Interview with Chef Laurence Jossel of Nopa - San Francisco

June, 2007

Will Blunt: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Lawrence Jossel: As a teenager I got a summer job bussing and waiting tables in Houston to earn money to buy a car. When I turned 18 I moved out and decided to go to CCA.

WB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
LJ: I worked for Roland Passot at La Folie for 17 years. It was there that I learned how to cook with speed. I was the sous chef at Gary Danko for 4 years and I spent 3 years at Tony Gulisano’s restaurant Chow.

WB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs without a culinary school background?
LJ: CCA was great back when I was there, but I think it’s become too expensive for what it is. I usually try to hire a good half and half balance of trained and untrained chefs.

WB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
LJ: I ask why they cook and find out the last time they were at a farmer’s market. I try to suss out the most intelligent candidates. I’ll take a smart and lazy hire over someone stupid but hardworking.

WB: Is there any ingredient that you feel is particularly under appreciated or under utilized?
LJ: I think the general freshness of the ingredients themselves is underappreciated.

WB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
LJ: An acidic ingredient offsets anything wood smoked well.

WB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
LJ: A rotisserie grill.

WB: Is there a technique that you have either created of borrowed and used in an unusual way?
LJ: We use the grill as a smoker, which doesn’t occur to a lot of people.

WB: What are your favorite cookbooks?

LJ: The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers is a favorite. I think she’s a genius in the way she breaks things down to their simplest forms. Even though it’s not technically a cookbook, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan is a really good book for a chef to read. It is a really important book for chefs.

WB: Where to you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
LJ: Italy to learn about rustic cooking.

WB: What are your favorite restaurants off-the-beaten-path in your city?
LJ: Firefly is a great, friendly neighborhood restaurant. I like Da Flora in North Beach for Italian. It’s run by Hungarians. They make their own bread and have great gnocchi.

WB: Which person would you most like to have dinner with?
LJ: MFK Fisher or Elizabeth David.

WB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
LJ: Teaching kids.

WB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
LJ: Keep ingredients local, sustainable, and accessible.

WB: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
LJ: I think success means to grow enough to be able to give others responsibility.