Interview with NOPA’s Chef Laurence Jossel: Owner, Husband, and Father

Chef Laurence Jossel of San Francisco’s NOPA is one of the city’s most honorable chef, husband, and father. He was kind enough to take a Friday moment between making the day’s caponata and playing with his two year old son to speak with me about, well, food. Chef Jossel is a humble man even with all his great success, and this humility carries into his food. NOPA’s dishes are elegant without being unpretentious and made with the finest of organic ingredients. Chef Jossel also carries his patriarchal philosophy into the kitchen where he treats his sous chefs and cooks like real family, feeding them, giving them verbal affirmation, and taking joy in watching them grow and succeed. It comes as no surprise the kitchen emits a warm love as the wood-fire grill crackles and pans sizzle. Sitting at the restaurant’s family-style table, Chef Jossel and I spoke on issues of cooking, restaurants and the secret to his success.

Maureen Olund: You must have a lot of passion for what you do. Do you have a personal mantra?

Chef Laurence Jossel: Tons of them! One I instill into my kitchen is good enough never is. Oh, and just shut up and do it. We use the word love a lot too. Do you taste the love? You do have to have a tremendous amount of passion to do this and do it well.

MO: How did you realize you had a talent for cooking?

CLJ: I wanted a car and my folks said ‘Oh you want a car? You’re fifteen years old, go get a job.’ So I got a job in a restaurant. That’s where it all started. Not until my early twenties did I start to understand a little bit of it. Now I am just beginning to learn it. By the time I’m ninety or a hundred and twelve, I’ll get it then.

MO: What brought you up here to San Francisco?

CLJ: Food. I went to culinary school here. I was the first one to go to college in my family. I just loved the vibe of the city. It was the first time I really felt at home. Luckily there was such this food connection, obsession really, that we all have with food here.

MO: One dish NOPA can be defined as…

CLJ: What NOPA has that other places may not have is a wood-fired concentration toward organic produce. What goes on that wood is what defines us. I would say grilled broccoli. Everyone knows broccoli right? They either love it or hate it. We take it and mix it with a little bit of water and lemon juice…add olive oil and salt…throw it on the wood-fired grill…finish with a little anchovy and lemon juice and bread crumbs. [Gasps] We sexy it up a bit.

MO: What does urban rustic mean?

CLJ: I really don’t know what that means. [chuckles] If I had to explain, urban means that you look outside and there is Popeyes across the street. We still both have chicken but the people walking can go left or they can go right. It’s rustic because we don’t spend a lot of time and attention on the plate presentation, We still cook very simply by trying to reduce the amount of ingredients but with good ingredients.

MO: Do you have regular farmers that you go to?

CLJ: NOPA is all about hyperseasonal, buying what each farmer does best at that point in time. We work with fifty-four farmers right now. Every single thing comes from a different person. Tomorrow I’m shopping for pears. I’m getting eggplant from somebody else and peppers from somebody else. I’ve got artichokes coming tomorrow too. We get three different types of nuts from three different purveyors. Lamb comes from somebody, as does our duck. Feeding people is complicated!

MO: What is in season being that it is autumn?

CLJ: Autumn is all about slow roasting and slow cooking. The transition of seasons is all about eggplant and peppers. They are just perfect right now. And then with autumn, we’re into squash and will start to see brussel sprouts and potatoes. Then we are on our way to pears, persimmons, pomegranates…all the p-fruits.

MO: Can you talk about sustainability as a restaurant?

CLJ: Just walk past the garbage area. We have five green compost bins and one black bin. Restaurants are notoriously wasteful. Go past any other restaurant and you’ll see five black garbage bins and one green bin. We don’t sell bottled water but we sparkle our own. Our grease goes back into biofuel. We’re always open to doing more.

MO: As chef and owner, how much time do you spend inside the kitchen rather than managing other tasks?

CLJ: I am so lucky…around here is my family. I have my wife Allyson and my business partner Jeff. I can do more cooking then owning. Jeff is a wine geek and Allyson is the administrative genius. And beyond that, I’ve got a huge staff now. I don’t have to cook today but today I’ve broken down a pig, I’ve broken down 12 fish, I’ve cleaned a case of artichokes and cooked that, and I was just making caponata. I love cooking as much as I can here but at night. I am way slower than the kids I have now. So they are zipping around the line and get things done that I would just get in the way of. I stand on the outside and I bless the food. That’s my job now. [smiles]

MO: With two successful restaurants, do you have plans for a third?

CLJ: Absolutely! We’ve talked about a grocery store, a butcher shop, an ice cream parlor, or a bakery…

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