Never Don't Stop-aurant
One night this summer, after a meal of pork chops and grilled broccoli accompanied with Moonlight Brewing beers, my friend and I glanced around NOPA and realized we were the last customers inside. We moved to leave but manager Stephen Satterfield brought us a complimentary bowl of caramel ice cream instead. After we apologized, he told us not to worry. There is one thing most people don't know about NOPA: It is rarely empty. The only days that no one is on the clock fall on Christmas, a holiday party on Valentine's Day, and during occasional maintenance. Besides those times, the restaurant functions in a creative continuum.
The idea that one of my favorite restaurants is always alive intrigued me, so I decided to peer into a day in its life. I found a myriad of cogs behind a delicious dining experience that looks effortless. Like co-owner Laurence Jossel says, “This business of cooking people food is complicated if done right.”
Pastry chef Amy Brown arrives and starts roasting spices and throwing chilies, garlic, and cumin into a broth that will eventually be the upcoming weekend’s brunch-time pozole. Amy goes over her ingredient list and notes what is left over from the night before. Amy refers to the mornings as the “quiet storm” before the night's quick-fire service.
The prep chefs and sous chef Braxton Schell arrive. In the mornings, hamburger buns are rising (NOPA makes 80–120 buns in house every day), pistachio brittle is cooling, sauces are being assembled, and soups are simmering with potatoes, salmon, and thyme.
Laurence arrives with the ribs and shoulders of a 120-pound pig from NOPA's sibling restaurant, Nopalito. He rubs the meat with a garlic smear and tastes a single-origin coffee from Honduras that might be used on the menu but he ultimately concludes it is “too boring and doesn't really go anywhere.” Cheese is another issue; the chefs were expecting a shipment of Gruyère but it never came. Laurence and Braxton grapple over whether to find Gruyère elsewhere or use Crescenza, an Italian cow’s milk cheese.
We settle into Laurence's new transit van and head to the Ferry Building. NOPA is all about community, Laurence explains as he greets farmers. “It used to be that you showed your expertise through what you could manipulate but I don't need anyone to see how smart I am. I want them to see how brilliant the farmer is.” We load the van with 25 pounds of avocados from Brokaw Farm, 18 pounds of blueberries from Triple Delight Farms, boxes of artichokes and white nectarines, and bunches of basil. On the way to a farmers’ market in Berkeley, Laurence calls Braxton to detail the purchases so the chefs at NOPA can start developing the night's menu.
We make our way to a different farmers’ market in Berkeley to pick up more produce. Melissa McGrath, a NOPA chef, is buying blueberries, strawberries, and spring onions for herself on her day off.
The staff samples new spirits that are rolling out the following week. Bar manager Yanni Kehagiaras, the “spiritual” genius behind NOPA's bar, has created six new rum concoctions. Yanni turns the traditional daiquiri on its head by substituting cherry for lime in the Natural, a staff favorite that he describes as “so simple and unabashedly Caribbean.” Yanni explains, “Each rum produces two cocktails. One will take the spirits route and one will take the summer route.”
Front of the house lineup starts. The service staff takes notes about the new Chablis and Triple Delight Farms, a Central Valley farm that produces raisins and seven different types of blueberry varietals. About his hiring process, Laurence simply says, “I send out for angels. I don't look for experience but for hardworking, smart, nice people. You can't be in this business if you're not those three things.”
The service staff moves to the kitchen lineup. The decisions of the past few hours are seamlessly integrated into an assortment of dishes. The Crescenza is mounded on a flatbread with tasso ham, rapini, and artichokes; cherries have been roasted on one dish with New York steak and blue cheese, and on another dish, pickled with headcheese and bagel chips.
Laurence's wife Allyson and their son Riley come in for their Tuesday date night. Riley colors while snacking on a lemon cucumber, the taste of the day (a simple amuse bouche offered to all dinner guests upon sitting down). The cucumber is cut like a lemon slice and spiked with vinaigrette to bring out its acidity.
Service industry folk come in for meals after a night's shift. In a city that, at least food-wise, goes to bed early, NOPA provides comfort food to people who have spent their nights in the kitchen and on the floor.
Alcohol is pulled from the tables and the last diners finish their meals while the staff prepares to close. The bartenders are usually here until 3:30 a.m. and the cleaning staff stays until the early dawn hours.
Amy Brown comes in and the day starts all over again.
NOPA’s menu changes nightly, so check www.nopasf.com or follow the NOPA Instagram to see what's cooking (or just to satisfy your craving for food porn). The flat breads, pork chops, and grilled broccoli with lemon, anchovy, and breadcrumbs are always great, as are the cocktails.