When it opened, Cala was the highly anticipated first U.S. restaurant from Mexico City’s star chef Gabriela Cámara, bringing her breezy, seafood-forward food to Hayes Valley. In the years that followed, the restaurant lived up that reputation with beautiful dishes like its signature trout tostadas with chipotle, avocado, and fried leeks, and sweet potatoes charred and roasted in ashes then slathered with bone marrow salsa negra. But behind the scenes was another successful program that gave formerly incarcerated individuals jobs, as well as training in the kitchen and on the dining room floor.
Lead by general manager Emma Rosenbush and inspired by Rosenbush’s work in the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, the restaurant opened in October 2015 with a staff of formerly incarcerated people. It was both a way to improve outcomes for a vulnerable population and to staff a restaurant in a city with astronomical rents that were prohibitive to workers with hourly wages, even at the $18 hourly rate Cala offered. “There’s a shortage of people who can afford to live in San Francisco, working in restaurants,” Cámara told Eater at the time. Rosenbush suggested that the organizations supporting San Francisco’s formerly incarcerated population would have people looking for full-time work, versus part-time servers who split their time at restaurants around the city. Support from halfway houses, rent subsidies, and rent control made it possible for those just out of prison to live in San Francisco, while Cala could provide them with jobs.
But on March 17, 2020, as the full impact of the pandemic began to take hold in San Francisco under California’s shelter-in-place order, Cala closed its doors to the public. Cala would not open again until December 2020, when its mission to give back to the community reached a critical milestone: It became the temporary home of SF Refettorio, part of Michelin-starred Osteria Francescano chef Massimo Bottura’s non-profit organization, Food for Soul.
“The summer of ‘78 I went to San Francisco to study English. To a 16yr old boy from Modena, California meant rock concerts, convertible cars, and cowboy hats. After three months I was a different Massimo. Yes, my English had improved but it was the life lessons I learned about diversity and freedom of expression that changed me forever. Opening Refettorio San Francisco is a way for me to give back, to say “thank you” to this amazing city.”
— Massimo Bottura
It’s one of 11 such refettorios around the world that Food for Soul designed as community hubs to “work with local organizations, producers, artists, architects, and community leaders to restore and renovate underused spaces transforming them into inspiring community hubs, open Monday to Friday, where people in situations of social and economic vulnerability are served nutritious meals cooked with surplus ingredients that would have otherwise been thrown away.”
In San Francisco, that operating partner is Farming Hope, a garden-to-table non-profit training program that’s dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated or unhoused persons learn skills and gain employment. Diners may recognize its work from Manny’s, the Mission cafe that served Farming Hope’s food before it closed during the pandemic (it has since reopened and Farming Hope will resume running its food and beverage program in June).
Rosenbush had previously served on the board of Farming Hope, and knew they were looking for a space for the Refettorio. When it was determined that Cala would not reopen during the pandemic, she offered them a one-year lease. “It was an immediate solution for both of us,” says Rosenbush. “We don’t have outdoor space [at Cala], and we just couldn’t make it work on takeout alone.”
It was clear that the priority in the city at that moment was not trout tostadas. “We know that the city needs right now are meals for food-insecure community members,” says Rosenbush. “[Farming Hope] are just doing such great work, it felt important to Gabriela and myself that rather than let the space sit there, it become useful. It really was what Gabriela felt was right.”
Pre-pandemic, the tables in Cala’s chic dining room would be filled with diners drinking mezcal and natural wine and ordering plates of Cámara’s delicate seafood dishes before heading out to the ballet or hitting the town. These days the pristine kitchen and high-ceilinged dining room at Cala are training grounds for a group of apprentices who work behind the stoves Monday through Friday each week, preparing thousands of meals for San Franciscans in need. (Saturdays are garden workdays at the New Liberation Church on Divisadero.) In the meantime, the team is still looking for a permanent space in San Francisco, where they can expand their resources to include more community resources, including an art and cultural component.
“During COVID, renting a shared commissary space was becoming an issue and being able to move into a space even temporarily to continue to build the project was awesome,” says Andie Sobrepeña, general manager of the Refettorio. “And at Cala there’s the feeling of elevating the work that we’re doing, which is exactly what the Refettorio model is about, bringing beauty and inspiration into this often heavy situation that people are facing.”
The Refettorio team hopes to open the dining room for indoor dining in the fall, once they’ve had time to work through the many moving parts of preparing and serving guests in person. In the meantime, they continue to hone the skills of the apprentices, who are working with a staff of chefs with backgrounds at San Francisco restaurants like Lazy Bear, Petit Crenn, and Boulevard.
“Talent-wise and creativity-wise we are very staffed,” says Sobrepeña. “Every Friday we do a tasting and encourage our apprentices to share food from their lives.” The dishes are developed over the week with supervision from the culinary staff, then prepared and allowed to wait in a hotbox for an hour just as if it were leaving the Refettorio to head to a community site. After the resting period, the food is tasted by the group. Recently, an apprentice named Donald shared the gumbo he ate growing up outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a different, brothier style that was common in his small town.
“That part for me is such an awesome part, to bond over food and share memories and being able through sensory experience create new ones as well. It’s such a beautiful part of this program,” says Sobrepeña. “Same with the meals that will be fed inside to families in dire straits and going through trauma, escaping that and having a beautiful meal and connecting again is such a rejuvenating experience that city really needs right now.”
While Cala’s future in the space is still not decided, what is clear is that the Refettorio will put it to good use, at least through the end of the year.