Cocorico opens at the former Amuse location
By Jim Flint for Ashland.news
At Lola, Seattle’s popular Belltown restaurant, people love the breakfasts, the salmon, the lamb chops and the Greek spaghetti.
For Grace Dobson, a long-time server at Lola, it was all of that and more — plus the new, good-looking line cook from France, Nat Borsi.
“I had the biggest crush on Nat when he first started working there,” she said. “We became an item five months before his visa expired.”
Now married, Grace and Nat Borsi have their own restaurant, Cocorico, housed in the former Amuse location at 15 N. First St. in Ashland. The spot became available when chef and co-owner Erik Brown retired and Amuse closed.
The two of them have been welcoming guests for dinner at Cocorico since August with a farm-to-table cuisine that features house-made pasta and sauces along with classics such as steak and potatoes, roasted chicken and braised lamb.
“We serve regular food, cooked from scratch, made and served with love,” Grace said. “We want to bring people together.”
They do it all in a casual atmosphere with a neighborhood bistro vibe at prices that don’t break the bank. Starters range from $7 to $13, mains from $18 (for the carbonara — bacon, cream, parmesan, egg yolk, caramelized onion and house spaghetti) to $38 (for a 10-oz ribeye steak with Rogue Creamery blue, braised greens and smashed potatoes).
Grace says customers rave about the carbonara.
“It’s not a traditional carbonara,” she said. “He puts cream in it and oh, man, is it good! The braised lamb probably is coming in second as a favorite.”
The choice of Cocorico for the restaurant’s name was the result of trying to avoid giving the wrong impression.
“We wanted the name to be a little French, but not too French,” she said. “Fancy and high-end was not the vibe we were going for. Cocorico, French for ‘cock-a-doodle-doo,’ was the obvious choice.”
Nat was born in Perigueux and at age 9 moved to Gap, a city of about 40,000 in the Hautes-Alpes region of southeastern France.
There are chef genes in his DNA.
“My mom is an incredible cook,” he said. “She grew up in Valenciennes outside of Lille where they use a lot of butter and cream. My maternal grandmother would use a pound of butter for each dinner for seven people!”
He started cooking at age 15 as an unpaid intern at Les Olivades, a restaurant in Gap. It was there where he was hired for his first professional job — as a dishwasher.
Les Olivades’ owner, Cederic Manzoni, is still a dear friend. “He inspired and taught me my foundation of cooking,” Nat said.
In 2010, he had been living in Southeast Asia for two years with friends.
“I love traveling and was not ready to go back home,” he said. “But I was ready for another adventure. I had a friend who worked at Lola in Seattle who helped me get a J-1 visa.”
A J-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa issued to research scholars, professors and exchange visitors participating in programs that promote cultural exchange, especially to obtain medical or business training in the U.S.
Grace has the travel bug, too. Seattle-born, she attended community college for about a year and then dropped out at age 19 to travel through Central America.
“I ran out of money and moved back to Seattle where I stared working at Lola,” she said. “I worked all of my 20s and early 30s at Lola and would quit for months or years at a time to travel.”
She loved working there. The staff was like a second family, and she earned good money, enough to afford a traveling lifestyle.
Then Nat happened.
“He bought me a flight to France for my birthday in April before his visa expired in June,” she said. “We barely spoke the same language, but just knew we couldn’t say goodbye.
“We lived in France for a year in Aix-en-Provence. I was in a cultural immersion program where I learned French with other people immigrating to the country. It was a beautiful time.”
She and Nat spent two months walking the Camino de Santiago, a large network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe, and spent a season in Achill Island off the west coast of Ireland at a bed and breakfast before moving back to the U.S.
What brought them to Southern Oregon?
“We tried hard to find a restaurant location in Seattle that we could swing, but it was just totally unattainable for us financially,” she said. “But we wanted to stay close to family and friends on the West Coast.”
In March 2020 they opened the first iteration of Cocorico at the Green Springs Inn & Cabins, 20 miles east of Ashland. Surviving that venture, launched at the beginning of the pandemic, is a testament to their talents and perseverance.
“Nat always knew he wanted to have a restaurant,” his wife said. “I always envisioned it in a small off-the-beaten-path location in a third-world country with dirt roads and stray dogs. Those are my favorite places in the world and make being alive so much fun when you find them.”
But Nat had the “American dream” and wanted to own a business in the United States. “So here we are!” Grace said.
They’re very happy in their new Ashland location.
“We were looking for places anywhere in the Rogue Valley,” Grace said. “Nothing really clicked and we had been looking for a while. I ran into the owners of Amuse very serendipitously, and it was a whirlwind of excitement and just so obvious a fit for us.”
Cocorico is open only for dinner service. That leaves extra time in the day for prep and extracurricular activities.
“It has an amazing kitchen,” Grace said, “so Nat is able to do things like braised lamb and all house-made pastas and yummy sauces for steak and chicken.”
Nat’s morning routine includes braising lamb shanks for about four hours. “It’s not difficult, but definitely the most time consuming,” he said. “I love making sauce and braising meats. Anything confit.”
What gives him the most pleasure in the kitchen?
What is the most fun?
“Making our pasta.”
While Nat takes care of the kitchen, Grace runs the front of the house.
“The character of the place is so atypical and special,” he said. “It’s the perfect size for Grace and me.”
Another plus for Nat is the operation is not a 24-7 demand on his time.
“I like that I can go dirt bike riding with my friends on my days off,” he said.
The biggest satisfaction for Grace has been meeting the customers.
“I feel so dorky saying it, but it’s true; it’s the people,” she said. “We have such a beautiful clientele.”
As with any enterprise, running the business is not without its challenges.
“After COVID,” Nat said, “a lot of restaurant chefs and cooks left the industry. Finding talented and experienced line cooks is absolutely the biggest challenge.”
Grace echoed Nat’s observation.
“Keeping up with new customers’ expectations of pre-COVID dining while fighting staffing shortages are challenges,” she said. “That and how freaking expensive everything is.”
Despite the challenges, the duo enjoys being part of the Ashland culinary scene. And during the winter slow period, the travel bug may bite them again.
“I’d like to go to Mexico,” Grace said. “I think we are going to take a couple weeks off in January to go to Oaxaca — if I can convince Nat!”
Cocorico is open from 5 to 8:30 Tuesday through Thursday and from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations are encouraged but not required. Tables are set aside each night for walk-ins, and there is a five-seat bar on the enclosed patio.
Reservations can be made in person or online at cocoricorestaurant.com.
Reach writer Jim Flint at email@example.com.