You can go home again
Sushi chef Noah Copenhaver blazes new trail at The Pier
By SUE WADE
Chef Noah Copenhaver, 27, is on his way home again.
From 1984 until 1992, his parents, Bill and Becky Copenhaver, lived on their 33-foot ketch sailboat docked at the end of the marina. They bathed their infant son, Noah, in a 55-quart cooler while throwing dockside happy hours.
The kid was born into Fishermen’s Village.
Now the man is going home again, this time to the harbor side, as executive sushi chef for Chris Evans’ and Bill Socha’s new waterfront restaurant—The Pier at Fishermen’s Village, expected to open in fall 2019.
Fully aware that he’s building yet another Punta Gorda dream team, Evans said, “We’ll have the next generation of up-and-coming chefs at The Pier. Noah Copenhaver has deep roots in Punta Gorda and delivers an excellent, unique product.”
The Pier’s executive chef, Todd Stolpe, who first worked with Noah at Hurricane Charley’s in Punta Gorda, said, “He was an absolute sponge. I’d show him something, and he’d put his own twist on it, which is what every chef does. But chefs always go on to something bigger and better. Noah is really cutting into the industry with a mind full of ideas and a passion to execute them.”
Copenhaver still can’t quite believe his good fortune, but there was never a question of whom Evans would hire for the job.
“Todd and Chris approached me at different times, and I was just overwhelmed with joy that they both thought of me for the job,” he said. “It’s all kind of surreal. Here I am, about to get married, a baby boy on the way in November and starting this job.”
“I took the Charlotte High School food prep program so I could eat food,” joked the young chef. “But I fell in love with cooking in Charlotte Tech’s culinary program, under Chefs Jason Osborne and Bill Seibert.”
He went on to graduate from Johnson & Wales University in North Miami. His first job, two weeks later, was doing sushi prep at Hurricane Charley’s.
Copenhaver remembered, “I told the general manager, Bob McCurry, ‘Give me two weeks, and if I don’t pick it up, I’ll wash dishes.’ I just wanted a foot in the door. Johnson & Wales didn’t teach a whole lot about sushi. It’s a specialty, and I wanted to prove that I could do this food, and make it beautiful.”
He came to the right place.
He was taken under the wing of an irrepressible sushi chef, the late Lee Akhaphong, who developed Hurricane Charley’s flamboyant sushi menu.
“He showed me how to be creative, have fun, interact with customers and make them laugh—the whole showmanship side of sushi. Lee made beautiful food and helped grow the business there. And I still teach others the same way he taught me.”
Within a year, Copenhaver had risen to the position of sushi chef/manager, training as many as 20 employees along the way and constantly inventing more new combinations.
To accommodate one regular, former pro bodybuilder Mel Chancey, he created Hurricane Charley’s popular Mel’s Bowls—basically, bowls of deconstructed sushi, with seaweed or rice, protein, vegetable, sauce and topping.
“Within a year, by word of mouth, it was our fourth-highest-selling sushi item, and it wasn’t even on the menu,” he said.
For the last four years, Copenhaver has been trying out new rolls on and getting feedback from family friends Michael and Dawn Haymans of Punta Gorda.
“They were the inspiration for a lot of the new Pier rolls—for instance, the use of red pepper, which no one ever does, and caramelized torched salmon belly, which you don’t see very often.”
“Flavorful and eclectic” sums up the menu on which Noah and Stolpe are collaborating at The Pier.
Its central 36-seat sushi bar will create classic and signature fancy rolls, as well as the first poké (pronounced “PO-kay”) bowls between Fort Myers and Sarasota.
Chef Noah explained, “More and more major cities have been opening Hawaiian poké restaurants, featuring the light, fresh Hawaiian poké bowl—marinated sliced seafood, rice, avocado, cucumber, sprouts, some crunch, some intense flavor and colors. It’s been taking off on the mainland and will take off here.
“The sushi menu includes classic rolls like California and spicy tuna, but we’ll rotate experimental specialty rolls that I’ve got in my back pocket, so that we’ll really stand out above the rest. I’ll also run daily specials and change up the rotating menu month to month.”
Copenhaver will run the multi-chef sushi bar while Stolpe runs the kitchen.
“But we’ll be working side by side on everything, as all good teams do,” said the sushi chef. “I’ll be there every day from now on, learning from Chris how to build a restaurant. Perhaps one day there will be more opportunities within Fishermen’s Village for me to have my own one day.”
PHOTO BY SUE WADE
Noah Copenhaver is executive sushi chef at the new Pier at Fishermen’s Village.
Trendy Hawaiian poké bowls—like the salmon bowl served with sticky or fried rice, cucumber, avocado, and mango or pineapple salsa—will be a significant part of The Pier’s sushi bar offerings.