Jossel in an apron smiling in the kitchen
Laurence Jossel at Nopa, his restaurant in San Francisco.

Q&A: This acclaimed chef’s childhood was full of fast food

Name: Laurence Jossel
Age: 47
City: San Francisco
Position: Nopa, Nopalito restaurateur

J.: Before opening the highly acclaimed Nopa in 2006 and then Nopalito in 2009, you worked as a chef at some of the Bay Area’s finest dining establishments, including La Folie and Gary Danko, where you honed your craft. Did you always want to be a chef?

Laurence Jossel: I’ve been in the business since I was 14. I went to work instead of high school. I wanted money to buy a car. I just didn’t tell my parents. I began at the Malibu Sea Lion in Los Angeles, which had the largest salad bar in the country, washing dishes and busing tables. Eventually, my parents found out about my work and sent me to cooking school at the Culinary Academy in San Francisco. So, really, I fell into cooking. Along the way, I had some great teachers. Gary Danko was my education guy. He taught me how to read a cookbook.

So, you didn’t come from a family of cooks who inspired you?

No, my parents weren’t good cooks — not at all! When I was growing up, we ate a lot of McDonald’s and Burger King, and we became fat. We had a joke about my father’s black-and-red grilled chicken: It was black on the outside and red on the inside. The food I grew up with is not the food I cook.

Let’s talk about the food you cook.

You have to start with great ingredients. We change our menu at Nopa every day. We work with 70 to 80 farmers a year, all exclusively in Northern California. My staff and I — there are 32 of us in the kitchen — shop with great intention. I buy what’s in season. Today, I have cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, three roast chickens, persimmon and kale. As I’m talking to you, I’m on my way home to prepare them.

You mentioned Gary Danko as a great teacher. Do you have any other culinary muses in the Bay Area or beyond?

I loved the late Judy Rodgers of Zuni. She was definitely a genius and very inspiring person with a singular focus on her restaurant. She came into Zuni every day and tasted and tasted until it was just right. Also Cecilia Chiang [of the Mandarin Restaurant], Joyce Goldstein [of Square One], the late Barbara Tropp [of China Moon Café] and Alice Waters [of Chez Panisse] — these are people I admire who took risks. If I could spend two weeks with any chefs, I would choose Jacques Pepin and Julia Child.

Just as you were mentored by Gary Danko and other great San Francisco chefs, it sounds as if you’ve mentored quite a few cooks yourself and make it a a point to support them.

It’s definitely wonderful working with young people who come in at 21 years old and helping them develop their skills. I’m so proud of them. It takes a lot of creative people to run a restaurant. Over the last 10 years, a number of my staff have opened their own restaurants and bakeries.

Let’s talk about your Jewish immigrant story.

I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and came with my Jewish family to the United States in 1978 when I was 7. It was at a time when many other South African Jews were leaving the country. Things were not going well politically at the time, and my mother couldn’t imagine me as an 18-year-old soldier defending the country’s borders. My parents were incredibly brave. They left everything behind. We initially settled in Houston, where I attended a Jewish day school and had my bar mitzvah. We then moved to Los Angeles when I was a teenager. The way my parents reinvented themselves in this country is similar to what you do when you start up a restaurant. It’s scary, but you have to be hopeful.

You’re not the only family member with a Jewish immigrant story. Your grandfather, Solly Jossel, who died last year at 101, was saved from the hands of the Cossacks. Your great-grandmother was a widow when she gave him up at age 5 so he could escape a life of poverty and anti-Semitism. He was one of approximately 200 children who left Eastern Europe with the head of the South African Jewish community. 

Yes, I didn’t know him well, because we were in America and he was in South Africa, but he started out with nothing and became a hero in Johannesburg. He was a successful businessman, a big macher in his shul and a city councilor in Johannesburg, which is like a member of the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco.

You have an 8-year-old son. Has he expressed an interest in following in your footsteps?

What he sees about my life is that it’s a lot of work. I wouldn’t talk him out of this business, but I’d play devil’s advocate. When you do what I do, you miss weekends and holidays off. It’s abnormal … but it’s inspiring, too.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.