Chandra Gilbert is the executive chef of the newly opened vegan Mexican restaurant Gracias Madre. Gilbert moved to Los Angeles from the Bay Area, where she opened the original Gracias Madre in San Francisco with Cafe Gratitude founders Matthew and Terces Engelhart in 2009 in the Mission District. Before working with the Engelharts, she worked at the renowned San Francisco vegetarian restaurant Greens. She was also a pastry chef for Alice Waters' Café Fanny in Berkeley and was a cheese maker at Cowgirl Creamery. At Gracias Madre, Gilbert's menu includes antojitos, such as plantain-filled empanadas and tortilla chips with cashew crema; sides such as local brown rice and seasoned black beans; entrees including tamales, pozole, and cauliflower and mushroom tacos.
What's coming up next on your menu?
The sometimes unattainable organic plantain. I love them with habanero-chipotle salsa for that mixture of smoky, hot and sweet. We will also use them in some desserts, like a caramelized upside-down cake.
Latest ingredient obsession?
Local guavas! We didn't have them in Northern California. I'm currently using guavas all over the menu; their versatility lends them to salads, salsa, desserts and tropical cocktails. I have pineapple and guava salsa on sopes and a guava pot de créme.
The one piece of kitchen equipment you can't live without, other than your knives?
A great pair of tongs. I can do anything with them. I turn into a kitchen version of Edward Scissorhands, using them to pick up hot plates with no holders, etc. I do not like to use them on salads, as I feel they bruise the leaves.
What's the last non-food-related book you read?
"It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture & Other Essays" by Wendell Berry. I am in love with this man! I have read many of his books and heard him read from this one on KPFA public radio. His simple clarity in sustainability in all areas of our lives speaks to me.
What chef has most influenced you?
Annie Somerville of Greens Restaurant in San Francisco. She taught me to have integrity in the workplace — with food and people. She inspired me to create calm and kind kitchens, as she did, which is not always the norm within this industry. I fell in love with vegetables in her kitchen.
8905 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 978-2170, www.gracias-madre.com.