Roberto Copa Matos never wanted to be a chef.
Trained as a biochemist at the University of Havana, he was later pushed out of the sciences in Cuba because of his political beliefs. With the sciences closed to him, Roberto turned to the arts, working as a watercolor artist in Havana, where he eventually met Elizabeth, who would become his wife. When they settled in Durham, Roberto was happy to once again to put his degree to work in a neuro-pharmacology laboratory at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
Roberto’s life would take a different turn, however, when he and Elizabeth looked for a way to invest a sum of money earned from a property Elizabeth sold in Haiti, the country of her birth. Having learned that Roberto’s relatives wanted to help run a restaurant, they agreed to start Old Havana, a Cuban sandwich shop in downtown Durham. Roberto and Elizabeth would be partners, but the relatives would run the day-to-day operations.
One week before opening, the relatives decided they couldn't run Old Havana after all. The money had already been spent. Roberto and Elizabeth were faced with two choices: move forward on their own or lose everything. With only rudimentary knowledge of the food business, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Roberto would run the kitchen and Elizabeth, who had her own marketing business, would run the administrative and publicity arm of the restaurant.
From Lab to Kitchen
Drawing from his professional experiences, Roberto soon began running the kitchen of Old Havana with the same tools he learned in the laboratory—protocols and efficiency would rule. Before long, Roberto discovered that he had a talent for the kitchen and, moreover, loved the challenge. His customers agreed, voting Old Havana Best in the Triangle 5 years running. Sales grew steadily.
With Old Havana well on its way to success, Roberto and Elizabeth turned their eyes toward another dream: starting a small farm. Just before opening the restaurant, they had purchased 10 acres in Hillsborough and named them Terra Sacra, or ‘Sacred Earth’ in the Galician languge of Roberto’s ancestors. Two years ago, Roberto and Elizabeth were able to move into the home they built—having lived in a renovated shed for the better part of year while building. One garden bed at a time, Roberto is inching toward growing his own ingredients, the final piece in the connection he wishes to make between his guests and the food they eat.
“Mise en place begins in the soil,” Roberto says, which is why he’s spent the last two years cultivating the soil of a small garden area. You can’t have good food without good ingredients. And you can’t have good ingredients without good soil. This past summer, Roberto and Elizabeth also brought in ducks for eggs, and they’re planning the addition of other small animals and crops, each of which will play a role in the cycle of the farm.
Two years ago, Roberto and Elizabeth decided they wanted to delve deeper than the staples of rice, beans, and roasted pork. Using ingredients from local farms—including a few from their own—they launched “The Lost Dishes of Cuba” dinner series. Using locally sourced ingredients. Inspired by the vast array of influences and ingredients passing through the nineteenth century ports of Havana, Roberto recreated historic Cuban dishes that have nearly disappeared from the collective memory: “Turkish eggs” served on a bed of sautéed tomatoes and onions with blistered peppers; lamb braised with red wine and freshly harvested mint; ripe summer tomatoes roasted and stuffed with duck.
COPA is Born
A new idea was born, one that would allow Roberto to bring together the inquisitiveness of a researcher, the finesse of an artist, the productivity of a farmer, and the creativity of a chef: COPA, a Cuban tapas and cocktail bar to be located in the thriving dining destination of downtown Durham.
Through COPA, Roberto and Elizabeth will lead their guests on a journey across oceans and through time to a world where the heady scent of cinnamon, cloves, and pork pervades miniature sausages; where the summer harvest of cucumber, squash, and okra are suspended in a peach-yogurt dressing; where quail and guinea offer the ultimate comfort food on a bed of yellow saffron rice. The bar will draw from the rich canvas of Latin America, mixing locally sourced ingredients with exotic fruits and liquors, marrying rosemary, grapefruit, and gin; pisco and lavender; North Carolina rum and clementines.
Roberto sees today that the serpentine paths of his life have crisscrossed too many times to count, with each intersection bringing him closer to his true calling. Part scientist, part artist, part farmer, Roberto never intended to be a chef—but today he can’t imagine being anything else.