Camille Becerra Finds a Home via Instagram


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Camille Becerra

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Liz Barclay for The New York Times

In 17 years of renting in New York, Camille Becerra found all her apartments through friends or word of mouth. But last November, when the man from whom she was renting an apartment in Chinatown gave her just 30 days to leave, she turned to a much larger social network: the photo-sharing site Instagram.

Though unconventional, it was not quite the long shot it may seem — Ms. Becerra, who appeared in 2007 on Season Three of the TV show “Top Chef” and has run the kitchens of buzzy New York restaurants including Navy in SoHo and Café Henrie on the Lower East Side, has 76,600 Instagram followers. Two of them sent her links to a school-turned-rental building on the Lower East Side.

“The building had only just started renting, so I was able to have my pick of places,” said Ms. Becerra, who selected an exceptionally bright apartment on the fifth floor, for which she pays $3,700 a month.

She shares the place with her 15-year-old daughter, Paloma Rivera, and their black-and-white cat, Catty. In deference to the social obligations of teenagehood, she allowed Paloma to have the larger of the two sleeping areas, in a loft overlooking the main living space, which includes a good-sized front room where she can entertain friends and a teensy back bedroom with a window affording a glimpse of the Empire State Building. Ms. Becerra occupies a narrow room that she uses primarily as an office, sleeping in a nook.

Though her new apartment is not the charmer that her Chinatown place was — “it had embossed plaster walls and was so pretty that you barely needed furniture,” Ms. Becerra recalled — she quickly came to appreciate more about it than the 12-month lease.

Name: Camille Becerra, who lives with her 15-year-old daughter, Paloma Rivera, and Catty, a cat.Age: Early 40s.Occupation: Chef, food stylist, occasional columnist. Working on a cookbook. Rent: $3,700 a month. She paid $3,100 for her previous apartment in Chinatown, but spent an additional $400 a month for a parking garage because neighborhood restrictions made street parking nearly impossible. Though Ms. Becerra mostly bikes to get around the city, she keeps a car for projects like the pop-up restaurant, the Castle, that she ran last summer in the Rockaways. Furniture: She moved in with her bed — a padded wooden platform that now serves as the couch — a gold-framed mirror, her mother’s coffee table and a plaster bust of a woman. Recent acquisitions include a dining table and chairs. “I’m not one of those people who’s going to go out and start buying furniture as soon as I move. You have to live in a place for a while to feel what it needs.” She prefers to get her furniture secondhand or barter for it. Favorite places to eat nearby: Kiki’s Greek Tavern, Scarr’s Pizza, Dimes, Wildair.

Living above the tree line means she can see a large amount of sky from her south-facing windows. The apartment’s abundant space and natural light also allow her to host photo shoots there — a huge boon for someone who has a sideline as a food stylist. And the airy open kitchen is an ideal place to develop recipes for the cookbook she’s working on.

It was a dark warren of cabinetry when she moved in. With her landlord’s blessing, she ripped out most of the cabinets, replaced the countertops (free, thanks to a sponsor, Caesarstone, as were a set of streamlined appliances from Fagor), and hauled in two free-standing glass cabinets to hold her spices and dried goods. “I like to be able to see what I have,” she explained.

She also replaced the “standard-issue Home Depot-style” light fixture in the living room with an arresting sculptural piece — one of the few large objects she arrived with. Having moved three times in little more than three years, she and Paloma have pared down their possessions.

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Camille Becerra lives in a converted schoolhouse in downtown Manhattan.

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Liz Barclay for The New York Times

Before the Chinatown apartment, they shared a loft in TriBeCa that Ms. Becerra had taken over from a friend — the same loft where they’d lived when Paloma was a newborn. (The place had been in her circle of friends since 1996.) Ms. Becerra decamped for Greenpoint, Brooklyn, after 9/11, worried about the impact of air pollution on her 6-month-old’s lungs. They lived in a loft there with Paloma’s father before mother and daughter moved to a two-bedroom railroad apartment, also in Greenpoint, where the rent was just $1,600. Ms. Becerra moved them back to Manhattan after a 2008 grease fire destroyed her Greenpoint restaurant, Paloma.

“I kept on talking to people about what happened. I was ready for a fresh break,” Ms. Becerra said.

They left the TriBeCa loft — “a very hippie-ish place, always cold in the winter” — when the owner of the building decided it was time for a renovation, which Ms. Becerra conceded was long overdue.

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Ms. Becerra renovated the kitchen of the high-ceilinged apartment and develops recipes there for a cookbook in progress.

Credit
Liz Barclay for The New York Times

She said she was thinking of expediency more than anything else when she moved into her current space, but it has proved well suited to her needs. Though living more than half a mile from the subway might bother some, she prefers to bike, and “everything I need is down here — the Union Square farmer’s market, the Chinatown spice markets, the Bowery restaurant supply stores,” she said. “I don’t leave the neighborhood, and I like it like that. It allows me to be a creature of my neighborhood.”

She even fantasizes about buying the apartment if the building were to go condo. For years, she said, she had thought of Paloma’s high school graduation as the event that would untether her from the city, and had scoped out the possibilities whenever she traveled for work. But on a recent trip to Paris, which she always considered the most alluring of potential new homes, she realized she didn’t want to live in any other city.

“I realized I’d rather be in New York, that I’ll always live in New York. I guess that I’m a New Yorker,” said Ms. Becerra, who grew up in New Jersey. Ideally, though, she’d like to spend her summers someplace more relaxing than Manhattan. “I’m thinking the Rockaways,” she said.

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