A New Wave

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On a bright August beach day in Santa Monica, California, chefs Gabriela Cámara and Jessica Koslow hunkered in a windowless basement kitchen reached through an underground parking garage, dissecting dishes one after another. A fried quesadilla with sorrel and requesón cheese was deemed pleasingly Sqirlish, reminiscent of the sorrel pesto rice at Koslow’s popular LA restaurant. Could you do Meyer lemon in a quesadilla? Koslow wondered aloud, noting the acid would be so pleasing. And should there be parsley in the filling for color? Koslow thought yes; Cámara said no. Cámara broke open a quesadilla and rubbed a bit of the filling between her fingers, inspecting the sorrel. Koslow pushed her to just try the parsley. Cámara wasn’t sold. But she did think the masa should be thicker, and fried hotter. After weeks of trial and error, the quesadilla was ready — and then never made it on the menu at all: During an all-staff tasting, the two agreed, quickly and easily, that it had to go.

Every dish that day was assessed like an engineering problem, its strengths tested and weaknesses scrutinized, in the hopes of producing food that diners would consume with nary an analytical thought at all. The crab tetela, served as two blond corn tortillas folded into a snug triangle with crisp corners, had a mild, cheesy richness like a crab rangoon, but how big should it be? Koslow thought it could act like a small main, almost like a personal pan pizza, and started measuring different sizes of plates. Cámara insisted the tetela either be perfectly folded during service or dropped from the menu entirely.

Next came an actual main dish, octopus with an adobo of preserved bearss lime, black garlic, galangal, and morita chile, tossed with tiny sliced potatoes, Spanish-style. Cámara and her culinary director, Mariana Villegas, made tiny, fresh tortillas, supple and hot, to serve alongside. Gathering around the tortilla press made the group a little giddy, even as they debated whether the masa balls should be 10, 15, or 20 grams. Koslow wondered about combining the blue and white corn masas in a single tortilla to create a tie-dye effect (it was later ruled too complicated). She rattled off the names of farmers who would have certain herbs later in the fall; Villegas marveled over the strangeness of Southern California seasons — how can you have butternut squash and lemons at the same time? The octopus hit the metal table, charred tentacles covered with watercress, the tortillas wrapped in a bar towel. Cámara wondered if there should be more pickled celtuce; Koslow suggested even more greens. But mostly, the team ate with contented silence, peppered with purrs of appreciation.

Woman standing in the middle of restaurant dining room.
Jessica Koslow
One large dish containing chips is surrounded by four smaller dishes, each holding a dip.
Chips and dip at Onda features black beans, fermented chile guacamole, housemade crema, papalo oil, and salsa

Balo Orozco, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, who had prepared every dish, didn’t pause to savor his success. Throughout the tasting, he took in each high-minded, hyper-specific critique, waiting for the two chefs to deliver a unified note, which they always did: Try the parsley. Keep the tetela small. As everyone sipped seltzer from plastic quart containers, conversation turned to how to convince Santa Monicans to drink a $25-a-pour mezcal from a copita, rather than a stemmed wine glass. Orozco put out yet another variation of chips and dip — this time without the nutritional yeast that had been dusted on the chips in previous versions — and the tasting kicked back to life. The house crema was no longer overpowered, but without nutritional yeast, was it Onda?

Both Koslow and Cámara say Onda, which opened to great fanfare on October 28 on the grounds of the Proper Hotel, a high-fashion beige pleasure compound where rooms start at $450 a night, is a conversation between Los Angeles and Mexico City. These cities are sisters with a novelistically complex relationship, so it’s maybe more accurate to say Onda is a conversation between the two chefs’ approaches to cuisine, which have shaped their cities’ actual culinary reputations. Beginning with her now 20-year-old restaurant Contramar, Cámara has transfigured Mexico City’s restaurant world. “What [Cámara] did in Contramar was create an anchor in Mexico City that combined the casual fare of a prototypical Guerrero vacation on the beach with the extravagant, sumptuous, casual leisure of a long Mexico City lunch,” says Daniel Hernandez, a journalist and author of the memoir Down and Delirious in Mexico City. Since 2012, Jessica Koslow’s restaurant Sqirl morphed from ambitious, irresistible neighborhood hangout to international destination thanks to her zeitgeist-bending fusion of wellness tropes and culinary sophistication. In the process, she and her restaurant have shouldered a nearly oppressive amount of symbolic weight in conversations about how a new generation of restaurants defines a changing Los Angeles.

Contramar and Sqirl are places to linger and connect, while also serving dishes — red and green snapper, ricotta toast — that are now Instagram-famous. The restaurants “share a see-and-be-seen quality that is not necessarily a bad thing,” Hernandez says. “Often I think as food writers and critics we can bemoan [that] vibe. We might be hipster-hating all day long, but when you run into 10 people over four hours at Sqirl, it can be great.”

Koslow and Cámara’s collaboration at Onda, which I observed over several months of interviews and tastings, was a meeting of two relentlessly perfectionist and ambitious chefs who also know a great deal about how to create restaurants that appeal to people who aren’t chefs or gourmands — a surprisingly rare quality in the conference-trotting eschalon of the food world (Cámara and Koslow met at René Redzepi’s MAD Symposium). Koslow brought an encyclopedic knowledge of fermentation and Southern California seasonality, as well as a restless creativity — a knack for devising dishes that seem, in her words, “familiar and totally unfamiliar at the same time.” With gravity-warping intensity, Cámara brought a passionate expertise and decades of experience in the business of restaurants (Onda will be Koslow’s second restaurant and Cámara’s 12th). Expectations were impossibly high, and both chefs knew it.

Onda developed in unpredictable crests and valleys, like its namesake. Koslow saw the restaurant space at the Proper Hotel and thought, This is bigger than me. She reached out to Cámara, a chef she admired but had never discussed collaborating with, and to Koslow’s shock, she jumped right in. Both have been inundated with offers to open restaurants in new cities; both have rejected oceans of outside money in favor of making food on their own terms — to not have to open yet another Contramar or Sqirl in a random cultural capital because the offer is too lucrative to refuse. In this anxious, potentially revolutionary moment in culture, many chefs are navigating rough waters of worn-out ideas (fusion), oppressive expectations (authenticity), and toxic cultural practices (appropriation). The intertwined labor and real estate crises in major cities means even restaurants with international fan bases must grow or die. Koslow and Cámara hoped their conversation could wend around these many traps, and produce something meaningful and new.

A man in a chef’s apron stands with his arms crossed, smiling.
Balo Orozco
A large, messy folded-over tortilla sits on a plate, with a crispy outer layer of browned cheese.
The inside-out quesadilla with turkey, oyster mushrooms, hoja santa, and green salsa

Sometimes, the result was a lengthy debate over whether to add parsley. Other times, their conversations shaped the foundation of the restaurant. One of the biggest puzzles of Onda was the logistics of tortillas. At the August tasting, as Cámara flipped some on the plancha, it came up again. A staffer suggested making them on a dough sheeter, a machine that rolls out dough to a set thickness in big batches. With bracing speed, Cámara and Orozco delivered a resounding no. As a little girl, Cámara learned to make tortillas from women in her hometown of Tepoztlán, and held herself to high standards making them ever since. They were the one thing at Onda she was most determined not to compromise. “If you know about tortillas, it’s like, for a French person to think that any baguette is fine. It’s that obsessive. I’d rather not have tortillas than have a tortilla that isn’t good.”

Koslow says the menu at Onda was built around which dishes could be served with good, well-made tortillas, and which could incorporate other types of masa, keeping things tight. Orozco currently makes masa from three different types of heirloom corn sourced from Mexico, used for everything but fried chips and tostadas, which are produced by local tortillaria Kernel of Truth. The restaurant’s molino, a hip-high machine with two volcanic stones that are used for grinding cooked corn into masa, was sourced from Mexico.

When Onda was conceived, Cámara was living in San Francisco, an easy flight away; she hoped she would see her brother, who lives in Venice, more often. Then Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president of Mexico, and Cámara decided to move back to Mexico City to play a role in the government of a longtime family friend. Right now this consists of two honorary positions, including a seat on the Council of Cultural Diplomacy, and planning a food symposium in Mexico; she also thinks this role will continue to grow. Regardless, Cámara is in Los Angeles less often than either had planned. But also, Onda is not just a conversation between the two chefs at the top.

A Los Angeles (and Mexico City) metaphor is useful here. American culture sees chefs through a version of auteur theory, which, in film, explains how a collaborative, commercial art form could be crafted by a singular artist — the director, the auteur — whether they oversaw a skeleton crew funded by maxed-out credit cards or a production of thousands at a major studio. That notion is now considered simplistic; it takes lots of artists to make a great picture. Yet in the food world’s under-examined version of this theory, singular visionaries are still seen as the sole architects of a restaurant’s greatness. This is why famous chefs open way more restaurants than they could ever physically be in, and yet are still understood as each restaurant’s distinct author.

At Onda, Cámara and Koslow always had the final say, but they assembled a team of rising stars — Koslow flew to Minneapolis to recruit general manager Erin Rolek after a wine industry friend said Rolek was the best somm in America — and empowered them to help shape what Onda would be. Orozco had worked at Sqirl as the restaurant’s catering chef, but eager to get back on the line, he went to work for Cámara at her San Francisco restaurant, Cála. When the two chefs decided to collaborate, Orozco was the obvious choice for chef de cuisine.

Orozco grew up in Guadalajara; his first job was working at a Japanese-run sushi restaurant at age 16. On a trip to Tulum, he met Eric Werner of Hartwood, the famous off-the-grid destination restaurant, which is an absurd yet accurate phrase, and worked for him for five years. They fished together twice a week to supply the restaurant. “He used to just joke with me, like, ‘If we can’t catch anything, we don’t get paid, so don’t get lazy.’” Danny Bowien recruited Orozco for Mission Cantina, the utterly bonkers and sometimes transcendent Mexican restaurant he opened (and then closed) on New York’s Lower East Side. Orozco also worked briefly at Los Angeles’s Night + Market, in a kitchen of “Thai grandmas,” before moving to Sqirl and then Cála. As Onda was coming together, “Jessica and Gaby were like, ‘Oh, we have a plan for you.’”

More than once, Koslow and Cámara said the secret to Onda’s success would be Orozco. The two executive chefs began developing the menu in what Koslow calls a riffing process — “We would sit and have coffee, going back and forth about things that are meaningful to us from growing up and living our lives” — then with Orozco, they developed core principles (local, sustainable, as organic as possible) and starting points for the menu.

Orozco translated those ideas into actual existing dishes, which Koslow and Cámara would edit into final products. For example, the trout tostada began as a broad idea for some kind of fish tostada, maybe with tuna, like a well-known dish from Contramar. Orozco took inspiration from a smoked marlin tostada his father used to make, but substituted trout, which was easier to source. He also spent months preparing the restaurant’s fermentation-based larder (fermented tomatillos, cabbage, and honey lined the shelves alongside pickled items like escabeche), hard at work alongside pastry chef Jess Stephens in a kitchen space shared with the hotel’s main restaurant, Calabra Rooftop. Koslow brought in rotating special guests for tastings, from Rosio Sanchez of Copenhagen’s Restaurant Sanchez to a friend who just really likes vodka martinis. For knottier dishes, like the huge, inside-out turkey quesadilla, Orozco’s ability to both translate and iterate was essential.

A woman in a chef’s coat, her hair pulled back, holds one wrist and smiles.
Gabriela Cámara
A quartered sweet potato sits on a plate covered in red salsa and a spray of green herbs, with a basket of tortillas alongside.
A koji-marinated sweet potato with salsa macha, homemade crema, and tortillas

Balancing the culinary sensibilities of the two chefs is a challenge he finds productive. Koslow is both improvisational and conceptual; she develops dishes by playing with the idea of a thing (toast and jam, quesadillas) and creating pleasure out of surprise. Cámara’s creativity is found in the space that opens up between traditions, but is always underpinned by technical precision. One of the toughest dishes to develop was a riff on a fritto misto, which included kelp battered in masa. Koslow loves the playfulness of it, the ingredients showing up in new places; Cámara loved the kelp, but only if the masa wouldn’t burn.

“Gaby’s palate is not more simple, just more delicate,” Orozco says. “And Jessica, it’s crazy in your mouth, but [it] makes sense. Getting between is when it gets tricky, but fun.” Early on, Orozco had wanted to do pork on the restaurant’s trompo, which, along with lamb, is traditional in Mexico, and Koslow suggested turkey, inspired by turkey shawarma in Israel. Orozco says, “In the beginning, I was a little bit like, ‘No, Jess.’ Then I was very excited. Okay, how are we going to make this not dry? How are we going to make this delicious?” It’s now the foundation of the restaurant’s other challenging dish, an inside-out quesadilla served with hoja santa, oyster mushrooms, and salsa verde. “We were all high-fiving each other, realizing we had it,” Koslow says. “It’s the same thing as when a music group makes a hit.”

The morning after the August tasting, Koslow and Orozco took Cámara and Villegas to the Santa Monica farmers market for the first time. Nestled in the high-end heart of Santa Monica, a polished beach town full of tourists and movie producers and some very good restaurants, Onda is just a short walk away from the transient fairyland of local pineapples and heirloom rice which appears every Wednesday. Koslow’s reputation is built on her expertise with this market, and Orozco navigates it with similar skill.

Cámara had never been before, and toured it with delight, speaking in a mix of Spanish and English with vendors, asking about quintonil, amaranth seeds, and lovage. Koslow directed Cámara away from very pricey strawberries, toward a display of mirabelle plums, and introduced her to the “fruit detective” David Karp. But too soon, Koslow had to leave: the U-Haul that Sqirl rented every week to get to the market had been hit by a garbage truck, and Koslow had to get back across town.

At Wong Farms, produce seller Karina Orihuela Tamayo teased Cámara in Spanish about being a chilanga (a Mexico City native); Cámara replied she was born in Chihuahua. While admiring their mangos, Cámara told a story about her grandmother in southeastern Mexico, who claimed she sat under a mango tree and ate until she was surrounded by 40 pits. Orozco grabbed a box of pristine, creamy avocados; picked up a 10-pound case of peppers; and then hauled over potatoes. Cámara and Orozco ended up pushing a Lime scooter laden with produce down the sidewalk, each with one hand rested on the scooter’s handlebars, the other on a black plastic bin overflowing with green, bitter herbs.

Orozco wouldn’t call the food he cooks at Onda Mexican, exactly, because it’s not traditional, and he’s using ingredients and techniques pulled from a riot of culinary influences. Mexican-American chefs have argued for an ever more expansive idea of the cuisine, but Cámara says in Mexico that conversation is still just beginning, and Mexican chefs are still figuring out the language they want to use. The farmers market, filled with ingredients from Taiwanese flat cabbage to edible flowers to passionfruit to pig ears to hearts of palm, drives Onda’s priorities as much as anything else — the guacamole is made from pricey, creamy avocados from JJ Ranch, and the quest was not just to make good guacamole, but showcase those avocados, and make it fun to eat.

“I have learned so many things here, or I have eaten so many things here in the States that I love. So to me it’s like, ‘Why not use everything I’ve learned?’” Orozco says. Coming up as a chef, he had no desire to cook Mexican food, since it was the food he’d grown up around; he was hungry for something different. That changed once he started cooking in America. “I feel like [it was] moving to the States and seeing that it is so many different cultures, and that everyone is so proud of what they do,” he says.

Cámara experienced a cultural realignment when she began cooking in the States, too. “Contramar is a Mexican restaurant, but the category [in Mexico] isn’t ‘Mexican restaurant,’ it is ‘seafood restaurant.’ But then, here in California, Cála is a Mexican seafood restaurant.” She says her time living in California made her revisit her Mexicanness in a new way. “The fact that I am Mexican and can connect to the farmers and the people who do all the hard work in California has been super relevant.”

A man wearing a baseball cap puts pieces of turkey onto a trompo, a long metal spit for roasting meat.
The turkey going on the trompo
A person’s hand flips one of the six yellow tortillas cooking on a plancha
Flipping the tortillas on the plancha

In early September, as the opening inched closer, Koslow ran a tasting solo, as newly arrived general manager and sommelier Erin Rolek poured wines for the group to try as pairings. Orozco was in prototyping mode, trying out new approaches to a few sticking-point dishes. “We’re trying to figure out guacamole right now,” Koslow said. “People expect it to be on the menu — how do you make it feel like Onda?” Orozco’s latest guacamole was silky and rich, honestly some of the most satisfying I’ve had from a pure quality perspective, but the fermented jalapeno wasn’t coming through, according to Koslow, so it still needed work. She wondered if maybe the secret was finding a more interesting chip.

The tasting moved on from the problem of guacamole to the problem of sweet potatoes, fried cheese, kelp. The sweet potato doused in salsa macha, served with yellow and blue tortillas, had a balance of crunch and creaminess that meant it was much closer to finished. Two fried cheeses wrapped around tortillas were tried side by side as prototypes for the inside-out quesadilla, but neither worked well. Orozco produced three versions of the masa-fried fritto misto, experimenting each round with the texture of the kelp. Should there be an aioli, or maybe a bit of dashi, served alongside? The fritto misto, like the guacamole, was satisfying, but just satisfying wasn’t enough for Koslow. Throughout the process of Onda, she swung between handling nitty-gritty details of uniforms, hiring, and plate size and also identifying the twist, or the swerve that a dish could take to become memorable. Often, she shorthanded the process as: What makes this Onda? Without Cámara there, Koslow pressed Orozco for his takes, but she also seemed to ask Onda itself what it was, or wanted to be, when she wondered aloud, What is Onda?

Next came a new prototype of the halibut tartare, which Orozco had topped with roe for the first time, earning universal praise. Koslow suggested a pile of crispy herbs for the next version, but marveled at how far it had come. “Last week there was no roe or jicama. We make things often that are wrong and then flipped are right.” (They later added raw chayote.) Meanwhile, Orozco was re-frying another batch of kelp and lemons. Rolek poured another white wine for the group to try, and Orozco grabbed the glass by its bowl. “By the stem, Balo!” Rolek, the sommelier, said with mock-scolding. He just smiled and took a swig.

In late October, after months and months of delays, health-department inflicted and otherwise, Onda was finally ready to open. Orozco was front and center in the open kitchen, a basement swapped out for a stage; the staffer who seated me at the bar joked I had a perfect view. On the last night of friends and family, a Sunday, the octopus dish was on the menu. So was the pesky fritto misto, the sweet potato, and, of course, guacamole, which was now a part of the chips and dips. The trompo was piled with turkey, which was folded into a tortilla, which was in turn wrapped inside crispy mozzarella; at one end of the line, two female cooks, whom Cámara called the “tortilla ladies,” pressed and cooked tortillas. Koslow hunched over a computer at the bar, helping finalize a kids menu, and then ceaselessly moved throughout the restaurant, tasting dishes, eavesdropping on servers, and chatting with guests. Cámara sat at a long table in front of the open kitchen, entertaining a crew of prominent San Francisco restaurateurs who had come down, including Allison Hopelain and Russell Moore of the now-shuttered Camino, Jessica Boncutter of the now-shuttered Bar Jules, and Zuni Cafe owner Gilbert Pilgram. Koslow warmly greeted a group that included the actress Alia Shawkat, who she calls “an OG Sqirl regular”; the Bay Area restaurateurs bemoaned the future of the independent restaurant in ever-more-expensive cities and cut into the inside-out quesadilla.

The food coming out of the kitchen that night was saucy, flavorful, assured. The tortillas met Cámara’s expectations. The answers to a lot of questions wouldn’t arrive for weeks: How would the tortillas fare during weekend rushes? And would the assuredness survive? The fried kelp was now served with pungent anchovy, whose punchiness pulled the dish together, but Koslow was not sure how anchovy would fare with guests. That night, many dishes seemed cousin to ambitious, playful cooking by California-Mexican chefs like Wes Avila, Ray Garcia, and Carlos Salgado. Maybe one thing Onda’s conversation revealed was how much any conversation between chefs from Los Angeles and Mexico City is part of the massive, echoing, shouting exchange of invective and love between California and Mexico — places that were not so long ago one and the same.

At the end of the night, Koslow brought me back into the prep kitchen, which was stacked with wrapped loaves of Bub and Grandma’s bread and trays of persimmons resting on their tops, while the molino hunkered in a corner. Service was winding down; Cámara was still holding court, and Koslow was going home for the first time in days to sleep in her own bed. Orozco came into the storage room and pulled out a 22-quart bus tub of corn that had soaked all day. He crumbled a few kernels between his fingers, ensuring it was soft. Senior sous Andrew Ponce picked up a massive metal stockpot, and together they trucked back into the kitchen. The cooks were cleaning down their stations, but Orozco wasn’t done yet: He had to boil the corn for the masa the following day.

Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent