In March, Old Havana Sandwich Shop relocated a few blocks west on Main Street in downtown Durham and renamed itself COPA. Old Havana's traditional Cuban fare—rice and beans, roast pork, sandwiches—followed, but the menu at COPA got a makeover.
Dishes from Old Havana's "Lost Dishes of Cuba" dinner series have found a permanent home here, underscoring both the complexity of Cuban cuisine and its vegetable-heavy influence. That's part of the reason why COPA's owners, Elizabeth Turnbull and her husband and chef Roberto Copa Matos, recently started their own farm. Another part is their desire to redefine the way diners think about farm-to-table.
"Many people tend to think of farm-to-table as posh, upscale, 'new American' food, not international cuisine. But the truth is that farm-to-table can be—and often is—adapted to all kinds of food," Turnbull says. "Among many other reasons for tying a farm to COPA, we want to highlight that you can 'grow local and eat global.'"
Deciding to source ingredients from local farms is one thing; starting your own farm is quite another. It's an ambitious project for any restaurateur, but Turnbull and Copa Matos have always been dreamers. Old Havana started as a flight of the imagination.
"We were eating at La Vaquita"—the beloved taqueria on Chapel Hill Road—"having wonderful tacos, and we decided the place needed Cuban street food," Turnbull says, recalling a conversation they had in 2010. "Wouldn't that be hilarious! All Roberto could do was kind of cook rice. But he had a very good palate; the rest are just skills you learn. We expected everybody to tell us this was a crazy idea, but they said, 'I think this could actually work.'"
At the time, Copa Matos—a biochemist who had always dreamed of using his agricultural research toward science-based farming—was working as a research technician at the UNC School of Pharmacology. Turnbull, meanwhile, had parlayed freelance fundraising into a marketing business for nonprofits. They leased the Old Havana space with the intention of having Copa Matos's relatives from Los Angeles help build and run the restaurant. But just before Old Havana's opening in January 2011, his relatives bailed; instead of giving up, Copa Matos quit the lab.
Copa Matos learned how to cook on the job, but he politely refused to be called chef.
"About year three," Turnbull remembers, "he woke up one morning and said, 'I think I could be a chef.' And that was [when] he started to make the transition."
It wasn't just a transition of title.
"There was the realization that by being part of the restaurant industry, I didn't have to give up my farming dream project," Copa Matos says. "I can work both ends."
By then, the seeds of what would become COPA had already been planted. In 2012, when the Durham Public Library asked Copa Matos to give a talk about the food of his native land, he discovered references to a nineteenth-century cookbook of Cuban cuisine called Nuevo Manual del Cocinero Cubano y Español. They sought out the book, discovering fragments of a manuscript whose pages were full of vegetables—turnips, celery, cauliflower, and much more—and a globally-inspired pantry of spices and herbs. Copa Matos and Turnbull labored to fill in the manuscript's many gaps and eventually republished it in 2013 with a foreword by Copa Matos.
Over the last couple of years, Old Havana began offering occasional "Lost Dishes of Cuba" dinners based on recipes from Nuevo Manual. These events were so rewarding and enjoyable for everyone that Copa Matos and Turnbull began to reimagine their restaurant.
COPA reopened with a new menu that commingles Old Havana's menu with tapas-style, farm-based fare, with many dishes inspired by recipes from Nuevo Manual.
Around the same time, the couple bought land in Hillsborough to start a farm, Terra Sacra, and hired farm manager Andrew Legge.
With their own farm, Turnbull and Copa Matos have more control over their ingredients, not only in the kinds of crops they grow but also in how they're grown; it also allows Copa Matos to achieve his science-based farming dream.
"We say we want to be in a business that cultivates relationships all the way from soil to table," Copa Matos says. "And when I say soil, I mean get a microscope, get a sample of the soil. Look at the ecology of that soil: how many bacteria you have, and how many fungi, and nematodes, and how is that affecting everything from there all the way to the table, sharing a plate of food."
Copa Matos did indeed buy a microscope; by analyzing the balance of microorganisms in the soil and applying research from soil microbiologist Elaine Ingham, Copa Matos and Legge can determine the most sustainable and efficient farming methods based on the specific makeup of their farm's soil.
Starting, planting, and cultivating a farm is a long game, but Legge has already harvested cucumber and yellow squash, the latter of which recently found its way into a colorful seasonal salad, and is planting crops such as kale, beets, and mustard greens to harvest this fall. Other crops, such as sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, and herbs, were planted in the spring and are ready for or are approaching harvest.
One crop that Turnbull and Copa Matos are particularly excited about are fresh black beans.
"Black beans are the quintessential Cuban comfort food, and I might go so far as to extend that across the Caribbean," Turnbull says. "Growing black beans is really an opportunity for us to experiment and follow the full life cycle of the plant and learn how to enjoy it at its different stages. For [Roberto], who has eaten black beans every day of his life, that's exciting."
While this year's crop won't yield enough dried black beans to fulfill COPA's needs, Legge has begun harvesting the beans in their nascent stage. At this point, the black beans bear a closer resemblance to green beans; the tender-crunchy pods have appeared in the seasonally inflected vegetales dish. In the coming weeks, as the beans mature and approach the second stage of their life cycle, they will look more like black beans but will still be fresh, so Copa Matos plans to use them in a raw or lightly cooked preparation. Finally, once the beans have dried in their pods on the stalk, they'll be harvested and prepared in a more traditional soak-and-cook method, destined for soup or rice-based dishes.
The farm is also teeming with herbs such as thyme, oregano, rosemary, holy basil, and mint, specifically hierba buena. It's also aptly known as mojito mint, which Turnbull favors for COPA's mojitos.
"It's less peppery than some varieties of mint," she explains. "It has more of the mint oil, which is what you want in a mojito. A good mojito experience is really about fragrance; you want every sip to be a fragrant experience, and this mint does that well."
A more unexpected application for that mint is in a Nuevo Manual dish called Ropa Vieja a la Americana. Ropa vieja, with translates to "old clothes," is a classic Cuban dish of slow-cooked, shredded beef. Typically, it's made with flank stank, a leaner, drier cut of meat that relies on a tomato-based braising liquid to bolster flavor and moisture.
"Roberto has never been a huge fan of ropa vieja. He's not a fan of heavy sauces, so when he saw this recipe, it piqued his interest. Ropa vieja is Cuban, so how would you do it American?" Turnbull says. "We don't know a hundred percent for sure why it's called [Ropa Vieja a la Americana] and we don't know a hundred percent if it meant the United States or the greater Americas."
Ropa Vieja a la Americana calls for white wine and mint; Turnbull divines that one plausible explanation for the name is that Americans have a history of cooking meat with fragrant herbs. For his take on the dish, Copa Matos braises beef chuck with white wine, mint, diced tomatoes, and fresh herbs. Though chuck is a less popular cut, Copa Matos was happy to discover that, in the end, it produced a better dish: The meat stays moist but isn't fatty, and shreds easily into long strands.
The lightly sauced dish is a far cry from traditional ropa vieja, particularly since at COPA it's served atop cassava, or yuca, flatbreads instead of alongside more traditional accompaniments such as white rice or plantains. The dish's composition and plating are in line with the restaurant's tapas-based approach, but it also has the added benefit of introducing diners to another old-world ingredient, cassava root. Copa Matos grinds the starchy tuber to make a dough, then cooks and browns rounds on a griddle. This yields a pliable vehicle—thicker than a corn tortilla but more flexible than a cracker—to hold the beef and soak up its juices.
But even with COPA's farm producing more ingredients for the restaurant, Turnbull points out that they're not doing it all themselves.
"On the contrary, we're able to focus our efforts on what makes the most sense for us to grow while developing relationships with other farms for what makes the most sense for them to produce—such as the incredible pork raised by Tiffany Parker at Parker Family Farms."
Copa Matos butchers the primal cuts from Parker Family Farms, cutting the loin's chops thick for Chuletas a lo Guajiro, peasant-style pork chops, another dish inspired by Nuevo Manual. The chops are simply seasoned and marinated in salt, onions, parsley, and olive oil, and cooked on the griddle till a golden-brown crust forms and the parsley crisps up. It's one of the larger and less composed tapas, but it's a staff favorite that's quickly gaining popularity among diners, too.
Pork chops are arguably an approachable, even expected dish on restaurant menus in the South, but there are many ingredients used in nineteenth-century Cuban dishes that have plenty in common with North Carolina-grown ingredients and Southern dishes.
For Harina con Camarones a lo Puerto Príncipe, harina with shrimp in the style of Puerto Príncipe (a town in Eastern Cuba), Copa Matos cooks N.C. shrimp in a white-wine sauce with ground mustard seed, thyme, and parsley, and serves them on a bed of harina, Cuban-style cornmeal made with N.C. stone-ground yellow corn.
"Southerners will see a direct connection to shrimp and grits," Turnbull says. "The presentation and flavors are a little different, but in the end, this dish is a reminder that we all have a lot more in common than we might think. After all, isn't that part of what drives us in this industry: to build relationships and foster connections through food?"
Additional reporting by Adam Sobsey