By anyone's metric, Coqueta has had an impressive first year: it scored a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant, earned a stellar 3.5 stars from Bauer, and garnished an Esquire chef of the year prize for Michael Chiarello. Considering that it was Chiarello's first venture outside his Napa home base and his Italian wheelhouse, it was definitely a risk—one that Chiarello says he gave up much of his globetrotting, TV-chef lifestyle to take, and one that's certainly paid off in terms of the impossibility of snagging a table. We visited Chiarello at Coqueta to talk about tater-tot haters, being the life of the party, and taking big risks at age 50.
If you could sum up the past year in one word, what would it be?
Tornado? That doesn't necessarily imply all of the positive things that have happened here.
You're right! Whirlwind is a better word. A whirlwind of learning, a whirlwind of a new cuisine, a new town, a new crew, a new point of view.
Were you expecting all of this to be a challenge when you came in—going from Italian to Spanish, going from Napa to SF?
I fully expected it. Cooking a cuisine that you're not born to, for a lot of chefs in America, is their everyday. I had to find an emotional connection to this cuisine, a relationship to it. And I've built that over the last decade, the last 15 years, and very intensively in the last three years. For me, it was about having an emotional response to what we're creating and why, and earning the right to create a cuisine that I wasn't born to.
But, as you said, chefs do that every day. Why is that particularly important to you and to your technique?
For me, there's a big difference between taste and flavor. Taste is what you're doing technically on the plate, what it smells like, crunches like. Flavor is your relationship with the dish. A historical element that's created from an emotion, a travel [experience]...that has a sense of place and a sense of taste from somebody. If I'm working on our croquetas here, there are three chefs and one home cook that are part of that experience for me. I'm a little old-school; I'm 50 years old. I wanted to really respect cuisine in a classic sense, and understand the depth of each particular item from some of the best in-country chefs in Spain. Once I understood that, then I could look at my customer here, and figure out what they want, and bring the combination of those things to life. When you think of a dish that you had as a child that your mother or grandmother made, a dish that has an emotional attachment? That's the same thing that happens with me.
The popularity of this place has been so insane from the get-go. It seems like you guys are pretty much booked 100 percent of the time.
Well, my ego loves to hear that, but the restaurateur, the service side of me, doesn't. We have 50 seats in the dining room, 25 in the bar. And if you want to drop in for a little snack or a bite, I want to make sure that it's still a social experience—leave work, have a drink, a couple tapas, go home. We try really hard for that to be able to work. You might not be able to get in on a date night to sit [at the corner table], but...I really do encourage people to continue trying. If a place is so hard to get into, a year later, people stop trying to get into it.
Has that perception kicked in yet, or is it still slammed?
We've definitely been trying to build relationships with regulars.
Is it hard to have regulars, because it's so hotly contested?
A good restaurateur keeps in contact with the regulars—has their cellphone, has a certain number of tables available. If Willie Brown wants to come in tonight, then he texts me, and I'll have something.
But does that apply to someone who isn't a former mayor?
Any regular that comes in, we put info in their file. When they call in, I encourage them to remind the host to pull their file up. Or they can call ahead on their way over, and we'll get them on the waiting list. I don't like waiting for food, either.
For someone who wants to come here, but hasn't been able to get in, what would be your advice? Any best times to come?
Lunch is a wonderful opportunity. 11:30 am, 12 pm, you can walk in. Not as many people make reservations for lunch as they do for dinner, and the menu is probably 97 percent the same. So if you want to experience the food, that's a fantastic time. My best advice would be to come as a party of two to sit at the counter. We save all the counter seats for walk-ins. Go down to another place and have a drink, or have a drink at the bar here while you wait.
We're not so small that there are any absolute "no" moments. The last thing in the world I ever want to hear is one of our hosts saying that they can't help someone. "When would you like to come in? Let's see what the opportunities are. Can I put you on the list in case of a cancellation? What's the occasion?" If someone's having an anniversary, they're coming in from Wisconsin, they've been thinking about this for six months, we'll make it work. We're in the hospitality business. But regulars, especially: if someone comes into both restaurants quite a bit, and they have a hard time getting in, I'll say, "Hey, let me take a look."
In terms of your day-to-day, how do you juggle this restaurant, your restaurants in Napa, and traveling and doing appearances?
I've backed off 75 to 80 percent of my travel, so that's out of the picture right now.
Was that a conscious sacrifice you made to do Coqueta?
Absolutely. When someone says, "We'd love you to come do this event in L.A., it'll be really good for your business," I think, "Yeah, but what would really be good for my business is being at my restaurant, taking care of people there." So I backed off of every single food festival, and I'm only doing Aspen and New York this year. If someone wants me to do something local, I'm happy to come in for half an hour or an hour. But I love this more than anything in my professional life, including television. I love to cook and I love being in my restaurants. I spent the last year building my team so I can maximize that effort. Sometimes it's their hands and my ideas, sometimes it's my hands and their ideas.
Do you feel a level of pressure to be physically present, because you're such a recognizable face and you've been on television?
People are often surprised that I'm in my restaurants, but I do three and three: three days here, three in Napa. A lot of people are surprised that I'm not phoning it in. But I need to be here. I see things and do things as a restaurateur that other people don't.
Are there any unkillable dishes, things that you just can't take off the menu?
We were just talking about that, because we're doing the new spring menu today. I call them craving dishes, when someone says "I'm in the mood for..." For me, personally, I think, "Oh, I'm going to go to Delfina and have the braised calamari salad." I love that dish, and I'll get that every time, and then something else new with it. But if I go in and it's not there, even if everything else is great, there's a level of disappointment. Unless I'm really agnostic as to what my desires are, and go into a restaurant where I have no idea what they're serving, I like to have in mind what I'll be eating, and the guests do as well. So in doing this new menu, I put an X over the classics, that can't go anywhere.
So what are the classics?
The croquetas, the sunny-side egg with the chorizo dressing, the gambas with black garlic. The paellas, and a bravas of some sort. We've done them two different ways this year.
You opened with tater tot-like ones. What were the other ones?
They're smoked potatoes, cooked in a vacuum with aromatics, smoked over Cabernet cuttings from my vineyard, and then fried. With the tater tots...about one out of every ten people who ordered them would complain. "I just spent eight dollars on tater tots!" Well, yeah, but they're the best tater tots of your life! That's an item I spent eight weeks trying to figure out, and then it was off the menu in a month. But if 80 percent of people love it and 20 percent don't get it, then I'm still wrong.
Given your location and national profile, do you get more tourists than the average restaurant?
Not necessarily. We have a super-strong local base. The location's great because we have residential, we have the Financial District, we have visitors to the Embarcadero. We have more tourists in Napa than we do here; it's a much larger population base.
Every time I've been here, I've seen you working the room. Be honest: how many porrones do you drink in a night?
Oh, no! [Laughs.] Nah, it's just really like a soft drink. It has like an ounce of sherry in it. I don't drink that much.
You're kind of like the host at a party, and everyone wants to hang out with you. How do you ration your time?
The difficulty with this place is that I have nowhere to hide! At Bottega, I can just be in my kitchen and send people out and just cook. When you're cooking, it's hard to break that process in your head. I usually go out between two services; there's a lull, cleaning up, restocking, they keep me out of their hair for a couple of minutes and I go say hello. But people are beginning to understand who the restaurant team is, and so they're building some relationships with them, and not just me, which is wonderful.
What would you say has been the most challenging part of this year?
The economy is so hot, that it works both ways right now. We're losing some good people, but there's a ton of restaurants opening, a ton of room for new talent. Cooks that have been around a little bit would rather not go through an opening; they hang where they are. But I've been able to bring in some great people from Spain, from New York. They've cooked at Michelin-starred restaurants. I go to the East Coast, or I go further. Because I need Spaniards around me. Otherwise, before you know it, it's burgers and fries. They've been to places I haven't been, have experiences and ideas that I don't.
What's been the most gratifying part of this year, the biggest thrill?
You know when you get all dressed up to go out, and someone says you look great? We got dressed up, we went out, and people told us we looked great. That's so gratifying. It's wonderful for the team, too. When you have an idea, you work on it, and it gets a good reception—it's so great for the team to be able to see that. We're switching up the menu right now because of the year mark and because of the frequency—we're getting such good frequency that we need to change it up more often, have new things for people to try.
What are you looking forward to doing in the next year? What's on your radar?
We've had a lot of folks asking for food to-go, especially at lunch. If someone's busy, doesn't have the time to come in, we want to be able to provide that. We have a boat slip right here, and I'd love to do that as a private dining room. The yacht pulls up, you go on, have a little cocktail, have a bite, get back off. The rest is refinement, refining operations. I spend 70 percent of my time on the raw ingredients, and I want to build the relationship with the farmers and work with the cooks on the line, mentoring them, growing with them.
Have you considered opening another place in SF, given how well this one was received?
I still have the hangover from this one! [Laughs.] It's like asking someone with a hangover if they want to go out drinking tonight. I have lots of ideas, but I've done enough things in my life that I don't want to do every one. It's about my team, if anything. They made promises to me to help this dream of mine come true, and I feel a responsibility to them, to help them build their careers. I call it the "hidden paycheck." It's a little old-school, but it's part of that mentoring. We have a couple of things we'd love to do, but I'm not in a hurry.
As the bench gets deeper, we'll see. Everyone comes to me with ideas. I love [San Francisco], I love the diversity. It's fresh for me, and not like Napa. The energy, the vibrancy, the youth here keeps things fresh. The stakes are high here. All my friends said, "Are you nuts?" Who in their right mind, at 50 years old, would risk everything? A lot of people at 50 or 60 go back to college, get a Porsche, get a bad haircut.
And your equivalent to that is opening a restaurant?
Being a student again, learning a new cuisine. It's wildly humbling. It's so nice to be able to say "I have no idea" when someone asks you a question. "Have you ever had X?" No, tell me about it! When you've been doing a specific cuisine for 25 years, it's such a new adventure.