The Untold Truth Of Camilla Marcus

Forget everything you think you know about chefs. For one thing, Camilla Marcus, a self-described California hippie who made a name for herself in New York, doesn't have a signature dish. "I don't really like to cook the same thing twice," Marcus told The Select 7. She rejects the divisions of labor usually found in restaurants — even the most basic division, between kitchen and guest service. "I've banned the words 'front of house' and 'back of house,'" Marcus said on the female-focused food podcast "Radio Cherry Bombe". She cares about her customers, of course, but not as much as she cares about her staff. "That's our family," Marcus said on the "Inside Julia's Kitchen" podcast. "You spend more time with people you work with, frankly, than your own families at home, especially in this business."

As a chef, Marcus may be better known for her work outside the kitchen. Her vegetarian restaurant West-bourne, which she opened in New York in 2018 (via Forbes), got more headlines for its zero-waste certification and its employee benefits than its menu. Once the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Marcus spearheaded efforts to rescue independent restaurants in New York and across the country from the financial catastrophe brought on by government-mandated lockdowns.

She was ultimately powerless to save her own restaurant. West-bourne closed permanently in September 2020, a casualty of COVID-19 and an uncooperative landlord (via InStyle). Despite this, Marcus remained focused on keeping West-bourne alive online and continuing the fight to save restaurants.

Camilla Marcus had New York's first zero-waste restaurant

Camilla Marcus' SoHo restaurant was where you could find a slice of laid-back vegetarian California in bustling New York. Marcus opened West-bourne in January 2018, after working at the West Village wine-and-dine spot Dell'anima and Tom Colicchio's Riverpark (via Vogue). Marcus also was director of business development for the restaurant group/consulting firm Union Square Hospitality Group, according to the website for TechTable – the annual conference Marcus cofounded to unite leaders from hospitality, tech, and investment. A culinary school graduate with a law degree and a master's degree in business administration, Marcus brought keen problem-solving skills to her own restaurant project. In fact, she solved problems some thought couldn't be solved. In an op-ed piece for CNN, Marus wrote, "I opened my business, West-bourne, because I had a wild vision for what a restaurant could be: zero-waste, mission-driven, and vegetable-forward, with an unapologetic focus on the well-being of our team and of our neighbors."

That "wild vision" came to pass. In March 2020, a couple weeks after West-bourne was ordered into COVID-19 lockdown, the restaurant became the first in New York to receive zero-waste certification, per Fast Company. According to Green Business Certification Inc., West-bourne kept 91% of its waste out of landfills or incinerators, earning it gold-level certification. Some 1,400 pounds of organic waste created at West-bourne monthly was trucked to a farm in upstate New York.

Camilla Marcus' 'accidentally vegetarian' restaurant

Camilla Marcus' menu at West-bourne was California vegetarian, not East Coast vegetarian. "I sort of say it's accidentally vegetarian," Marcus told "Radio Cherry Bombe". "I grew up in Los Angeles, where when you eat vegetarian ... you didn't call it meatless Monday. It was just Monday." In New York, on the other hand, Marcus said vegetarian food can be alienating. "I don't want quote-unquote 'chick'n wings,'" Marcus said. "I don't even know what chicken with an apostrophe is." West-bourne's menu was loaded with L.A. place names, according to New York magazine: the Sunrise Kingdom breakfast sandwich, the Echo taco, the Bay Cities cauli. "The Echo tacos are a nod to all the amazing old-school taco joints I used to go to in and around Echo Park," Marcus told Vogue.

Creating a vegetarian menu that doesn't beat you over the head with its vegetarianism may have been a remarkable feat in New York, but it wasn't nearly as incredible as what Marcus gave her workers: free childcare. Marcus found a childcare outfit willing to take children with same-day notice and accommodate hospitality work schedules by being open from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. She covered the full cost, too. How? "You have to find budget," the MBA told "Radio Cherry Bombe," adding, "I know people who spend more on florals in their restaurants than this cost."

Marcus also donated 1% of all sales to The Door, which provides job training for youth. She even hired The Door's trainees to work at West-bourne.

Marcus was forced to close her New York restaurant

Camilla Marcus perpetrated a lot of good deeds at West-bourne, and you had to figure they wouldn't go unpunished. Marcus announced in her CNN op-ed in September 2020 that the restaurant would close for good, thanks in large part to an uncooperative landlord. But Marcus' realized vision of an intimate, friendly space, sadly, was also to blame, she said. A small kitchen that encouraged collaboration among staff was too cramped given COVID-19 protocols. Communal seating was intended to allow strangers to rub shoulders and get to know each other — again, not so good in a pandemic. Her narrow storefront didn't have room for outdoor seating, which was allowed during stretches of the pandemic when dining rooms were closed.

After the demise of the restaurant, West-bourne lived on as a catering operation, using other restaurant kitchens (via The New York Times). The West-bourne website continues to retail a variety of foods and other products, from kettle corn and granola to mugs and stationery laced with wildflower seeds.

Even though Marcus was able to pivot in her business — an all-too-common buzzword for restaurants during the pandemic — that doesn't mean she was content with the situation. She considered her staff to be family. "To not be able to look someone in the eye, and know how to protect them, to take care of them, and what to tell them..." Marcus said on the "Inside Julia's Kitchen" podcast. "It's pretty demoralizing, infuriating, and sad to see a system really just ignore so many people whose lives are on the line."

Camilla Marcus fought for restaurants during COVID-19

Ever the problem solver, Camilla Marcus didn't just complain about the "system" on a podcast. She organized her peers to pressure governments to rescue restaurants and their workers — and do some rescuing themselves. Marcus cofounded ROAR, Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants, shortly after the lockdowns started (via InStyle). According to its website, ROAR and its partners raised more than $3 million and distributed $500 cash gifts to restaurant workers left jobless by the pandemic.

Marcus also helped create the Independent Restaurant Coalition, whose main goal was to lobby the national government to provide relief to small restaurants. The federal aid that had been given to businesses, including the Paycheck Protection Program or PPP, wasn't especially helpful to independent restaurant owners, Marcus told "Inside Julia's Kitchen".

"I would argue no industry has been hit quite as hard as restaurants," she said on the podcast. As much as the coronavirus itself, governments came down hard on restaurants, forcing them to close but then offering no meaningful help. "Airlines have received two relief packages at the federal level," Marcus told InStyle. "And they've never been shut down for one day." They don't employ nearly as many people either, Marcus added — less than half a million in the U.S., compared to 12 million in restaurants, per The New Yorker.

Restaurants finally got a $28.6 billion relief package as part of the March 2021 stimulus, an amount the bill's own author in Congress admitted wasn't enough (via Restaurant Dive). It was also way too late for Marcus' West-bourne.

Camilla Marcus champions women in the restaurant industry

No story about Marcus would be complete without acknowledging how she champions women, too. Take TechTable, her nexus for the restaurant, tech, and investment worlds. All too often, when we think of the stereotypes in these industries, it's handsy male chefs, tech bros, and he-wolves of Wall Street. So it's significant that Marcus and TechTable's other three founders are women who lead in these fields (via HuffPost).

The host of "Radio Cherry Bombe" asked Marcus how she came up with the idea for her unique New York restaurant. As business development director at Union Square Hospitality Group, Marcus said she learned that restaurants were targeting her demographic: women of the millennial generation. "You hear it all the time, but none of them are owned or operated by millennial females," she said. "Maybe I have something to say about that, given I am a millennial female and I don't know that millennial females want to continue to be talked at by (someone who's) not their demographic and not their own community."

Now that West-bourne the restaurant is gone, Marcus is thinking more broadly about the business. COVID-19 has created an opportunity, she said, for the industry to follow her lead by treating its workers right. "This great reckoning is certainly the time to rebuild in a way that I think most independent restaurant owners have wanted to," she said on "Inside Julia's Kitchen". "We want to be an amazing place to work."