Chef Nick Balla has Central European heritage and specializes in sustainable, seasonal food, bread baking and preservation. He built an impressive career in San Francisco and is best known for his work at Bar Tartine and Duna. He also ran Smokebread, a fast casual concept that focused on breads and dips. He also won a 2015 James Beard Award in the Cooking from a Professional Point of View category for co-writing Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes. He recently relocated to Big Sur to run COAST Big Sur Cafe. Last week, I interviewed Balla from a considerable social distance of 286 miles, and he shared insights about cooking during a pandemic, staying resourceful, and a brighter future.
Josh Lurie: What appealed to you about becoming COAST’s chef? Any pleasant surprises?
Nick Balla: I didn’t realize it at the time I started making initial visits to Big Sur from San Francisco, but I was ready for a lifestyle shift. I initially planned to join the project as a consultant and return to open new projects in San Francisco after opening COAST. The extreme wild beauty and the welcoming Big Sur community drew me in and helped to shift my perspective on where I needed to live to feel fulfilled. I finally moved out of my San Francisco place in November of 2020. I couldn’t have been luckier than to spend lockdown on a cliff over the ocean than in an apartment in the city.
JL: Pre-pandemic, what were the unique challenges and advantages of running a restaurant in Big Sur?
NG: Big Sur has the advantage of having a captive audience. Highway 1 is the only route through these 100 miles of coastline, bringing guests to our doorstep, even if by accident. This can create a real opportunity, when prepared for the challenges. Business in Big Sur is intensely seasonal — summer is busy, winter is slow. Weekends are often much busier than weekdays, even during the summer. Landslides, wildfires, and extreme weather all have a significant effect on the number of visitors to Big Sur. COAST is a series of round redwood water towers built next to a cliff under a mountain range next to the Pacific Ocean. There is no template for this business. We filter the water from a stream — there is no public utility. There is no public Wi-Fi or cell service. We always have poison oak. It is an adventure in problem solving running a business with this unique set of challenges.
JL: What are just some of the pivots you’ve made at COAST during COVID-19 that have made a positive impact on business?
NB: We endured a wildfire closure and evacuation for 3 weeks during August of 2020, at the height of our busy season — this in addition to the multiple COVID-19 related closures. The amount of creative thinking needed to process these operational adjustments has certainly made our team more adept at developing creative systems and food and beverage offerings to go with each evolution. I feel our team is now ready for just about anything.
JL: Is it too early to imagine what the restaurant will look like in “normal” times? If not, what do you anticipate?
NB: We spent the first two months of 2020 redesigning our dining room to look and feel more like a casual eatery than that of a cafe as it had since we opened. Our team spent months sourcing tables and chairs, working on decor and were excited to unveil the new design to our guests just before indoor dining was put on hold in the early spring. We are fortunate to have a casual, counter-service model. Full-service restaurants were struggling before this crisis and will need to be completely rethought in the future. My opinion is that prices need to double or triple pending on the place, menus need to be small and focused on specialties, not trying to serve everything that anyone could want, rather curating an experience. There will be a need to find a thoughtful way to communicate these needs to guests if these types of eateries will survive.
JL: Is it possible to be creative during such an unprecedented crisis? If so, how does your current creative process compare to your creative process during “normal” times?
NB: Absolutely. My own creative process has always started with looking at what is on hand and needs to be used versus what can we source that is new. Living in Big Sur has only increased this for me. I’m a fan of all types of preservation. We have made friends with many Big Sur locals who have gardens, food businesses, orchards, and farms. We process thousands of pounds of raw fruit and vegetables into everything from mushroom soy sauce to quince jerky. Many of the folks in Big Sur know we will take the ugly apples, extra 20 cases of spinach, or concord grapes, and turn them into something that can be enjoyed by our guests or shared with the community.
JL: What was the most recent dish you created? Tell me about your inspiration and approach.
NB: I bought several hundred pounds of dried beans in January of 2020 to make large batches of miso, soy sauce, and various other koji-related products. I have been dreaming of opening a plant-based restaurant and wanted to get started on building a larder for the eventual business. The COVID-19 crisis and general shake-up in the hospitality industry made me put this project on pause, so I’m using these ingredients on the menu at COAST. We recently added a sprouted and smoked black-eyed-pea miso soup to the menu with collard greens from a local farm, Japanese sweet potatoes, varying mushrooms, and herbs pending on what is available.
JL: What dishes would be on the table for a dream meal from your repertoire? Also, which people would join you at the table?
NB: I would like to cook an abundant feast of obscure Central European peasant dishes. This would be for my own pleasure. I’m Central European through and through — Hungarian, Polish, German, and probably a few others. Just for fun, I would make all of the ingredients from scratch, the cheeses, spices, and the whole meal from raw ingredients. The meal would be spicy, funky, sour, and full of flavor. The most important part of the feast though is who would join — people I might not have much in common with personally, or that I have differences with politically. My experience working in restaurants was always that the most satisfaction came from cooking for the outsider — the person who sat down to the meal feeling skeptical or out of place and walked out the door elated or cared for. I feel that now is the time in this crazy world that we need these types of experiences more than ever to bring us all together.