Gracias Madre is my favorite restaurant. It's homey, it's vibrant, and it's the only place where I can eat just a bowl of kale and feel satisfied. The staff is welcoming, and the dishes are simple and flavorful, relying not on meat substitutes or intricate concoctions, but on just REALLY good ingredients -- which truly makes all the difference when it comes to taste. Everything is organic and vegan (and still totally affordable!), with the majority of their produce grown at their very own organic, biodynamic Be Love Farm in Vacaville. That includes non-GMO varieties of heirloom corn used to make handmade tortillas and tamales.
But instead of me going on and on, let's instead have General Manager Eva Ackerman fill you in on the details about this award-winning (and not even in a vegan category!) restaurant. Below are her answers to my questions about the inspiration behind Gracias Madre, her views on the current Bay Area vegan scene, what the restaurant is planning for the future, and much more.
Eva Ackerman has been with the Café Gratitude family (Gracias Madre's sister group of restaurants) since 2006. But her experience with the Spanish language and Spanish and Latin American culture goes back to her childhood days in Tucson. At the age of 16 she was already studying abroad in Bilbao, Spain and then went on to receive a degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies. Fluent in Spanish, she has performed as a translator for two non-profit organizations based in fair trade and sustainable development. So it's no surprise that her current venture with Gracias Madre is a labor of love. She's become an unofficial “company translator," bridging communication between employees and members of the community, and leads Café Gratitude's transformational workshops in Spanish.
- What is the inspiration behind Gracias Madre?
Café Gratitude and Gracias Madre is an amazing cross-cultural, bilingual community, comprised mainly of North and South Americans. A lot of us LOVE eating Mexican food, but there really are no organic, vegan options available. So we thought it would be amazing to create a restaurant with 100% organic, vegan, Mexican fare where people could eat the food they love without compromising their values. We also wanted it to be a place to honor Mother Earth and all mothers everywhere, as well as the qualities of the Divine Feminine that we can all express like Love, Compassion, Patience, Service and Generosity. Gracias Madre is a place to celebrate life, to celebrate ourselves and each other, and to give thanks for the myriad ways in which the Earth provides for us every day!
- Are all of the staff at the restaurant vegan?
No. Gracias Madre is a source of diet and health education for many of our employees. There are people here from all across the diet spectrum, and what we offer is support in making healthier choices overall, regardless of your personal diet, as well as encouragement to support organic, local food choices. Many people have made significant changes in their diets since working here, and several have embarked on their very first cleanse! We are also successful in modeling the fact that healthy, vegan food can be completely hearty, rich, and satisfying. It’s fun and exciting.
- What is Gracias Madre’s relationship to Café Gratitude?
We are one and the same! We are the same company, same community, have the same philosophy and commitment to transformation and love. We also share the same Central Kitchen and both enjoy the bounty of the Be Love Farm, owned by Matthew and Terces Engelhart, our owners. Most of the management and some of the employees transferred to Gracias Madre from Café Gratitude when we opened. Sometimes I say Gracias Madre is Café Gratitude’s “hermanita,” or “little sister.” We are simply a different expression of the same mission.
- How do you feel about the vegan scene in the Bay Area and where it is going? Is there anything in particular you would like to see happen (or not happen)?
I feel excited about the direction it’s taking. It is becoming easier and easier to be vegan and eat out. My experience is that you can actually find more and more interesting and tasty options. My hope is that this pattern increases, and also that the trend moves away from processed soy products (meat substitutions) and instead towards fresh delicious choices that simply don’t contain meat or dairy.
- What is your favorite dish on the menu?
Wow, that’s a tough one! I love all of our dishes so much! But if I had to pick one, it would be our Enchiladas con Mole. Our homemade tortillas are cooked in our fabulous traditional mole sauce, topped with garlic roasted mushrooms, cashew cream and cilantro, and served with sautéed kale and our famous black beans. It is truly a beautiful dish, both in terms of aesthetics and taste. I recommend it often, and people always thank me afterwards for suggesting it!
- What are your favorite vegan spots and dishes in the Bay Area (outside of Gracias Madre)?
Well, first would be Café Gratitude, of course! After that I enjoy Gather in Berkeley, which is not vegan but they are organic and mostly local, and about 25% of their menu is vegan. Millennium is a classic favorite, and I also enjoy the Slanted Door. Just like Gather, the Slanted Door is not vegan, but it’s very easy to be vegan and feel completely satisfied there!
- What cookbooks do you use most often at home?
I honestly don’t use cookbooks. But my girlfriend Chandra is the executive chef here and an incredible cook, so any questions I have about technique, ingredients or idea, I just need to ask her! I am so lucky.
Do you think Gracias Madre will ever give out their secret recipe for that amazing cashew nacho cheese? If not, are there any other food tips you are willing to share with us… please?
We are planning to put out a cookbook in the future, and if we do, then it will certainly include the nacho cheese!
I have two pieces of food/cooking advice to share:
- Use good ingredients! I believe that one of the reasons people love our food so much is because they can really TASTE the glory of each vegetable we use. We use 100% organic, locally farmed ingredients, including our olive oil! If you compare these ingredients to their conventional counterparts at mainstream grocery stores, it tastes almost as if they are from different species. Starting with the right ingredients will immediately make any dish brighter and more flavorful.
- Keep it Simple! Our dishes are really quite simple. Overcomplication can really take a meal in the wrong way. So my advice here is to see what are a few ingredients that you think will make your dish shine. What will bring out the natural flavors of the vegetable you are cooking? Keep it at that, and let the produce speak for itself.
- What are your future plans for the restaurant?
Well, like I said, a cookbook is in the future plans. We also plan to develop an externship program with some of the local schools, in which students will be able to come to our Be Love Farm and learn about organic farming, and then come and learn about preparing the food in our kitchen right here at Gracias Madre! Those are two of the projects on the horizon.
- When will you start a dessert of the month club? And can I be your cheesecake/flan tester?
Heehee! Well, that’s a great idea. Please come in and taste the flan and cheesecake as much as you possibly can! Strawberries are starting to make their way back in season, so come try our new Strawberry Cheesecake!
I'm on it!
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