The lobby was filled with pink flamingos, bags and bags of the plastic classic. Designers were planting them in boxes filled with straw, while around them movers were carrying in new gray velvet couches and chairs.
In another corner, more workers were setting up tables and decorations. Everywhere was bustling activity, and a casual onlooker, wandering through the front door, was welcome to watch.
“The flamingos are not here for good,” one woman explained. “They’re just for an event tonight.”
After eight long, dark years, Copia has opened its doors again, and what a difference its lengthy snooze has made.
The Culinary Institute of America now owns the building that struggled and failed as Copia, the American Center for Food, Wine and Arts; and the first message the new owners want to send out to locals is: come in and see what they’re up to.
“This is going to be the public face of the CIA,” said Tom Bensel, managing director of the CIA at Greystone in St. Helena and now, as well, of the newest California campus in Napa.
Bensel, a graduate of the famed cooking school, said they are spending about as much for renovations as they paid to purchase the building, $12.5 million.
The one word that keeps recurring as Bensel describes the work in progress is “open.”
One of the first things he did was take down the gate that had closed off the Copia gardens to all but those who had paid the $12.50 admission fee in the old days.
There is no admission fee anymore and Bensel said people are welcome to walk in the gardens where a crew is at work restoring them.
And then, he said, feel free to come in “and see what we’re about.” They are opening up the lobby space, and adding windows to open up the northside view of the Napa River.
Upstairs, the former main exhibition hall is being transformed into a teaching kitchen that will offer half-day, full-day, and multiple-day cooking classes for food enthusiasts. (The Greystone campus, which has been hosting these consumer classes, will be the formal training campus for culinary students enrolled in the two and four-year programs.)
“We’re going to open up both walls with windows,” Bensel explained as we viewed the work in progress on the formerly windowless exhibition hall. People coming upstairs will be able to look through a wall of windows to watch the cooking classes underway, and those inside the teaching kitchen will be able to look out through new windows at the gardens and Napa beyond.
Bensel anticipates that the teaching kitchen, which includes stations for baking and pastry classes as well as cooking sessions, will be finished by next August.
Meanwhile, daily “interactive food and wine demonstrations” are already underway in the downstairs demonstration kitchen, the Napa Valley Vintners Theater, renamed from the Meyer Food Forum after a generous gift from the Vintners.
A changing roster of topics currently includes Honey Secrets, Pasta-Making, and Wine Tasting. Sundays feature “Family Fun” classes where youngsters can don a toque and explore favorites like mac ‘n’ cheese. The list of classes and fees is at www.ciaatcopia.com. Reservations may be made at eventbrite.com/
Meanwhile, other activities are opening inside the building in stages, beginning with the CIA Shop.
Open seven days a week, from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., it’s a “lifestyle” store, Bensel explained. Here copper pots and olive wood salt boxes mingle with soaps, lotions and jewelry. One wall is filled with cookbooks, and another filled with condiments. On one table is ruby glass for the holidays, and on another nifty vegetable peelers that come in a choice of many colors.
“We checked other stores in Napa to make sure we weren’t duplicating things,” Bensel said.
This would include a utensil crock inscribed with “CIA.”
Next to open in early December will be the Restaurant at Copia. The redesigned dining space has opened the main restaurant up to the adjacent gardens and has added in private dining rooms that can be used for special events or tastings.
The main restaurant will feature an unusual service in which cooks from the kitchen will bring plates out to the diners who can inspect, then accept or decline them.
Recently a group of visiting media willingly served as guinea pigs for this approach to dining. We were offered a series of six dishes (we took them all) like chick pea “truffles” filled with warm, house-made burratta, fried chicken “pearls,” and halibut bites wrapped in bacon with whiskey relish. The dishes, meant to be shared, easily served the four at a table, and prices ranged from $7 for the truffles to $16 for porcini-crusted hanger steak with bone marrow.
A selection of wines, most of them $10 a glass, arrived on a beverage cart — and it’s possible to have a taste before choosing one. The most expensive wine was a La Follette pinot noir at $14 a glass.
The cheese course ambled up to the table on the back of Bessie the mechanical cow.
It’s a safe bet that the restaurant, when it opens, will be an adventure, but Bensel said, the rationale behind the unusual mode of service is to let the usually hidden line cooks interact with the diners; consequently, they will be able to share in tips that previously have only been distributed to the front of house staff.
No gates, no admission fees, shared tips for cooks, lots of windows and an open invitation to “come in and see what we’re all about.” Could the CIA in Napa become the Peoples’ Copia?