important part of our relationship is that we both appreciate the fact that we can share our ideas and apprehensions. Of course, there will always be conflicts. Thankfully, Jess and I haven’t had one yet, but during the restaurant’s opening days, I’m sure we’ll have to deal with each other’s anxieties. That’s the way it is working with other people, but the wonder of sharing the good parts is worth it. And you learn so much, all the time. Maybe it’s a woman thing, but we can really put our egos aside and there’s no competition.
“Maybe it’s a woman thing, but we can really put our egos aside and there’s no competition” — Gabriela Cámara
Koslow: I agree that this is about dropping the ego and thinking about how we’re going to develop a place of character for Los Angeles. It’s not common for two successful chefs to come together to really marry their foods and be OK with it.
What can we expect at Onda?
Cámara: It’s going to be Mexican with an L.A. twist, inspired by our location in Santa Monica close to the ocean. We’re really excited about being near the farmers market, and our dishes will be market-driven with simple, direct flavors. We’re going to make our own tortillas, and I want to use a lot of corn, even in our drinks. And we’ll have a trompo (a vertical rotisserie) for vegetale al pastor.
Koslow: It’s definitely meant to be a dialogue between Mexico and L.A. and will show how those ingredients and flavors can meld into each other. It’s hard to explain a cross-cultural restaurant without the term fusion, but I don’t want to use it. I see the restaurant using Contramar as a foundation and the ingredients, techniques and playfulness of Sqirl. And while I think that sobremesa culture of lingering over a meal is a uniquely Mexican thing, I do think there’s an ability to create a place that people really want to go to — and want to go to often.
Can you give us any other hints about the menu?
Koslow: It’s still a work in progress, but we’ll definitely have Gabriela’s tuna tostada in a different format. There will be sopes with jackfruit, mole and a crispy hoja santa leaf on top, as well as a version of Sqirl’s crispy rice with adobo-marinated yuba.
Have you been surprised by the response to your collaboration?
Koslow: In all honesty, it hasn’t surprised me. What other chefs have taken the risk with this type of partnership? I think the biggest thing will be living up to that expectation. Both of us deal with the idea of hype and what it’s like to have a restaurant that is hyped up and having to deliver on that. But it only makes me want to push harder. Opening a restaurant is really difficult, but the good thing is we’ve both done it.