Our Origin Story: From Inspirational Spark to Present Day
At first glance, El Refugio seems to have appeared by accident. It was never a dream of Noel or I to own a restaurant; it was more like “I guess this is what we’ll do next. Let’s see how it goes.” But when we look a little deeper, it is hardly surprising.
Noel comes from a family of mezcaleros on his father’s side, and a family of fonderas (small restaurant owners) on his mother’s side. With his love of eating, markets, and native traditions, it’s not such a stretch of the imagination that he’d be running a traditional Mexican restaurant and mezcaleria.
For my own part…well, I have worked in restaurants since the age of 16. It was an easy option for a chronic nomad who wanted to earn cash in hand and have the flexibility to up and leave on short notice. That said, I never valued restaurant work. It was always just a tool that allowed me to travel and find work wherever I landed. It was what I was doing until I finally did something important. Had I known in my 20’s that I’d be running a restaurant in my 30’s, I would have died of horror.
And then came Nopa. Nopa, that very well–known restaurant amongst Bay Area folk. I had the great fortune of landing a job there in 2008. Through Laurence Jossel, Jeff Hanak, and all who worked there, I learned that there could be so much more to a restaurant than serving food and making a few dollars. Nopa was (is) as much about connecting community, supporting local farmers and purveyors, and making responsible choices for our planet as it is about serving fantastic food.
Food, after all, is the common denominator of the human race. It’s what unites us across the tablet of color, belief, orientation, and tradition.
The game–changing moment came for me at a low point. My boss sat me down to ask what was going on—my enthusiasm wasn’t there and it was noticable. What shocked me is that he didn’t give me an authoritative warning. He asked instead what he could do to help me get it back. Put on the spot like that I stumbled forth with an idea that had been floating around in the back of my mind: why not start a food blog for Nopa to tell these stories of community?
The next week I was riding my 1969 Honda CB350 along the cloud–drenched mountain highway to Santa Cruz to interview Joe Shirmer of Dirty Girl Farms to find out how he produced such exquisite tomatoes, which begat my first ever food blog. Then it was up to Marine County to talk fermentation, hyper–local farming, and delicata squash, and down to Catalán Farms to learn about the struggle of migrant farmers. Weaving along coastal highways I had a premonition that something would come of all this. I wanted to write about philosophy and travel, but I knew in my bones that it was food that would carry my writing forward.
And I began to understand: it’s not what you do with your life that so matters, it’s HOW you do it. Whatever that it might be.
And here we are, 10 years later, working every day to incorporate ever more of that how into our what.
We began with family–produced mezcal to celebrate and support the artistry of the true Master Mezcaleros. We work to bring in native food traditions and educate our guests on native culture through conversation, cooking classes, and mezcal tastings. We try to create a supportive place for a staff where they feel good about coming to work. (For my part, I can say that I always feel better when I’m at work with my El Refugio family). We’re currently working on a cookbook highlighting native Mexican culture, and next up…handmade tortillas from native corn! (I’m super excited about this one).
We’ve shipped three large bags of native black corn from Guerrero, and will be experimenting on the nixtamal as soon as they arrive. In an attempt to understand heart and soul, the Mexican veneration of maize, I’ve just planted three rows of criollo corn in my back yard: blue, red, and yellow, all from Tlaxcala. Just this morning they’ve peeped their beautiful heads above the soil. Let’s hope they grow to full–size!
We’re incredibly grateful for the support we’ve received from our community, our employees, and our guests, without whom this would be impossible. We hope to continue growing and incorporating new ideas and recipes, while remaining rooted in our origins.