Michael Chiarello's Road to a Restaurant Opening
In 2008, after focusing on Italian cooking for about 30 years, Michael Chiarello visits his daughter in Barcelona and becomes obsessed with Spanish food. The chef decides his next restaurant will be Spanish the only trouble is that he's about to open an Italian spot, Bottega, in Napa Valley. He puts the Spanish idea on the back burner.
Two years later, he's ready to revisit the Spanish restaurant concept. He takes four trips to Spain and eats at 40 restaurants. He samples two staples wherever he goes: patatas bravas (fried potatoes) and croquetas (fritters, usually made with ham). "After eating them 40 times, we earned the right to add them to the menu," he says.
While filming The Next Iron Chef in 2011, Michael goes to a Spanish restaurant in Santa Monica with his co-star Robert Irvine, host of Restaurant: Impossible. Just for laughs, they start drinking wine from a porron, a traditional Spanish carafe with an extra-long spout. By the end of the night, the whole restaurant joins them. Michael decides he has to get porrons for his new place.
Michael starts aging meat even before the restaurant is under construction. His purveyor in St. Louis strings up 50 hams. Meanwhile, the chef begins conceptualizing the menu and realizes he can't find calcots (Spanish leeks) anywhere in the U.S. He imports the seeds and persuades a couple of farmers to grow them for him.
While scouting locations, Michael checks out a 2,600-square-foot space on San Francisco's famed Embarcadero with a view of the bay, and he falls in love. In October 2012, he signs the lease, then he learns the drawback of building a restaurant on a historic pier. He has to get permits for everything even putting up a sign. And because the restaurant is above the water, crews have to wait for low tide just to get to some of the plumbing.
In November, tastings begin. Michael tests and retests dishes with chef de cuisine Ryan McIlwraith, then scores them on a 10-point scale. Some work out (7 points for the patatas bravas on the first try) and some don't: Michael spends a while trying to make toast out of crispy paella rice, but he can't figure out how to keep the rice together. He narrows the menu to about 50 snacks, small plates and entrees.
In April, with the opening a week away, Michael declares, "No new ideas." It's time to cook. Day 1: He and Ryan cook for the team. Day 2: The team cooks for Michael and Ryan. Days 3 and 4: Half of the team cooks and serves for the other half. Days 5 and 6: Friends and family act like customers so the whole staff can practice. He asks for honest feedback. "That's the hardest part," he says.
April 13, 2013: Opening day! Coqueta serves dinner only, so the staff can work out kinks; lunch follows a few days later. Michael lives and breathes the restaurant for the first three months, when all the key critics come to review it. At this point, he says, "You take your hands off the wheel, close your eyes and hope you make it."