November 28, 2004
Mary Ann Travis
Jeff Cooperman (A&S '74), proprietor of Coop's Place on Decatur Street in the French Quarter for 21 years, is as serious as a dark brown roux about cooking. Stirring fat and flour as you cook them to the right consistency at the edge of burning is the key to making roux, the basis for many traditional New Orleans dishes.
Cooperman has absorbed the secrets of roux and cooking classic dishes by paying attention to the details. Like the way he picked up on how to prepare redfish meuniere, sauteing and spicing it just so, from an old cook fixing his own after-hours dinner one night decades ago at the Seaport Cafe on Bourbon Street.
"I watched him, and asked him what he was doing," says Cooperman. "And the way we make our redfish meuniere is based on that old gentleman's rendition of the dish." Cooperman has trained cooks who started as dishwashers. He guides all his cooks to follow the standard recipes he's developed. And he's written a cookbook, Cookin' With Coop. Serious as he is, though, on Wednesdays, he takes the day off to fish on Lake Borgne, miles from the French Quarter's seedy charm.
Coop's Place is as noisy as any big-city bar in close quarters with a jukebox. It has a laid-back, rusty-wrought-iron-chair style, and eccentricities--like the chef who serves your food along with a glimpse at his finger-to- neckline tattoos. A blown-up photo of Cooperman, dressed in a waiter's jacket and shorts, coming in second in a French Quarter waiters' foot race, adorns the restaurant's brick wall. So does a primitive-art sign that reads, "Be Nice or Leave."
A framed poster of the Louisiana alphabet made of crawfish tails fills another spot on the wall. The wall's wainscoting provides a ledge for lining up dozens of bottles of hot sauces within easy reach of diners. This is Coop's Place. Funky down to its uneven brick floors. Cooperman is the man in charge. He parks himself on a barstool, watching the traffic of customers and cooks, not missing much.
"A lot of things can go wrong," he says. "You have to keep on top of it." A Miami native, Cooperman got his start in the restaurant business while he was a student majoring in psychology at Tulane. His first job was as a singing waiter at Your Father's Mustache on Bourbon Street. He worked his way into a regular waiting job at Brennan's Restaurant on Royal Street, and then went on to graduate studies at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.
He came back to New Orleans a well-trained restaurateur wanting his own business. The spot on Decatur Street became available in 1982. The location had been a barroom for many years, and Cooperman recalls the street as skid row then. Neighbors sent a delegation to him, requesting that he keep the bar's pool table, a favorite place for hanging out.
"So I decided my gimmick could be a barroom with good food." Remembering an adage from a Cornell marketing professor--"You have to fill it up before you price it up"--Cooperman began with an uncomplicated, inexpensive menu. After the first year, Cooperman hated Coop's Place. "I wanted out. I was, like, let me out of here. All these drunks. What have I got myself into?"
But things have gotten better over time. Bartenders, waiters, waitresses, off work late and hungry, flock to Coop's Place. They are the first group of loyal customers he had. And they often give their insider recommendations to out-of-towners looking for the best local food. Always open late (3 a.m. is closing time), the restaurant serves simple, comfort food to a clientele who knows food.
"I knew having a hamburger was a good idea," says Cooperman. "Fried chicken followed that. Jambalaya seemed like a natural add-on. Over time I've done more and more of that kind of food and been happy with it."
Cooperman for years found himself going to fancy restaurants on Saturday nights and then coming back to Coop's Place to keep his eye on things. Always angling for more delicious ways to cook, eat and serve good food, Cooperman has quit his weekend search elsewhere for "fancy" food. In the past few years, he's started to develop more upscale items for Saturday nights at Coop's. Only a few people know about the delicacies available, such as truffles and foie gras. Grilled salmon is a far cry from red beans and rice. But Cooperman can do both now.
"You could really be surprised on a Saturday night. It's good any night, but ..." He leaves the thought unfinished. But the maxim has come true. He's filled it up, so he can price it up, and have a blast in the bargain. Cooperman, the patient fisherman, is pleased to see the smiles on people's faces when they try something "that's pretty darn different"--alligator tails or shrimp creole-- "and they are happy with it." He reels in another satisfied customer. "They were ready to have a good time. Then they had a good time. They give you some money, and then everybody's happy. That's kind of nice."
Favorite comfort food?
Greatest food fear?
Undercooked fried chicken.
Who would you like to see in your restaurant?
Bonnie Raitt--I like her music a lot. I think she'd like Coop's Place.
James Beard--He took some of the principles of French cooking and gave them an American understanding, an American twist.
Julia Child--She's the greatest. She was the first person to not only have fun in the kitchen but get it right and cook some fancy food. She helped American people understand what French food was and how to get it. She wasn't too stiff.
Emeril Lagasse--He built the Food Network, and everybody who is a food lover has got to watch the Food Network. He's a great entertainer. And what I've heard from people when he was the chef at Commander's Palace is that the guy you see on TV is the guy you'd work with. He's very natural. I think that's why people like him.
Paul Prudhomme--His popularizing of blackened redfish made the whole awareness of local food a whole new thing.
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