The walls of the main entrance to Bocanova, which reopened in downtown Oakland last month after shuttering its Jack London Square restaurant six years ago, are covered in a vibrantly colored mural created by artist Cameron “Camer1” Moberg. It features the portrait of a woman Moberg took a class from in Guatemala. The teacher and mentor theme aligns well with the stylish new restaurant, where learning and mentoring appear to be a shared value.
“Here’s the funny thing about experiences, if nobody gives you the opportunity to take on a new challenge, how could you ever get that experience?” said the restaurant’s co-owner Martin Ladera. “If you’re a busser and you want to become a server, there’s got to be that one person who goes, ‘All right I’m gonna give you a chance. I’m gonna train you and then you got to prove to me that you’re all in.’”
Ladera, who brings 23 years of experience in the restaurant industry, knows this first-hand: He said he worked from the ground up, starting as a busser at Pastino’s on Park Boulevard while he was also taking ESL classes at Laney College.
Originally opened in 2009 serving pan-Latin cuisine, Bocanova closed in 2017 due to the rising costs of rent in Jack London Square. Its new home is 60,000 square feet at the foot of the gleaming tower at 1111 Broadway, with an atrium connected to the building’s corporate office space, a front patio, and a dining room that, despite the scale of the space, feels intimate.
The menu offers an array of dishes billed as pan-American — think from Alaska all the way to the tip of Argentina — and might include swordfish `anticuchos’ Veracruz style, a skewer of tender swordfish covered in tomato, jalapeños, capers and green olives; or grilled Duroc pork chop al Pastor in a pineapple and chile sauce.
“Every dish is about building flavors,” said Rick Hackett, who co-owns the restaurant with Ladera and Meredith Melville. “There’s a certain way you start with building blocks and then you add the nuances. You got to know when to add the ingredients.”
Hacket credits Ladera with knowing how to engage and motivate the front-of-house staff. “He’s perfect for it,” he said. “He’s just as passionate about the front of the house as I am in the back. You can’t teach that. Meredith is the same way.”
Learning how to be an owner of a restaurant, particularly one with Oakland roots, is as much about figuring out the business model as cultivating a good work environment, according to Ladera. “The people are a huge part of it,” he said. “You need to find those people in your team who are warm.”
Take bartender Alexander Brown, who has been working in food service for 11 years. “It’s interesting because there’s already a built-in community that really loves Bocanova,” he said. And when I go to work at other places and I tell them that I work here, people are very excited.”
Ladera said he’s learning lessons every day, including from managing a staff of around 90 — from bussers and servers through sous- and pastry-chefs. He said he is depending on them to make decisions about so many of the issues involved in running a restaurant — from negotiating the lease, through ordering produce, and choosing the music. “I’m getting better at it every day,” he said. “I’m learning something new every day but it’s hard.”
Ladera encourages the staff who work with Bocanova to think about their next steps. “One of the questions I always ask my staff is where do you see yourself in five years?” he said. One of those staffers, Nicole Smovch, who worked with Ladera at Market Bar, is going to school for tech and he supported her growth from host to server which afforded her the opportunity to make more money. “We live in the moment here [in California] and you have to maintain that good balance,” he said.
Hackett and Melville are seasoned restaurateurs, having worked in the Bay Area food scene since the 1970s. Hackett cooked at Chez Panisse and Le Pavillon with Yannick Cam, opened Enrico’s in North Beach and later MarketBar in San Francisco, where Ladera was a general manager.
Hackett likes to mentor aspiring chefs but he says they have to learn to be patient and embrace a slow, methodical way of crafting a flavorful dish, a skill he learned from his training under French cuisine chefs. “If you’re really interested and you’re not here just for a job, I’ll start teaching you other things,” he said. “I’ll start throwing specials at you that challenge you because you’re up for it.”
Even with more than 40 years of experience in restaurants, Hackett said he is still a student of the craft. During the pandemic, he served private lunches where he read cookbooks and tried new recipes. In his kitchens, he learns from his staff and draws inspiration from them when creating his dishes. “I’ve got a lot of things down but I learn new things all the time,” said Hackett. “If I get a really good Latin American cook, he’ll show me things that are eye-opening.”
That may mean creating menu items like Bocanova’s asparagus with a buttery lemon feta sauce, or patatas bravas with both white and purple potatoes served whole, lightly fried in Aji Rocoto Aioli for a crispy texture that also adds a bit of warmth.
“I would say I’ve expanded the repertoire for Bocanova,” he said. “But my philosophy is still the same, which is sharing food and family-style eating.”
Side menu items can be ordered with the regular meal items or à la carte, and include steam-cooked and lightly breaded cauliflower served with huacatay dipping sauce, or sweet potato gratin that layers thinly sliced sweet potatoes with onion in a chipotle cream.
“There’s nothing more satisfying to me than somebody enjoying a really good meal and conversation and that’s why I like the family style,” said Hackett. “It breaks down barriers. You don’t have your plate of food and I got my plate of food. You’re sharing an experience.”
The learning process also extends to the menu as the Bocanova team figures out what works and what doesn’t. “Chef Rick is known for liking to try out items for three to four days and if he sees that it sells he keeps it,” said Ladera. “If it doesn’t, he takes it out or he switches it around until he finds that guests are responding well to it.”
For now, visitors can expect to see dishes like the savory “Moqueca” coconut seafood stew on the menu with its flaky fish and tender shrimp served in a red coconut broth with black rice; or the Argentino burger with chimichurri, provolone, mushrooms and crispy onions.
Hackett says he wants to keep it consistent for those favorite items, but he will play with the menu because he is still excited to continue trying new things.