Tip of the Isberg: Coca’s fate is in the hands of its one-time chef

Tip of the Isberg: Coca’s fate is in the hands of its one-time chef

Nathan Isberg ponders his future (Photo by Renée Suen) 

When we asked whether Coca’s surprise shutdown signalled closure or reincarnation, we didn’t know that its management was wondering exactly the same thing. The now-shuttered restaurant will either reopen as an entirely new enterprise, or not at all. But there is some good news. If the spot has gone downhill since losing its signature chef, Nathan Isberg, it might make hipsters swoon again: estranged from Coca since an unceremonious split from investors back in November, Isberg was surprised to get a call asking him to come back and shape an entirely new venture in the same space. Burned by bad politics and immersed in new endeavours, though, the young chef now faces a dilemma. His choice may decide the project’s ruin or renewal.

The tide started to turn on Coca last summer. Isberg had been working at both Coca and Czehoski, but moved exclusively to the former in September ’08, along with an unnamed investor—one of Czehoski’s silent partners. The chef worked the floor at Coca as general manager, forgoing a salary to “get the wheels back on track.” The kitchen suffered; Isberg began to feel distanced from his craft just as the economy was shaking management. When the restaurant closed for a week in September, supposedly for a small renovation, the unnamed investor might have walked if it weren’t for Isberg’s urging to stay open. “He panicked at the state of restaurants in this town. He wanted out,” says the chef. Things seemed to have improved by October, with Isberg back in the kitchen. Then, in a bid to boost capital, the investor suggested inviting Ed Ho of Globe Bistro to invest. Frustrated, Isberg threatened to leave, claiming that he and Ho “have a different philosophy.” Despite these objections, the chef turned up for work one day in early November only to find that Ho had been signed, sealed and delivered. “I handed over the keys in that meeting,” he says. “It was very sudden.”

Out of a job, Isberg starting cooking at the Berkeley Church and focused on his studies in food security at U of T. Then, last week, a call came from the unnamed investor: Ho had reneged decided not to proceed with Coca, claiming there was “no meeting of the minds.” The unnamed investor promised “a fundamentally different restaurant” if Isberg came back. “I have the opportunity to do something I love, but I’m also one semester away from getting my BA.” Yet his choice may determine whether it’s round two or game over for Coca.

One thing is sure: if Isberg does go back, he won’t make the same mistakes. “Coca was so much someone else’s concept. I will go back only if I’m doing what I really love.” What does he love? Less pretension, more sustainable practices and, of course, quality food. An all-new Isberg-approved menu? We’ll sign on the dotted line—or at least the credit card slip—for that.