We've heard of chefs operating multiple restaurants, but who frequents more than one daily? If your two concepts are on the same stretch of Pine Avenue in Long Beach, the answer is Walter Cotta. Depending on the time of day, Cotta will bounce between the Latin flair of Alegria and Italian hospitality in L'Opera. He manages to stay put for this chef interview, engaging us with his modest demeanor.
Tell us about the cuisine at each restaurant.
L'Opera features a menu of Northern Italian cuisine, using only fresh fish from local markets, prime-grade beef, New Zealand lamb and free-range chicken. All pastas and breads are made daily on the premises, and we have an unparallelled selection of beautifully crafted desserts.
Alegria features menu items representing all parts of Latin America, including Mexican chicken mole, Spanish paella Valenciana, Brazilian sweet rotisserie chicken and Cuban pork.
Were you hired to both restaurants at the same time, or did you start at one, then take over the other?
I was initially hired at L'Opera as a line cook and quickly moved up to sous chef. From there, I was named executive chef at L'Opera, then eventually at Alegria.
Your earliest food memory:
I remember being about 8 years old and cooking a boiled egg. I had once watched my dad make it and thought, "Hey, that looks easy!"
Favorite meal growing up.
Spaghetti with tomato sauce. It's all about the sauce. There has to be a balance. I love pasta. Always have.
Your best recent food find:
Flavored salts. I recently started making a lot of different flavors and using them in the restaurants–chile, smoky, paprika, vanilla, etc. [Editor's Note: It's also his most undervalued ingredient.] You can create a beautiful meal, but without salt, it goes from a 10 to a 1. It's not very expensive, yet it's one of the most important ingredients in the kitchen.
What do you recommend for first-timers at each location?
Cappellacci di zucca at L'Opera, and paella Valenciana at Alegria.
What is your beverage of choice?
Red wine when I'm not working, and Coca-Cola at work.
How do you split up your time between the two restaurants?
I go back and forth between the two kitchens; they are next door to each other on Pine Avenue. If I know there is a banquet or other large event at one restaurant, I'll spend more time there that day.
We read your Friday lunch buffet at Alegria is now offered weekly instead of monthly. What do you recommend?
Everything! It's always changing, and it's only $15 per person. Unlike most buffets, we put our best, most unique dishes out for people to try.
Where was your most recent meal?
I recently went to one of my favorite restaurants, La Loggia in Studio City, with my wife. I ordered the cappellini; it was delicious.
Best culinary tip for the home cook.
Don't be afraid. Try different ingredients, even if you think they look or sound weird. If it goes wrong, try it again!
How does the clientele differ between your restaurants?
The clientele can be very different. L'Opera has a reputation for being a "special occasion" restaurant. And while it can be, it has a great selection of items that people can enjoy often! Customers are surprised when they come in and see the menu at L'Opera. People can really relax and let loose at Alegria. We have salsa nights, live music, DJs and, of course, our famous sangria.
Bobby Flay. I really like his style, and I am all about colorful and flavorful food.
You're making breakfast. What are you having?
Scrambled eggs, bacon and pancakes. Sometimes French toast.
With two distinct cuisines, do you run your kitchens the same?
I run them very differently. At L'Opera, it's a larger space and a larger menu, so I have more sous chefs. Alegria is smaller, so I don't need as many staff. But the quality at both is the same.
L'Opera Ristorante is located at 101 Pine Ave., Long Beach, (562) 491-0066; www.lopera.com.
Alegria Cocina Latina is located at 115 Pine Ave., Long Beach, (562) 436-3388; www.alegriacoconalatina.com.