Food Insider: Nicholas Copeland of SO

Taking over for a decades-old institution is no small task. A new owner has to be careful to balance the history of the restaurant with a willingness to move the place forward for a new generation.
This is exactly the type of balance Nicholas Copeland worked to achieve when he took over Sō Restaurant last year following the death of longtime owner Regina Smith. Since then Copeland has done a great job of holding on to the legacy that makes So a fixture in the north Hillcrest area while introducing new reasons for people to get in.
We decided to sit down with Copeland and talk about how the past year has been and get a feel for his vision for So going forward.
You had a history with So before owning it, how had it changed from working there to owning it?
Yeah, I worked with So under Regina as a server before I bought it, so I had a great feel for how things were run during her time when I walked in. Thankfully stepping in as an owner the restaurant was doing great and it became more of continuous operation at first.
We have a great core group of regulars that I know well from my time serving them, and I know exactly what they expect the restaurant to be. Regina’s family wanted to make sure the restaurant was sold to someone who would continue her legacy, not change it dramatically. So I try to build off of her legacy as a starting point.
I know you didn’t make many changes, but what changes did you make?
It was a great situation because we just needed a little tweak here and some fine-tuning there. I try to rotate through each area of the restaurant and make it operate a little bit better every day. One of the big changes was bringing back Keegan Sparks to run the wine program, which is huge for us at So. We brought back some other staff members who had been with us before and know the customers well to increase customer experience on the service side. Finally, I have been working in the kitchen to give our excellent chef Casey Poe the resources he needs to succeed while working on overall plating and food experience.

Speaking of plating, you love to work up beautiful dishes. Where does that inspiration come from?
I want food to be a full experience from the look, smell, and taste. I think very visually and a lot of times I come up with ideas for specials based on how I visualize a dish looking at first, then I build the elements around that mental image. It allows us to play with some really cool dishes that help present the restaurant as a beautiful place to eat.
I am also really interested in food science and molecular gastronomy. I’ve played with color-changing dishes before where we extract pH reactive enzymes from oxidized cabbage into water. It allows me to change the color based on the pH of the base liquid that we add it to, while introducing unique flavors with it. It is something for certain colors we can even show changing at tableside.
I’ve also really worked to adapt dishes to match the style and ambiance of So. I work in a lot of rustic colors and plating with modern styles to make the food experience match the restaurant well.
Are there any local chefs you look to for inspiration on food and running a restaurant?
It has been amazing working with our executive chef Casey Poe here in the kitchen. Our styles are so dramatically different, it is fun balancing that off of each other, I’ve learned a lot from him. Yes, sometimes the differences mean we butt heads, but I have a ton of respect for what he does here.
I also learned a lot from our previous chef Cody Rudd. He has a great kitchen mind and doing the way of doing things. Outside of here I really respect chef Gilbert Alaquinez, of Kemuri, and his way of presenting a plate and his balance of flavors. I’ve not had the opportunity to work with him yet but I would really love to.
Before coming to So I worked at Ristorante Capeo and I really have a lot of respect for the Isaacs and the way they run their restaurant. A lot of my management style comes from watching them and the way they handle things.
So is always going to have the core neighborhood customers, but what are some ways you have worked to bring in new customers?
We are very intentionally a fine dining establishment so that always limits you to certain types of customers seeking certain experiences. We have tried hard to work on that experience side of the equation first so that we offer the best experience in the city when you walk in.
That has happened by nailing an already high service quality and continuously getting better every day. On the food side we bring in the best possible food for the price, and I found we can do that best by really working with the portions. I pay attention to what our customers are eating and how much so that we can put together a perfect portion of food for your visit. That allows us to put the quality in what you are going to eat while you are there, and not be spread out across portions sizes that are too big to finish. It has been a very subtle, yet noticeable increase to the overall quality.
Finally, I know not everyone is looking for an anniversary meal but we didn’t want to sacrifice food quality. We introduced several tapas and shareables that maintain the same level of quality, just in small plates. That way you can come in, have a drink and get an exceptional snack to go along with it without having to go for a full meal.
What does So look like 5 or 10 years after you have taken over?
I want us to continue to offer an unbelievable experience that gets a little better every single day. That is my goal with it. So 5 or 10 years from now I want it to be even better than today while still holding on to the core of what has made us great to this point.
A lot of that has to do with continuing to realize where we do well and being honest with ourselves about areas we don’t. For instance, I decided to cut lunches and brunch after taking over, what we were putting out just wasn’t to the level of experience I like. We may roll brunch out again at some point, but I will only do it when it is right.
Similarly with plating. I would love to take our plates to a whole other level but it wouldn’t match the ambiance of the restaurant and meet the limitations of having a kitchen downstairs and the food travel involved. So in several instances, I’ve been honest with myself and scaled back on certain plating ideas because it doesn’t provide the best experience possible. It all has to come back to experience and doing what is best for the guests.
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