In an industry where it’s not uncommon for temperamental chefs to instill terror in the hearts of line cooks, the idea of operating a kitchen with kindness and integrity can be revolutionary.
That’s the ethos at Gracias Madre, which now has outposts in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and it spreads through every aspect of the Mexican restaurant — from the vegan, 100% organic food menu to the house-crafted beverages and the close-knit team of people who make it work. Run by the same team that owns vegan chain Cafe Gratitude, Matthew and Terces Engelhart, Gracias Madre is known for fresh spins on traditional Mexican cuisine made from the heart.
We talked to Head Chef Chandra Gilbert and Beverage Director Jason Eisner to learn more about their mission and how their unique approach impacts everything they do at Gracias Madre.
Positive energy abounds at Gracias Madre’s West Hollywood location, situated in the heart of Melrose. An antique shop and parking lot were reimagined and transformed into the restaurant and adjacent patio, creating a natural flow between indoor and outdoor. Inside, guests nestle into cozy, intimate nooks; on the patio, larger tables and a generous bar area encourage communal dining. The space is large, bright and airy, striking a perfect balance between traditional and modern.
For the decor, designers Wendy Haworth and Scott Shrader combined clean colors and natural textures with pieces that nod to Mexican heritage: vintage bottles, vibrant patterned pillows and graphic tiles found in Mexico City. Hanging plants and succulents on each table make the restaurant feel truly alive.
The concept for Gracias Madre was inspired by the Engelharts’ visits to Mexico, where they met the families of their Cafe Gratitude employees. They wanted to create a restaurant that honored traditional Mexican home cooks and also provided organic Mexican food to their own communities. The result was a restaurant that bridges the gap between delicious food, conscious business practices and community enrichment.
Chandra was the opening chef at Gracias Madre in San Francisco. She became interested in conscious eating after her father died of a heart attack at 40 and she watched her mother struggle with cancer. In her early 20s she worked for Whole Foods, where she gained an education around natural foods. After stints at Cafe Fanny, Chez Panisse and Greens Restaurant, she made her way to Cafe Gratitude and in 2009 and, finally, to Gracias Madre. The restaurant’s Los Angeles location opened in January 2014.
Plenty of restaurants tout careful sourcing practices, but a 100% organic restaurant is a rarity. Literally, every single ingredient served at Gracias Madre is top-quality, organic and locally sourced
— and securing a large supply of organic food can be challenging. (Chandra cites the 2012 lime shortage as an “epic” crisis.)
Educating guests about seasonality — explaining why some ingredients or dishes simply aren’t available at a given time — is also a hurdle, especially when you’re committed to buying organic. Organic produce tends to become available later in the season than conventional produce.
Chandra and Cafe Gratitude Chef Dreux Ellis developed relationships with small farmers so they could purchase at scale. But ultimately, Chandra believes in leading by example. “I think if more people made the commitment to 100% organic, the demand is going to control the supply,” she says. Even the tortillas on the menu are made in house daily from non-GMO heirloom corn varieties.
She’s also started foraging for food near her home in Topanga Canyon. She saw wild agave flowers and nopales cactus growing locally and jumped at the opportunity to feature it on the menu.
More often than not, the phrase “plant-based food” is what you’ll hear Chandra and her team use to describe the cuisine at Gracias Madre. That’s because it’s more inclusive than “vegan,” a word many guests don’t know. Plus, some consumers have a negative association with veganism; the food may be considered unpalatable. Chandra believes “plant-based” is an easy-to-understand and positive alternative.
“I think people are trying, successfully, to reinvent the notion,” says Chandra. “It’s been a great marketing tool — the whole campaign is brighter and lighter and more alive, more color. Veganism doesn’t mean soy meat anymore, and people know that.”
Interestingly, very few staff members at Gracias Madre are vegans. Chandra suspects that may be a result of the cuisine, as people expect it to contain animal products. When they learn that it doesn’t, that’s the exciting part: they realize it’s just delicious, substantial food with deep, rich flavors and high-quality ingredients.
When Jason joined the Gracias Madre team as Beverage Director, he was given a challenge: create the group’s first bar program with 100% agave-based spirits, using only vegan-friendly and organic ingredients.
“It almost doesn’t exist, to be honest,” he laughs. “The first thing that entered my mind was, if we’re going to be a 100% organic program, traditional modifiers are out the window.”
By traditional modifiers, he means all the usual ingredients you see in craft cocktails, like Aperol and bitters. So now, his team makes their own, in addition to doing lots of research and development on all of the spirits they carry to make sure no pesticides were used to produce them.
Personally, the challenge has completely changed the way Jason thinks about his work. He only drinks organic spirits himself, and he’s committed to providing guests an authentic experience that feels elevated and real.
“Really making a good drink for somebody is just providing them with an authentic culinary experience,” he says. “That’s really what we’re trying to do, is take people on a ride, give them a little bit of whimsy, and take them on an authentic, earth-friendly, animal-friendly experience.”
Like the food menu, the beverages at Gracias Madre are highly seasonal and constantly changing. Jason and Chandra work closely together to create exceptional experiences for their restaurant guests, from the food to the cocktails and to their approach to service. They bounce ideas off of each other, discussing how to use foraged ingredients such as kumquats and prickly pears in both dishes and drinks.
“Chandra is a mentor to me; I really look up to her,” says Jason. “It’s an opportunity for me to learn not just about culinary techniques, but about the way that the earth and nature creates products for us to consume.”
“If I didn’t have my cooks I wouldn’t be able to exist — I wouldn’t even have my job,” says Chandra. “I make mistakes and they’re going make mistakes; they’re going to have successes and I’m going to have successes. I just try to be a real person.”
She credits her humility and even temperament to her mentors, including Annie Somerville, Executive Chef at Greens. From Annie, she learned the importance of doing her own job well and taking responsibility for her duties, so as not to add any stress on her line cooks. “In the six years I worked with her, I never walked in and we were out of something.”
Plus, Chandra doesn’t just encourage collaboration in the kitchen — she depends on it. Many of her cooks are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras; they know authentic South American cuisine better than Chandra does. They bring their personal knowledge and Chandra brings her classic French training, resulting in a perfect marriage. “It reminds them of their family and it gives them an opportunity to really contribute,” she says.
Similarly, Jason emphasizes staff development in the bar program, particularly as the brand grows and expands. He prides himself on having low turnover rates and on training beverage staffers to run programs themselves.
Both Gracias Madre and Cafe Gratitude provide their teams with a curriculum around community and self-realization. Matthew and Terces send employees on farm retreats and have even paid for people to attend the Landmark Forum, a three-day program designed to create positive shifts in participants’ quality of life, from effectiveness and productivity to enjoyment and fulfillment. Managers are given full scholarships, and employees are given partial scholarships — an investment that adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, Chandra says. They even offer translation services for Spanish-speaking staff members.
“It’s a choice,” she adds. “You can just choose to have a great life, to be present and have a great time with people and connect with people. Or you can choose not to. Why would I do that?”
Photo Credit: Erin Kunkel. Portraits of Chandra and Jason, exterior image, and cocktail image courtesy of Cort Cunningham.