Goodbye Nopa(lize)

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There was never going to be a perfect time to write this, but the time to write this is now. Today was my last day at Nopa. After five years, and a lifetime of lessons (but, for your reading pleasure, I’ve synthesized it to 5), I am now reduced to one final letter, one last note to express my gratitude for the experience bestowed upon me. Exactly what that experience was is impossible to convey. I will try, but please know in advance, there are no words that can be spared in expressing my gratitude to the Nopa Partners: Allyson Jossel and Laurence Jossel, Loreen and Jeff Hanak.

If food is your thing  (and I’ve seen your #ig accounts, it is your thing!) I can make a justifiable case that, for the last 20 months, I’ve had one of the coolest jobs in the country.

A few weeks before starting, I can now freely (though embarrassingly) admit, I’d never even heard of Nopa. Less than a week after dining there, I went back seeking employment. I was, at the time, fresh off living on a ranch, so I was doubly in awe at Nopa’s pace and scale. I’d never, nor have I, seen anything quite like it.

Five years ago, circumstance and naïveté brought me to the bejeweled, beloved San Francisco restaurant. One week after dining there, Nopa lingered as a one-night affair — intoxicating in the moment, persistent in the imagination long after the encounter. I went back, days later, to profess my love. Instead of a ring, I brought a resume.

I can make an equally compelling argument that prior to this aforementioned coolest job, I had the chance to manage one of the best restaurants in America. Actually, I don’t even have to bother using the diplomatic, “one of” qualifier. I rather like this beautiful and convincing anointment of Nopa as number one.

At age 26, I was already fairly credentialed in the food and wine world, so I felt pretty confident I would get a job there. I also felt confident that job would be as a busser, perhaps a food-runner, or maybe, just maybe — if they were super impressed — they might hire me to wait tables straight away. In retrospect, whether it was a good impression, necessity, or somewhere in between, the position they were looking to fill was for a manager, and they were looking at me. I was enamored, so I looked back, but I didn’t really know what I was looking at or what they were looking for.

Even after this seemingly ordained appointment, it almost never happened. I was sleeping on a friend’s couch in Oakland, and it turns out, I really liked Oakland. A lot. It reminded me of Atlanta, of my home. Before Nopa, and before their shocking offer to hand over the keys to a naïve and brash mid-twenty-year-old, I’d already been hired for a position to manage a reputable restaurant in Oakland. I had a decision to make. The Nopa job, with its crazed hours, would certainly necessitate a move to the city.

I might’ve been naïve, but I wasn’t green. I knew enough to know that taking a job with Nopa meant giving myself to it completely. I knew, as we all know, that world-class performers, in any field, work with discipline and diligence. At least I thought I knew that. What I came to know is that 1) being excellent was about being excellent all the time. It was about not relying on your talent or temperament to choose the days in which you performed. There are only a few who’ve worked in organizations like this, and if you have to think about it for even a moment, then you’ve not worked at such a place. It is something you think you know, but will never truly understand until and unless it’s seen in daily practice. It is the reason I speak with such conviction on the merit of the restaurant. If we’re scoring for food, drink, service and size (size matters!), the algorithm will continually list Nopa as the answer to, BEST RESTAURANT.

I spent  three-and-a-half years with this show; three-and-a-half years with daily rituals, new audiences, new cast members. “The floor” at Nopa might as well have been the trading floor on Wall Street, or a Broadway stage for restaurants. There was always something to learn, always a spectacular dish or wine or bite from any particular evening, always the most gorgeous person you’ve ever laid eyes on, only to be supplanted by the most, most the following day…. it goes on. Ten years in, Nopa remains a pinnacle spectacle, moving quickly and dynamically.

When you’re seeing 500 new faces nightly, that part is invigorating. Each service is wildly variant. However, for a restless, hyper right-brainer, the daily stimulus waned on essential tasks like counting money and entering things in Excel — not my jam.

I’d had, and still do have, daily routines, but doing exactly the same thing each day, and having a daily routine are different things. One felt like the thing I did every day, the other felt like monotony. This was part of the learning.

A major benefit of systemic excellence  is that it makes it easier to identify talent. Not to get too tangential, but 2) talent — an essential Nopa lesson — is in all of us. It’s not what we’ve been taught to believe. The tragedy, in school, work and throughout life, is that we have very few allies that provide us the space to have our talents properly evaluated. If you’re a scrub, you’ll be a scrub, but if you’re hardworking and in an environment that: 1) identifies, 2) develops talent, you should pray to your lucky star  or whatever. You are so freaking lucky. I hope you know it.

As part of my monotony therapy, I self-medicated by doing what I’ve always instinctively done – I wrote. I didn’t know it at the time, in 2011, but I was a writer. Except for the fact that it came as a natural way to sort myself out, there was never an inclination I would’ve ever asserted this. I was an uninspired and mediocre high school student, followed promptly by college dropout. Although I graduated from culinary school in Portland, writing as a career was never something I thought was available to me. Instead I pursued the things that I was naturally taken to and by, and subsequently, followed food and wine. But because I worked in a world-class organization that identified and nurtured talent, what started with an aimless Tumblr blog, began a personal and professional odyssey, Nopalize.

In 2012, when self-publishing and social media were becoming more a thing, my bosses decided that this collection of writings and iphone photographs called, Nopalize, would be something worth investing in. In it for them — the prospect of an original platform to share a glimpse of their people-first approach to community building. And community building, wasn’t just in the mission statement for Nopa, it is the purpose of Nopa. It is the third most essential lesson, to  “sustain the community.” It is the lens from which they view every aspect of their businesses, and it is the most remarkable quality among many for these partners.

Anyway, we never needed PR or marketing or anything like that, so we decided a better allocation of resources would be for me to take a salary to create this loosely defined Nopa-centric media outlet. And so the conversation began, then finally culminated January 1st, 2014, the day I became the editor of Nopalize. I was to work from home, make my own hours, write my own stories and find a collective of contributors to get behind this storytelling/documenting project. There was no money for the production, but we traded (literally) on the reputation of Nopa, which yielded a wealth of local talent. Nopalize was born.

There is too much that I can say about, Nopalize, but as an instrumental figure in its development, in many ways, I think I am least qualified to do so. I don’t think there was ever an elegant, all-encompassing description for us, but all along we existed to bring people and food closer together.

4) WHERE DID THIS COME FROM? This became the central question in our media project. Working backwards to uncover the origins of food went from a curiosity to a zealous personal pursuit that redefined my careers and continues to. I owe this entirely to the conversation around this question at Nopa.

We wanted people inside and outside of our restaurant to work backwards to connect to the tremendous personalities and places from which their food came. It is the secret sauce for Nopa — we use the best stuff. Not only that, we used a lot of it. Inevitably, the folks who harvested “the stuff” were more than happy to provide us with the best,  since we were, in some cases,  keeping small farms afloat. That isn’t a boast or overstatement. I’ve heard this directly from multiple farmers, and this sustenance, rather “sustainability” is the very intentional manifestation of the Nopa mission.

I never finished the story about choosing Nopa over the Oakland restaurant, but the short version is when I met with Allyson, Laurence, Jeff and (former Wine Director/Manager) Chris Deegan, I was taken by their vigilance in this mission. It helped me understand that this restaurant was about much more than hamburgers and pork chops ( though, there is a lot of that too). By the time the meeting in which I was supposed to politely decline the job was over, I had enthusiastically accepted a position.

Managing at Nopa
Here’s a glimpse into the life of a Nopa manager. Let’s say there are 500 folks coming in for dinner tonight — something that happens multiple times weekly. If you’re working the door, or just cruising from table-to-table, you may have 300 “interactions” per night. An interaction may be a conversation or something as simple as basic greeting, “Welcome!” But that is meaningful. Think about how many times per day you say that to a stranger. Exactly.

Now multiply that single greeting by a few hundred. Now multiply that by 5 working days. It was unequivocally the most dramatic part of leaving the floor for my living room. The only thing that subsided this thought at all, was that so many of the familiar faces that I’d come to know from over the years were also neighbors. It was never easy explaining to them what I did now, and that I still worked for Nopa, but it was something.

That thing is, after 22 months in the same neighborhood, answering these same questions, all while growing further away from the cast members I once spent 60 hours/week with, slowly the mission, the personalities, the voices of Nopalize — many of which started as Nopa employees —began to drift. Those daily lessons and rigor that were once available to me, began to wane, as our creative ambition was growing. For us to make the media we wanted to, we would need actual dollars, not just Nopa ones, and as social media matured, Nopa and Nopalito’s brand and media needs were more direct and unaligned for what was being sold to the creatives. This brings me to the final lesson I learned at Nopa: 5) Upheaval is never easy, but always necessary.

We’ve all heard (or told) stories of friends being forced out of the neighborhood, or in many cases, the city. Seperation hurts, but that’s part of it. The flip side of that, though, is that when you become a mainstay of the cast, it may be time to re-evaluate your contribution or your value. One of the reasons Nopa has remained on top for a decade,  is that they’ve created an environment in which it is easy to tell when it’s time to go. Whether they tell you or you tell yourself depends, but it is always easy to tell.

It’s not yet clear what the future of Nopalize will look like, but I am optimistic. Whether through our podcasts, or videos or field trips, people eventually began to understand our intention. So whatever form it takes, I am open to and grateful for. I have been the recipient of the best scholarship/internship/immersion any aspirational food media professional could’ve ever asked for. Now I get to see if I can get paid to do it in the real world. I will never not pinch myself over the opportunity.

It is my sincerest hope that if you’re lucky enough to work at Nopa, you recognize the immense privilege and opportunity afforded to you. You think I’m kidding? Ask, The Petaler.  There is a precedent for Nopa launching you into other careers. Whether or not you know it, you are part of a very proud lineage of restaurant and hospitality professionals who will carry this place with them for as long as they live. As the days go on, my footprint grows more faint, but  I hope each of you remain mindful of this. Thank you to everyone who supported our endevour. I know I’m bound to forget people here and I’m so sorry for that, but in this moment, please see the thank yous below to former colleagues.

If you’re inclined, follow my forthcoming adventures @isawstephen or email me isawstephen@gmail.com. Writer for hire!

Much Love,
Stephen

THANK YOUS!
Thank you Samantha Crocker for allowing me to keep you up at strange hours, clicking and clacking the keyboard, even when you had your own early mornings ahead of you. Thank you Alice Cravens for the opportunity to play in the dirt and connecting to my community. Thank you, Caleb Taft, for teaching me that there is a right way to wipe down the table and that you should do it that way each time. Thank you Yasuaki for teaching me what leadership means. Thank you Heather and Xandre who taught me working alongside your best friends is an unconquerable joy in life.  Thank you Braxton for repping the South as only you can. Thank you Brooke Town for teaching me tenacity, Chris, for teaching me about wine, thank you Alejandro and Lulu for teaching me we all have the ability to come into work in a good mood. Thank you Ann Merrell for reminding me, the quietest can be the livest.  To Kent, thank you for teaching me about fatherhood. Your sacrifice to your family is inspiring and the most antithetical birth control imaginable. Thank you, Yanni for reminding me to first hear the artist before speaking to them. To Sarah Lau, thank you for  teaching me the value of earnestness.  Thank you Pauly, for teaching me that it’s okay to be content. Thank you to all of the amazing contributors to Nopalize. Thank you for latching on to the vision, and expressing it with your unique artistry.  Thank you Amy Brown for blurring the line between sweet and savory. Thank you Austin and The Werehaus for your talent and advocacy, Lauren for your amazing production skills and unwavering support. Tyler, Ryen and Derek, thank you all for holding me up and down; ’tis merely the first act. To Jeff, Ally, Laurence and Loreen, I have for you, not a thank you, rather an apology. I’m sorry after all of these words, I don’t have ones that can adequately surmise my gratitude. Thank you for giving me such a wonderful life here and beyond. I will spread Nopa(lito)(Liho) gospel everywhere always.  Last but not least, to my partner forever, Franklin James Clary, rest in peace. Thank you for instilling the courage in me to go forth. I’m gonna make you proud.

-sAs-

Category: Eat