Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
[Photos: Aubrie Pick]
It all started with a book about tequila. When chef/cookbook author/TV personality Joanne Weir, released Tequila: A Guide to Types, Flights, Cocktails, and Bites, her friend, legendary Il Fornaio restaurateur Larry Mindel tried her margarita and thought it was the best he ever had. He encouraged her to join him in opening a Mexican restaurant, and in May 2012, the duo opened Copita, located on Bridgeway in Sausalito. The restaurant had some chef shuffles in the beginning before landing executive chef Gonzalo Rivera, a Michael Mina alum. As Copita celebrates its one-year anniversary, Eater met up with Weir and Rivera to discuss moving from a TV kitchen to a restaurant one, tequila milkshakes, and schemes for the year ahead.
2013 has already gone by so fast. It scares me.
Gonzalo Rivera: It's gone by really fast for me. I can't believe it's already May.
One year in, how has it been? What expectations did you have when deciding to open a restaurant?
Joanne Weir: When Larry [Mindel] asked if I wanted to open a restaurant and I said yes, I thought we would open this little spot and I'd come in with my cute little clothes on. And I'd be smiling around, talking to everyone and people would know me from my show. What happened was, three days before we opened, the chef we were going to open with decided he couldn't handle it. He just didn't see the vision we had for the restaurant. So we went into it with no chef. And my sous chef, she was a cook, but hadn't been trained as a sous chef. I went into this basically by myself, and I hadn't worked in a restaurant since I was at Chez Panisse, and that was in 1990. So 20 years. [Rivera laughs.] He's laughing! Don't worry, you're going to get your chance to talk.
GR: I'm laughing because I've opened so many restaurants and I can't imagine opening a restaurant without a chef.
JW: When I was at Chez Panisse, I was a cook. I've had great training and I've done a lot of guest-chef things, but it wasn't the same. So we really went in understaffed, and I was basically a line cook. I was back on the line, had not been on the line for 20 years, and I was working 12 hours a day. For the first four months, I did not take one single day off. I think we would have been okay if we had done 200 covers a day. But we were doing 500 covers a day, and it hasn't really ever changed. We're still doing incredibly well, but it was really overwhelming. That probably went on for about the first month, where we didn't have a chef. We hired another chef and he lasted with us for one week. He couldn't handle it either. He was from Mexico, he was a really good cook, but I think it was just really overwhelming. Then we hired a third chef and he ended up lasting, but he didn't have the palate. It was hard for him to pull it off, but he did last for three months. Then we went looking for somebody in earnest and ended up with—I can take a deep breath now—my right hand.
How did you two meet?
JW: We ended up hiring a headhunter, which was a smart move for us. We knew what we wanted. I knew I wanted something fresh and clean and light; I didn't want heavy rice and beans and gloppy cheese. I wanted this style of food that's light and fresh, where people don't go out the door bent over, saying, 'Oh my god, I'm never going to eat Mexican food again.' I didn't want it to be baskets of tortilla chips before they even ate their meal—that's why we give [diners] jicama and cucumber. Something that you would have in Mexico. I always wanted to have Mexican cooks. It was not ever going to be me. I always wanted people who understood the flavors of true Mexican food. And yes, I wanted a modernized version of it.
How was it for you, Gonzalo, coming in?
GR: I loved it. I was born in California, outside of Chico, and the reason I'm a cook is because of my grandma. I used to watch her, and she raised goats just to eat them. Hogs, chickens, she was the one doing the butchering. She has very rustic ways of cooking, so I follow that route with cooking.
JW: He also loves the idea of keeping things fresh too. Tell her about the migrating.
GA: I grew up migrating from Central California all the way up to the Canadian border. I remember picking prunes very well; I loved it. They would give me a buck a bucket. It was a hundred and something degrees outside, but I earned my money. I earned 40 bucks a day. With my memory and my palate, I can identify a lot of stuff if I smell and taste it, and it reminds me of my grandma. Especially our birria. That was something my grandma would make a lot. Joanne now pushes me a lot because of her palate; I've never seen such a great palate ever in my life. When I first made our spit-roasted sauce, she identified every ingredient in that. I was like, wow.
JW: We really do work together to create a dish, and he does a lot on his own. He doesn't need me. But we always taste together to make sure it's kind of the vision that we've always seen for Copita. And Gonzalo was in Mexico City, and worked for a couple of years at Nemi.
GR: Nemi is a high-end seafood restaurant in the heart of the city, Polanco, which is the third-wealthiest neighborhood per capita in the world. We shut down a lot for construction, so I got to travel around the country and within Mexico City. It's very rich gastronomically.
JW: One thing that's great about Gonzalo is he knows the regional foods, so we're doing a lot of regional Mexican cooking, which is really exciting.
GR: We just did a Mexico City and surrounding cities menu, which consisted of tacos al pastor from Mexico City, which is very Lebanese-influenced with the shawarma thing. Green chorizo. Puebla, their chocolate mole. Stuff like that.
JW: From the beginning, I always wanted to have green chorizo. When I was out here making those ceviches and working 14-hour days, there was no way I could pull that off. With Gonzalo here, I just say it, we taste it together and it's on the menu. I have a vision, and he's pulled it off.
GR: We feed off each other really well. Things have been good so far, and it's just going to get better and better and better. Especially with the summer coming.
JW: Also, for me, at this point in my life it's been an amazing thing to be able to have the opportunity to do this. Not many people get a chance in their life to change gears. It's been an unbelievable learning experience.
How has the career switch been? Do you like the changes?
JW: I absolutely love it. I still love it, and every single day that I'm not traveling, I come [to Copita]. Recently, we developed these papas bravas, these deep-fried potatoes. We worked on it together, and I had this idea of what I wanted to toss the potatoes in, and then he came up with the [avocado crema] sauce that goes with them. That kind of stuff, I really love.
What's surprised you along the way? Any unexpected endeavors?
JW: For me, this is definitely the hardest thing I've ever done. The most challenging, but also the most rewarding. The gratifying thing is seeing how happy we make the people who come here. It's extraordinary. And I think the other thing that has been amazing for me is that I had no clue about my reach. I've been on television for 14 years and I've written 17 cookbooks. I had no clue that people actually really knew so much about my work and loved it so much. They'll come here and tell me, 'I'm not surprised the food is so delicious, and I see you in the food.' Even though it's more of a collaboration, and honestly, it's more Gonzalo than me. Where we are now is because of him. I can finally breathe again. I used to wake up in the middle of the night, with my heart pounding.
JW: Absolutely. And at the same time, you walk in and 500 people are eating lunch. We're opening the doors and people are already waiting. It's still like that.
GR: Today, there was a nice line waiting for us to open.
And it's a Wednesday.
JW: And tonight it will be busy. Last weekend, we did over 1,000 covers on Saturday and Sunday. People love us. I'm so happy. And people finally understand what we're doing. At first it was really hard for people to understand. 'Wait a minute, I thought it was Mexican food, where's the rice and beans?' People thought they were going to have big platters of food, and it's never been what we wanted.
And you also developed it to be a gluten-free menu?
JW: We are 100 percent gluten-free. But really, Mexican food doesn't use very much flour.
GR: Very little. In the Northern part, yes, because it's more a European influence up there. But down South it's all corn. Maybe for pastries. But where my parents are from, they make pan elote, cornbread. They may add more eggs to it, to make it more of a custard.
JW: We're already thinking of the next recipe, that's why we're looking at each other.
GR: Corn's coming up.
JW: There have been some testing issues. We were making buñuelos because we realized there was demand for them. We were frying the buñuelos that had flour in them in the same fryer as the tortillas, and it's really not right to do. There's still flour in the oil and the fryer.
GR:So there was cross-contamination there. So we looked into it, did research and...
JW: He tried out the recipe, and oh my God.
GR: We used Cup4Cup, a gluten-free flour from Thomas Keller. And it worked out great. We just switched over the cookies as well. These wedding cookies with this awesome Oaxacan chocolate milk shake with a little bit of añejo tequila in there. Very tasty. And no more flour tortillas. So we're 100 percent gluten-free as of a month ago.
JW: We don't even have flour in the kitchen.
How has the menu, as a whole, evolved since you opened?
JW: We still have a lot of the same dishes that were on the menu from the beginning, but I think that they're more refined now. I also think that our food is more consistent. That's definitely because of Gonzalo being here.
GR: They're definitely the staples. The chicken tinga, the 24-hour carnitas...
JW: Which people say are the best in the Bay Area.
GR: I changed it to the way we do it in Michoacán. It's the state known for its carnitas.
JW: Are you bragging about your province?
GR: I always brag about it. We finish it off with a Mexican Coke at the end to give it a little caramelized flavor and beautiful color. And we use orange zest and bay leaf.
JW: Another thing that's changed is our tacos were a little bit more traditional in the beginning. Now, we do things like fried pork-belly tacos that are out of this world, with a pipian sauce.
GR: It's my play on the campechano, which is a cooked pork with pork rinds on top. Here, you have beautifully braised pork belly that's deep fried so it's nice and succulent, but crispy on the outside. We brine it as well, so it gives it a nice flavor.
JW: Another one that's on there, a tribute to my upbringing in New England, are the fried-oyster tacos. We're using the fireplace a lot for our salsas that we make. We change those salsas up, but one that we're doing right now uses tomatoes, garlic, and chilies. We roast it in the fireplace on the coals, and then we make a salsa out of it that is delicious. In the summer we'll roast elote, the corn. Gonzalo made it the other night; we're trying it out.
What do you put on the corn?
GR: We make a chipotle crema, with sour cream and chipotle. We make our chipotle here.
JW: We make everything. Chorizo, chipotle, every sauce, everything. Our tortillas, everything.
GR: We use La Palma's masa. There masa is probably the best in the Bay Area.
JW: One thing we've never veered away from, and the thing we have felt from the very beginning, is always using the best ingredients. And I know that people write that on their menus and I just feel like that is a given with restaurants now, but we use the best fish we can possibly get. It's all sustainable. The best ingredients from the best farms. Going to the farmer's market. And yes, that does cost a little more, and maybe that's my Chez Panisse background, but I feel like you taste that on the plate. I really feel like about two months ago is when we really reached our stride. I think it's funny to be reviewed for a restaurant a month out. I think it's crazy. It honestly took me one month of working here before I realized we could see the water from here. That's how busy we were.
GR: For such a small space in terms square footage, this place is rockin'. We have 58 seats here and we're doing 500 covers a day on the weekends. Even Fridays. It's a rockin' little place.
JW: Another thing that we changed a lot in here is soundproofing. When we opened, we didn't realize what all that tequila was going to do to people, and it was really noisy. In February, we closed for a whole week and took out the entire ceiling and put in a new ceiling for sound. We haven't just made improvements with the food, but with the interior as well. We've also tried to constantly improve our service, and that's one thing a lot of people comment on.
When you first opened, were you actively reading reviews from critics? What was your takeaway from those early reviews?
JW: I did read the reviews. Especially in the beginning: we did get a lot of press, and people really did like our place. But then there were also some that I read and I'm like, "Ohh." And of course, I take it personally. But I definitely read them. For sure.
GR: And you have to react.
JW: And we know what we're doing wrong. I think we do. Right? We talk about it. We know. I don't know.
Do you read Yelp reviews?
JW: I decided to quit. Is that bad for me to say?
JW: I decided to quit because, well first of all, on the Yelp page they highlight that 'Joanne Weir is a sexy, red-haired vixen.' And it's huge on the page. It's really a nice compliment, I love it. But I don't really see myself that way. Then, there are also the people who don't understand us. What bothers me are the people who leave five-star reviews and then get filtered out. I don't get that. But what do you think, Gonzalo? You read them.
GR: I do everyday because I like to know what our guests are thinking and if they're loving the food. They're loving the flavors. But I like to read them so I can be ahead of the game and so I can adjust my game if I need to.
JW: I take every one personally.
GR: I don't take it personally. I know we're doing a beautiful thing here, and we're educating people on what traditional Mexican food is, with modern presentation. And we're having fun, because 99 percent of the people who come through here, they thank us. They thank us for such a great experience.
JW: And you know what else? People stay. They stay for hours. And stay and stay and stay. Three or four hours, and eat. I'm not kidding.
GR: We had a couple that came up to the bar, and they rode in on their bikes. They just ordered tequila and papas bravas. Then they added the tortilla soup...
JW: Maybe we'll have some tacos...
GR: Then they ordered tacos, then pueblos. They ended up having five, six courses. Each dish is a progression.
JW: Then it was dark, and they had to ride their bikes back to the city. And they decided they were staying here because they loved it that much. And they rode home in the dark.
Do you have things in mind for year two? Goals or things you want to do?
JW: We want to do more regional stuff. But what else? Well. Maybe we can't talk about it. [Laughs.] She said with a twinkle in her eye. Is that what you were thinking?
What are you two thinking?
GR: [Laughs.] We just really want the Bay Area to get to know Copita. Because I think we're doing something great here with our cuisine. We're educating people. A lot of people come in here with the misconception of Mexican food as Tex-Mex.
JW: And when Mexican people come in, they say, "These are the true flavors. This is the best Mexican food we've had in the United States."
GR: I get the chills just thinking about it, because I make it a point to visit these tables, and I need to know what you think of our cuisine.
JW: I had a guy one day who was sitting out front. He had the carnitas and said, 'These are the best carnitas I've ever had.' He was from Mexico City. I went out a little bit later and he had a second plate. He ordered them twice. We had a big table out there, all people from Mexico. We had been here six months, and they were saying, these are the true flavors of Mexico.
GR: It's a great compliment. And we try to do things that nobody else is doing.
JW: How did we do with our play on our future? Were we good at avoiding it?
There's a lot of mystery going on here. So you're scheming about some other things.
JW: We're scheming. That's really good. Scheming.
Anything you can share?
JW: We really can't yet. Keep an eye out for Copita. It's funny, I've had so many people email me or come in here and say, 'Why don't you open one in Miami? Why don't you open one in Paris? Why don't you open one in New York? Oh, you'd kill it in LA.' It's funny how people say that to us all the time. We're not going to Paris.
Not Paris, but maybe San Francisco?
GR: Oh, that would be great. That would be awesome.
JW: We're scheming.