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The House of Cala

A fine-dining restaurant in San Francisco cooks up second chances.

On a recent afternoon at Cala, a contemporary Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, Candace Hightower takes reservations as cooks prep for dinner service. Two women at the restaurant’s lunchtime taco counter strip thorns from cactus leaves, and fill cups with agua fresca. “Right around now,” Hightower says with a grin, “it starts bumping.”

In many respects, Cala isn’t different from most other high-profile San Francisco restaurants: It serves sophisticated, beautifully executed food in a sophisticated, beautifully executed dining room. But unlike most San Francisco restaurants—or really, most restaurants anywhere—it actively recruits formerly incarcerated people to staff its dining room and kitchen. About 45 percent of its 40-some employees have prison records. “We seek them out,” says Emma Rosenbush, Cala’s general manager. “I want them.”

Gabriela Cámara

Before she started working here, Hightower had never heard of a trout tostada, much less enjoyed it. She also never thought she’d apply for a job without getting judged for the felony DUI conviction on her record; when she’d tried in the past, things would get awkward. (“Oh, that position is no longer available,” she recalls.) But at Cala, there wasn’t any awkwardness; there was just opportunity. “And to have an opportunity without judgement,” Hightower says, “was pretty amazing.”

Opened in 2015, Cala is the first U.S. restaurant from Gabriela Cámara, a legendary restaurateur in her native Mexico City. Back in Mexico, Cámara says, she has never hesitated to hire people with troubled pasts. “In restaurants, you always hire people who have issues,” she points out. “Restaurants take everybody in.” So when Rosenbush, who had previously worked in Berkeley’s Prison Law Office, approached her about hiring people with conviction histories, Cámara was game. But her open-mindedness was born as much from pragmatism as compassion: Thanks to San Francisco’s labor shortage and high cost of living, finding loyal, dedicated employees is tough. “We needed people who could give good service,” Cámara says. “It’s not just because I’m a good person. If you have staff who know how important they are, they’re more likely to do a better job.”

To find employees, Rosenbush and Cámara reached out to San Francisco’s Adult Probation Department and the Delancey Street Foundation, a nonprofit that offers residential rehabilitation services and vocational training for substance abusers and ex-convicts. While some of their new staff had prior restaurant experience, there were others who didn’t know the difference between sparkling and still water. Another didn’t know wine is made from grapes.

There were other challenges, such as the addiction issues some employees faced, as well as their need for services to help them readjust to regular working life. “All of a sudden, we were that support,” Rosenbush says. “But we’re a restaurant, not a social service.” So she reached out to the rehabilitation community to build a better support network for Cala’s employees. She and Cámara also decided to make Cala a dry restaurant (meaning employees can only drink there as guests) and adopted a hard-line stance in dealing with problems. “It’s tough love,” says Hightower. “Like, ‘don’t come here thinking this is a hand out.’ But it’s love, it’s all love.”

As she spoke, the restaurant was suffused with light and the camaraderie of its employees. Watching them work, there was no way to know who had spent time in prison and who hadn’t. And that’s the point. “You come into Cala and you can’t tell who is who,” says Cámara. “You just have a bunch of lovely people wanting to take care of you.”

Rebecca Flint Marx is a San Francisco–based writer and cookbook author, and the recipient of the 2015 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Food and Culture. She’s also a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, where she spent six months carving potatoes into minute football shapes and sweating profusely over a ragingly hot stove.

Photography by Colin Price

Originally Published July 2017