A Culinary HAT TRICK -Fall 2013
by: Jen Laskey
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Restaurateur MARCO COELHO operates at a different speed than most of us. If you’ve ever encountered this Brazilian-born Nantucket transplant, you know exactly what I mean. He is always in motion, his heavily-accented speech rapid-fire, and he has seemingly endless reserves of energy. You can almost imagine him traveling from LOLA 41 downtown to his mid-island restaurants PAZZO and LOLA BURGER in a cyclone like the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil.
Even his pastry chef, Jamie O’Connor, says it’s hard to keep weight on him because he’s always running from one place to another. She does her part by feeding him. “She makes the best pastries,” says Coelho, patting his belly with a smile, “and keeps me fat.” Coelho was raised in a little fishing village called Itajaí in the state of Santa Catarina in southern Brazil. His mother is Portuguese and German and his father, Portuguese and Italian “mixed with a little bit of Brazilian Indian.” He has three older sisters and a brother.
“I am the baby,” he says, and then laughs heartily. “I am definitely the baby.”
Coelho came to America on an exchange program in the ninth grade, and that’s when the pace of his life shifted into high gear. As he explains it, he was a bit of a “troubled kid,” and his father sent him here hoping the experience in a new country would benefit him. He lived with a family on the Iowa/Nebraska border, and the exchange program was supposed to last a year. Looking back on it, Coelho smiles and says, “Imagine me, a wild little Brazilian boy, sent to Iowa.”
It turns out that he barely lasted six weeks before causing so many problems that it was decided he should return home. He cites no specifics other than to say with a mischievous smile, “You know, I was just trying to enjoy my life.”
Fearing the consequences his actions would incur back at home, the teen Coelho decided to get off the plane during a layover in Miami and forgo his flight back to Brazil. This was back in 1987, following one of the major waves of Cuban immigration into southern Florida.
“Miami was a really wild place then,” says Coelho, who called his mom to say he wasn’t coming home, and then promptly moved into a nearby hotel after leaving the airport.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if Coelho had told me he’d hit the streets immediately after arriving in Miami from Iowa. But instead, he admitted that he didn’t leave the hotel room at all for a few days. Not until a chambermaid sized up the situation and approached him, offering to help. She was Cuban and set Coelho up with a friend who let him live in her garage and also got him a job as a takeout boy for a Cuban coffee shop in downtown Miami. And just like that, Coelho was off and running in Miami.
“Within just a few days, I started going out at night,” Coelho says. “I met some Brazilian people, and they offered me a job washing dishes at a Brazilian restaurant.”
He delivered sandwiches to office buildings by day and washed dishes at night, and suddenly, he was acquainted with a bunch of new people in a city that was growing less foreign by the hour.
“A week later, my life had absolutely changed,” Coelho says. And little did he know at the time, but these were the nascent beginnings of his career in the restaurant industry.
When the commute from his garage dwelling got to be too much for him, he quit both his jobs, moved in with a bunch of Brazilian kids he’d met, and landed a new position busing tables at a Greek restaurant on the waterfront for the rest of the season.
“That’s when my passion for this business really developed,” he says.
At the end of the season, he took the money he’d earned and went on a trip cross-country with a couple of friends, planning to move to Vancouver. When the plan fell through due to visa complications, the friends went on to Canada and a disappointed Coelho boarded a Greyhound bus in Seattle and five days later arrived in Miami to pack up his stuff before returning home to see his family. By then, it had been a year since he’d left Brazil.
“I stayed at home for about five months,” Coelho says, “and then I was like, I can’t do this, so ... back to America.” Like many restaurant workers who follow the seasonal circuit, Coelho began to bounce back and forth from summer destinations to winter ones with recreational travel in between. If you were to map the next decade of his life, the path would resemble the zigging and zagging of the steel ball in a well-played pinball game.
From Brazil, he went directly to Miami, worked the winter season in Florida, moved out to northern California, and then worked for “a very happy Italian family” who owned a restaurant called Cibo in Monterey. It was at this Italian eatery that he realized restaurant work was what he “really wanted to do,” and with that knowledge, he went off to Colorado to work the ski season.
At his father’s urging, he eventually went to New York City and did a short stint at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The family business revolved around the garment industry, but it turned out that fashion was not Coelho’s calling. While in New York, however, he began managing restaurants. He was 24 years old by then, and had traveled across America and all over Europe, and the idea of eventually opening his own restaurant was beginning to take hold.
In 1998, he was back in Palm Beach, Fla., bartending, and a friend told him about this little island of Nantucket up north. Coelho had never even heard of Cape Cod at that point, but it sounded good to him, so he began planning to come up for the season. When he got here, his housing had fallen through and the job he thought he was going to have never materialized.
“So, I was living out in Tom Nevers and I had this red scooter. I would take the scooter into town,” Coelho says. “It was April, right before Daffodil Weekend, you know, foggy and cold.” But he was determined. And finally, he landed a job at Cap’n Tobey’s serving chowder to day-trippers.
After the season kicked in, he was asked to bus tables one day at a wedding at the Galley. He did the gig, and the Galley called him again about a month later to help out for July 4 weekend. This time, the Silva brothers who run the restaurant had given him two tables to wait on outside.
David Silva took him aside and explained that the guests at those two tables were personal friends. He told Coelho a brief story about their relationship and insisted that Coelho take care of them for the night.
“So I was under all of this pressure,” he says, “but it turned out to be an amazing Fourth of July.” At the end of the night, one of the guests at the table, the late Pierre Garneau, looked at Silva and said, “This is the guy – you have to hire him.”
Coelho spent the rest of the season working at the Galley. He returned to Palm Beach, but then took a job with a restaurant group in Boston for the winter.
“I had never really experienced a winter in New England. I was pretty miserable in Boston, and the company wasn’t easy to work for,” says Coelho, who resorted to calling the Silva brothers. The Silvas proposed that he return to Nantucket and help them manage the Galley.
“Geoffrey went to Boston and picked me up in a U-Haul truck,” says Coelho. “I started managing the restaurant in the winter of 1999 and ran it until they built the new Galley in 2008.”
Lola 41 was conceived in 2005 and opened the following year.
“We all loved the name Lola,” Coelho says, adding that he and the Silvas had originally wanted to start a T-shirt company named Lola, not a restaurant. Then one day, “David came down from his parents’ house, and was like, I’ve got the right concept,” Coelho said. He and Silva had just gotten back from St. Barths and were vibing on house music, and Silva had this vision of a contemporary place, spinning club music, and offering a menu spanning cuisines across the 41st parallel of the globe.
“I remember people telling me all the time that the concept wasn’t going to work on Nantucket, but Lola 41 really took off and it gave me wings,” Coelho said. “I was running Lola 41 and helping the Silvas run the Galley. It was the first experience I had with such a huge staff, and I realized I could really do this.”
In 2008, Coelho bought out the Silvas and became the sole operator of the Lola 41 sushi bar and global bistro. Rather than being content with focusing on his first restaurant, he was already looking to expand.
It wasn’t an ideal time. The stock market was down, and Nantucket was starting to feel the repercussions. Most of his friends thought he should just “chill.” But the opportunity to take over a mid-island restaurant building came up, and Coelho – with his new business partners Lou Ceruzzi and Arthur Hooper – went for it.
“I think the financial obstacles that you have, you can get over those humps pretty easily. All you have to do is just put your head down and work,” Coelho says.
But, of course, it helps to have some business guys backing you up. His partners were the ones paying close attention to the bottom line.
“Which I wasn’t really about,” Coelho says. “Not that I didn’t really like to make money or be about the bottom line, but for me, it’s about making it happen before seeing the bottom line. The three of us were a great match, but it took time for the match to all understand each other.”
Coelho opened his second restaurant, Pazzo, in 2011. It’s an osteria that serves Mediterranean fare, including fresh pastas, roasted chicken, artisan breads, pastries and gelato. Part of the reason he decided to call it “Pazzo” (the Italian word for “crazy”) was because it was such a crazy time to be opening a new restaurant. With the Italian blood running through him, he also liked the word and he proudly points out that he’s a man who has been called “pazzo” many times in his life, including by his own grandmother. And finally, he thought it suited his team.
“I think we’re all a little pazzo, to tell you the truth. We have this vision about restaurants that’s sometimes a little crazy.” Pazzo has turned out to be Coelho’s biggest undertaking, and so far, the one that he says has taught him the most. Opening a restaurant in the mid-island has big advantages when it comes to the cost of rent and the amount of space you can get, but it’s hard to attract people and get them out of town. “People always say that mid-island is different, and it is different, but we are also making a difference – me, and Evan and Maria at Pi Pizzeria, and Jenny from The Green,” Coelho says.
Coelho was used to seeing a lot of foot traffic at Lola, but he felt that finding a niche was essential to getting people out to Pazzo, and so, in addition to creating a lively atmosphere and running a number of dinner specials, he decided to try live music. He was originally considering a flamenco guitarist and got in touch with Bob Walder, but Walder presented the idea of having the (then newlyformed) acoustic gypsy band, Coq au Vin, perform.
“I called the gypsies and they came in for an audition. I sat them at that table right there,” Coelho says, pointing across Pazzo’s dining room. “They started playing, and I was like, yeah, this is exactly what we need – cabaret-style gypsies singing in nine different languages.”
Coq au Vin has been holding court and playing music at that very table most Friday nights for over a year, packing the house.
“Friday nights at Pazzo are magical,” says Coelho, smiling proudly.
But his expression quickly changes, and for a moment he looks uncharacteristically wistful, and then says, “I’m very sad that Ingrid (Feeney, Coq au Vin’s singer) is leaving the island to go to graduate school and the gypsies are not going to be around.”
He quickly perks up again, however, when he says he’s conspiring to get Feeney and the band back together for special appearances after she takes off to Chicago in the fall.
Coelho has also experimented with having other live bands perform at Pazzo, and he hosts a popular DJ series on Saturday nights with local DJs like Pete Ahern and Billy Desmond of Audio Architechs.
“This year we decided to step it up,” Coelho says. “Of course, being pazzo, we’re doing a couple of big shows.”
The Audio Architechs Common Ground Summer Series at Pazzo is packed with guest DJs from on-island and off. Some of the biggest names include Nickodemus from New York City’s Turntables on the Hudson series and Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation. Typically, Pazzo’s events are free and open to restaurant and bar patrons, but a limited amount of tickets were sold for the Garza show – only 90 of them – at $200 a pop, which included an opening set by Audio Architechs, the Garza sets, food, wine, bubbles and beer (and a cash bar for mixed drinks) all night long.
“I always say, ‘You have to keep the honeymoon going’,” Coelho says, “or else it gets boring and you just become one of another 60 restaurants, or so, on the island.”
Coelho claims that in 2012, his best night of sleep only lasted six hours. In the midst of ramping up promotion for Pazzo, he got it in his head that he was ready to re-open Lola Burger in a bigger space. “When I sold Lola Burger on The Strip, I sold it with the idea of moving Lola Burger somewhere else. I always wanted to have a burger and beer joint,” he says.
When he presented the notion to Robert “Boz” Boslow, the executive chef of both Lola 41 and Pazzo, Boslow essentially threw Coelho out of the kitchen, telling him he was crazy and “had to stop this.”
Nonetheless, over the winter, Coelho and his business partners struck a deal to re-open Lola Burger in the old Rotary space, and now Boslow oversees the menu there too. A Johnson and Wales graduate, Boslow has worked in restaurants from the East Coast to the West, in the Bahamas, and across Europe, and has been cooking with Coelho for seven years.
When Coelho tells the story of meeting Boslow on a cold January day, sitting on the little bench outside Lola (thanks to O’Connor, who hooked the two of them up), he emphatically points out that Boslow is the best chef he has ever worked with.
“We read each other’s minds. We don’t have to say anything. We just look at each other. Boz is a gift – he’s amazing,” Coelho says.
Of Coelho, Boslow says, “There is never a dull moment ... Ever.”
Between Lola 41, Pazzo and Lola Burger, Coelho now oversees approximately 113 employees, and he’s quick to point out that much of his success is owed to them.
“Everybody is a big part of it. I have the best team. It’s a big family, and they’re some of my best friends. We’ve got each other’s backs in any situation. Some of my employees
have been with me forever – some since high school. They never leave,” he says, but then he thinks about it for a second and adds, “Sometimes when they do leave, it breaks my heart.”
Coelho’s core team includes executive chef Boslow; chefs de cuisine Eric Lawhon (Pazzo) and Chris Lamphier (Lola Burger); chef Kyle Armstrong (Pazzo); pastry chef (for all three kitchens) O’Connor, who gets the credit for the revered Tres Leches Cake at Lola 41 and the daily freshfruit crostatas with homemade gelato at Pazzo; and comanagers (for all three restaurants) Timmy Smiles and Sean Kalman; manager Camilo Rodriguez (Lola Burger); and the newest addition, Audrey Wagner, director of public relations for the restaurants.
“We are so peculiar and so picky,” Coelho says. “We are very into what we do, and that’s what makes our team so special.”
Then, he laughs and says, “We don’t get mad around here. We call it passion.”
Coelho lives on Nantucket year-round.
“It’s my home – and my dog’s home,” he says, speaking of the island with affection. He doesn’t get much time off these days, but because he grew up in a big Catholic family, he says he does try to take Sundays for himself. He’ll spend hours talking with his family in Brazil on speakerphone while driving around the island with his striking white American shepherd, Lobo. He also enjoys cycling (though someone recently stole his bike), and he loves hanging out with friends and cooking dinner for them when he occasionally has a night off.
And he loves when he’s out running errands and local people stop him to say they enjoyed the music at Pazzo the night before.
“It makes me want to do more,” Coelho says. “Nantucket is such a youthful place, full of life.”
He also admits that he finds it amusing when people ask him what he does here on the island in the wintertime.
“People think this place dies when they leave, but it doesn’t. It thrives – it’s fun. All the year-round restaurants offer great food. There’s a great crowd. The island is happening. And this year,” he points out, “the (winter) storm parties were the best ones! I had to close Lola one night because the water was coming up, and we came to Pazzo with the windows all boarded up, and we danced.”
Now that all three restaurants are successfully up and running, what are the chances that Coelho is ready to settle down and enjoy the good life?
“We have very good things on the horizon for the whole company,” says Coelho, tight-lipped about specifics, but brimming with excitement. ///
Jen Laskey is a contributing writer to Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821