AC Hotel Chef Fernando Coppola brings international flair to hotel’s seven restaurants
By Donna Isbell Walker
Photography by Lindsay Curgan
As a teenager in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Fernando Coppola enjoyed cooking handmade gnocchi or pizza for his friends.
“The first couple of times, it was like, ‘Wow,’ but they got used to it,” said Coppola, executive chef at the newly opened AC Hotel by Marriott Greenville Downtown.
It soon became part of the weekend ritual for Coppola and his teenage pals, sitting down to sample Coppola’s creations before heading out for an evening of fun.
Coppola’s parents, one of Italian descent and the other of Spanish, were passionate about food, and their home was suffused with the aroma of scratch-made pasta or paella, so it was no surprise that Coppola decided to make food his full-time occupation. His brother went into the same business; he owns a sushi restaurant in Argentina.
“It was natural for me to love food,” said Coppola, who looks forward to sharing his gastronomic creations at the downtown hotel.
Coppola, who comes to Greenville from the W Chicago City Center, will oversee seven dining concepts in the hotel, from burgers to tapas, and he also will direct catering and banquet services for the hotel.
He has a vision for the culinary footprint of AC Hotel by Marriott Greenville Downtown.
“First of all, it’s great food, made from scratch, cooked with passion. Each restaurant is independent. We have different kitchens where we make different things,” he said.
Paloma, which opened earlier this year, features Spanish-style tapas, and the remaining dining rooms will open during the spring.
Juniper, the rooftop restaurant, will be distinguished by shareable plates.
“It will be very eclectic. I can’t say it will be Asian or it will be Spanish or Italian,” Coppola said. “My background allowed me to travel different parts of the world and nurture myself and learn, so we’re going to put all of that into that restaurant.”
Social Burger will offer scratch-made burgers, as well as vegan options, while the Press Room will be a speakeasy bar with creative cocktails and desserts.
For the dessert menu, Coppola doesn’t want basic fare like chocolate cake, but instead, flavor combinations that will be far more memorable.
“I want each dish to be an experience,” he said.
Coppola also plans to shape the banquet and catering services into distinctive experiences for the hotel’s clientele.
“I don’t like to do the typical banquet food,” the cliché meal of baked chicken and steamed vegetables. Instead, he envisions banquet menus as creative as the menus in each of the restaurants in the hotel.
And for events such as weddings, he will meet with couples in order to personalize the menus.
Coppola doesn’t think it will be a challenge to differentiate the culinary ambiance of each of the restaurants, but a Southern influence will weave its way through all of the restaurants.
There will be no one signature dish for any of the restaurants. Instead, “every dish will be a signature dish,” Coppola said.
A graduate of Alicia Berger Cooking School in Buenos Aires, Coppola has enjoyed a globe-trotting career over the past several years. He’s worked in Uruguay, Qatar, Puerto Rico, and most recently in Chicago.
Each of those stops along the way added a new hue to Coppola’s palette of culinary techniques.
His stint at the Sheraton Grand Doha Resort and Convention Center in Qatar taught him to work with a number of new ingredients.
“I was cooking truly Arabic foods, like hummus and baba ghanoush,” he said.
One of the delicacies that often appeared on banquet menus was a roasted camel dish, which featured cashews, saffron, and basmati rice. The taste of camel, Coppola said, is similar to beef but sweeter and lighter.
Along the way, Coppola picked up a passion for organic and locally sourced foods.
“I like food in general. What I like the most, I guess, I like the true flavors of the ingredients,” he said. “I guess it comes also from my childhood, which was 30-something years ago, when the tomatoes really tasted as tomatoes.”
Gonzalo Jimenez, Coppola’s friend and one-time colleague, believes Coppola will put his own stamp on the Greenville dining scene.
Jimenez, now a pastry chef at Miette et Chocolat in Aurora, Colorado, admires his friend’s creativity and knowledge of food.
“The guy does it all,” Jimenez said.
The two met in 2008 when they both went to work at St. Julien Hotel and Spa in Boulder, Colorado, Coppola as sous chef and Jimenez as pastry chef.
They clicked because both were newly arrived from Argentina, and they became roommates, sharing a tiny studio apartment while they honed their skills.
“I would say he’s really good at managing people, and he’s very calm, actually, has a very calm presence. It’s funny, I’m totally the opposite, and I learned a lot from him,” Jimenez said. “I freak out right away and start yelling and screaming in the kitchen. He’s the opposite. I learned a lot of management from him when it comes to that. … He would teach me how to chill and how to talk to a staff and not show weakness.”
While Coppola has made a few stops along the career path since those early days in Colorado, it was Greenville’s growing reputation as a culinary town that drew him to the Upstate.
“One of the reviews I read said that it was a smaller Chicago,” he said. “I like going out, I like restaurants, and as a chef myself I like to be in a place where people enjoy food. First of all, I was looking for a quieter place where I could give my kids a better life, not so bleak and gray. I wanted somewhere we could go for a hike easily, and also better weather.”
Coppola and his wife, Alzbeta, who works in the culinary industry at another hotel in Greenville, have two children, ages 1 and 4, and the older boy already has tastes that reflect his upbringing as the child of chefs.
His son prefers octopus or sushi to the usual kid-friendly fare of mac and cheese or chicken nuggets, Coppola said.
“We never order from the kids menu,” he said.
Instead, Coppola will often grill shrimp or short ribs with a variety of creatively prepared vegetables for family dinners.
Coppola is bringing up his own kids in the type of food-centric atmosphere in which he grew up.
“Cooking was the heart” of family get-togethers, Coppola said. “We would gather, and I have memories of my dad making pasta from scratch, and even making the cheese for stuffing the raviolis. Or my mom cooking more of the Spanish side of food, cooking paellas and rice. I guess it was very natural for me to love food.”