Profiles: The Cook Who Stayed

The inimitable Alejandro Rodriguez.

January 4, 2016 ● 4 min read

In the early days of San Francisco’s Nopa, there were no recipes.

There were certainly a lot of familiar touches, many of them quiet homages to Judy Rodger’s rustic Californian restaurant, Zuni Café; the oversized wooden table that serves as the pass, the impeccably-sourced local ingredients.

But what locals now understand as the defining features of Nopa—the raucous flames at the heart of the kitchen, coaxed by sticks of almond wood, the pork chops, the rotisserie chicken, the fried little fish—were there from the beginning. So was Alejandro Rodriguez.

In March of 2006, Nopa was weeks away from opening and Al (a generously issued and received shorthand) was freshly unemployed after completing a stint at Bix Restaurant. His girlfriend at the time, Marcella, was involved in the opening team at Nopa, so he was always around. For those who know him, it’s hard to imagine Al just hanging out in Nopa’s kitchen without cooking in it, but, there he was.

Al’s defining characteristic is his grin. He can’t seem to restrain himself from beaming ear-to-ear amidst even the most banal encounters, which usually results in the other person assuming a similarly goofy disposition; suddenly, something that wasn’t funny before has inexplicably become so. Mundane interactions become memorable. He’s playful, and restless without a chef’s knife in hand. When he does have one, the blade is a remarkable, natural extension of his hand. Whether he’s deboning 100 pounds of trout, or slicing through a tightly rolled bundle of herbs, he is distilled calm.
It’s hard to say how such playfulness played in the frenzied tempest of a restaurant opening as big as Nopa’s, but it must have helped—before the doors ever opened, that sunny disposition of his had landed Al a job. Nopa is fast approaching its tenth anniversary, Al and Marcella got married, and he is still there.

His first day on the line had him peeling a mountain of garlic to be transformed into garlic confit, and he was assigned the position of floater, moving station-to-station through the night, helping the other cooks with whatever they needed in the moment. It was a stimulating and interactive position, requiring the kind of fast-twitch attention that would ease him into the myriad responsibilities he would eventually have in his current position as chef de cuisine.

For the many, many cooks who have passed through Nopa, to have worked with Al is to have undoubtedly bestowed upon him some outsized, adulating credential. His unfailingly jovial temperament prompts past and present coworkers to crown him “the heart and soul of Nopa;” a favorite person to work with, the best part about coming to work.

For his part, he comments repeatedly on the pedigree of Nopa’s early cooks—their experience, how much they taught him. He’d never seen owners work so hard, which certainly stuck with him. Partner Jeff Hanak worked the dining room floor, and his counterpart Ally Jossel worked the door. Ally’s husband, Laurence, was the Chef. They were—and are—modest in their aspirations yet ferocious in their combined execution.

In the early days, turning the 110-seat restaurant anything more than once meant success. In the first few weeks, it was immediately clear that Nopa was a formidable addition to San Francisco. The covers, and the city’s fanatical devotion, continued to swell, building to the 500 weekday covers and 800 weekend ones the restaurant now cranks through like clockwork.

Through it all, Al grew into one of the city’s best cooks. This warranted distinction isn’t merely because he’s been doing it a long time. He’s a ceaseless student of food, a walking version of the Food Lover’s Companion. When presented with some new stone fruit hybrid, he will wait for you to describe it, then politely inject into the conversation its origin and properties. In the rare cases he encounters something he hasn’t done, he does it. (This year it was hoshigaki, the Japanese delicacy of drying and massaging persimmons—one of the most ubiquitous food trends of the year.) Al’s humility and dedication to his craft allows him to graciously embrace food without pretense. He’s content, but never idle.

Al’s customary uniform allows you to spot him at a distance and mirrors the exuberance of his personality: red pants, loudly colored socks and white clogs, with a crisp navy blue pin-striped apron. His cheesy food puns are an enduring legacy unto themselves; rock ballads are frequently repurposed as food puns with extra queso. (Notably, the seminal hit "Sweet Caroline" adapted as  “sweet maaandariiin,” ends up working far better than it should.) His relentlessly upbeat charm, though contagious, is not what has earned him the trust of his coworkers. That would be his ability to remain unflustered in moments of inevitable chaos. If the dishwasher backs up at 10pm on a busy Friday night, Al is alerted first, and it’s Al who (in between orchestrating dinner for hundreds of people in a packed dining room) goes to the dish pit to assess it. He’s usually the one to fix it. The same can be said of a broken printer, circuit breaker, or a fire beneath the hot water heater at 2am.

Many chefs say the biggest downside of a career cook is that they’ve had too much experience, that the bad habits they picked up somewhere are too hard-wired to reverse. But cooks are also much younger than they were ten years ago, and the patience of someone like Al is proving useful. His role has shifted from supporting the kitchen staff to mentoring it.

One of the most remarkable things about this beloved restaurant in San Francisco is that the people who work there, or once worked there, revere it in the same manner of the people who dine there. And for this 10-year-old fraternity, the most enduring and central member in Nopa’s history is still standing in front of the pass, goofy grin still plastered on his face. Ready.

By Stephen Satterfield | Images of Nopa and Rodriguez via Alanna Hale, collage by ChefsFeed