Edible Monterey Bay


Taste of History

P.J. Clark is operations manager and partner of the Alta Group

Alta Bakery breathes new life into the beloved Cooper Molera Adobe complex in the heart of Old Monterey

If you pay close attention at Alta Bakery + Café, you might notice an enigmatic design dusted on a rustic loaf of bread or imprinted in the foam of an espresso drink. You’ll also see it decorating menus and labels, and it reappears on interpretive signs throughout the gardens, orchard and 19th century structures that make up the Cooper Molera Adobe complex where the bakery opened in April.

Is it a heart? An artichoke? A bow-legged dancer? If it sparks your imagination, particularly about the compound’s early occupants and their world, then it’s doing its job. The symbol was created in the 1800s as a cattle brand for the property’s first owner— sea captain, merchant and ranch owner John B. Rogers Cooper—and is now being reclaimed as part of a bold experiment in saving historic places.

The iconic 2½-acre property has always been a touchstone in Monterey’s history: Built in the center of town when Monterey was the capital of Mexico’s massive territory of Alta California, its homes and businesses changed hands over the years among a who’s who of old Monterey families and long played a vibrant role in the economic life of the city.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, and the Cooper Molera was languishing. By then donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it had been preserved as a museum and gift shop managed by California State Parks. But the model, while well intentioned, didn’t provide enough revenues for critical upkeep, and the barns were redtagged because they needed a seismic retrofit. The only part of the historic buildings open to the public on a regular basis was the gift shop and the future of the whole complex was uncertain.

The vision for saving the property by weaving it back into the entrepreneurial life of the city came from developer Doug Wiele of El Dorado Hills-based Foothill Partners, who became interested in Cooper Molera while in town working on the Trader Joe’s complex. In 2010 he partnered with Monterey realtor and restaurateur Kirk Probasco— owner of the nearby Stokes Adobe restaurant—and over time, they won over the city and other stakeholders, most notably the National Trust, which gave Foothill Partners a 60-year lease agreement and is embracing the shared use concept as a model for helping historic places thrive all around the United States.

“The idea is to sustain these places and to preserve them for the long term, not by freezing them in time, but by putting them into active use and to give people lots of different ways to interact with them,” says Katherine Malone-France, interim chief preservation officer at the National Trust. “Cooper Molera is really about proving the concept.”

More than $6 million of improvements later, the property’s historic barns were leased to The Events by Classic Group and reopened last fall for weddings and special events. The Alta Group leased two adobes, including one where the forthcoming Cella restaurant will open. And the National Trust last September reopened its own centerpiece— the dynamic and interactive reconceived Cooper Molera Adobe museum co-directed by Margaret Clovis and Susan Klusmire.

“I think everyone should learn the history of everything. History moves us forward,” says Ben Spungin, the wildly creative pastry chef who was brought in by Probasco as partner and culinary director. The third partner and director of operations, P.J. Clark, was lured by Probasco from Sonoma.

Alta has been a passion project for them from the beginning and one could argue that through the project, the partners are also moving history forward.

Step inside and you’ll see an entirely modern and hip reimagining of the 1800s Pioneer Bakery: The design is open and airy, allowing abundant natural light to bounce from the bright white of the adobe walls and a gleaming Italian glass pastry case. A state-of-the art espresso machine overseen by manager Kali Grant delivers coffee drinks, which guests are invited to take with them to enjoy in the museum, where the furniture, rather than being roped off from visitors, is meant to be sat on, and its chess game is intended to be played with.

The design in each coffee drink is meant to evoke the history of the Cooper Molera Adobe.

“We wanted to break all the rules of house museums,” Malone- France says, adding that visitors can wander in and out, thanks to the free admission offered in repayment of a generous loan from the City of Monterey.

And history is woven throughout the new bakery and café. Along with photos and stories of past residents, Cooper’s cattle brands hang on the walls, and Clark had long communal tables for the indoor seating built from wooden planks reclaimed from the barns. References to Big Sur—where Captain Cooper grazed cattle—are everywhere, in redwood counters, a chunk of jade embedded in the face of the bread and pizza oven and the bakery’s focal point—striking wood shelving designed by architectural firm de sola.barnes.

Spungin spent hours pouring over the Cooper Molera archives, and found simple cake and pie recipes from one of the property’s last owners. He’s not using them, but is seeking to evoke a similar simplicity in Alta’s cuisine.

“We want to make things that are comfortable and recognizable for people, with incredible flavors,” Spungin says, adding that he’s starting with really great ingredients. Spungin is also starting with really great technique, having earned his chops at The French Laundry, Bernardus Lodge and Post Ranch Inn, among other places.

So while the menu looks as approachable as Spungin intends, with its toasts, egg bakes and morning pastries for breakfast and paninis, pizzas, salads, soups, fried chicken sandwiches and more pastries and custards offered in the afternoon, the creations are all more sophisticated than they might sound, and are executed whenever possible with housemade or housegrown ingredients, including breads from head baker Matt Somerville, formerly of Big Sur Bakery.

So for breakfast, your “obligatory avocado toast” will be on Somerville’s sourdough and sprinkled with edible flowers from the property’s historic garden, the croissant will be expertly executed on the bakery’s huge laminated dough machine, scones may contain fruit from the orchard and the jars of what look like simple puddings may instead be pot de crème or crémeux.

Not surprisingly for a master of witty and elaborate chocolate objects and installations, some of Spungin’s most dramatic references to the compound’s history are a working cuckoo clock that on closer inspection turns out to be made from chocolate and rusty 19th century “bolts” and “tools,” that are actually cocoa powder-coated chocolates cast from artifacts found on site.

In a sure sign that Alta is succeeding at generating interest in the property’s history, just weeks after the bakery opened, attendance at the museum had already tripled.

“Cooper Molera is a community asset that we’ve given back to the community,” Probasco says. “There is more traffic on this property than there has been in 20 years.”

And both the museum and the Alta Group still have much more in store.

The museum plans to start regular author talks, children’s tours and myriad special events, all made possible by revenues coming from the Cooper Molera’s commercial tenants.

Alta’s partners, meantime, after just installing outdoor seating and adding beer and wine to the menu, were as of press time planning to add live music in the garden, expand Alta’s hours somewhat into the evening and get ready to open Cella, a locally sourced and globally inspired sit-down restaurant. Cella will open in an adobe—the Spear Warehouse—that with its exposed adobe bricks and ceiling buttresses has been renovated to elegantly yet casually hint at its days helping launch the commercial artichoke trade. It will also have a firepit and outdoor seating that Clark is itching to fill.

“I’m so in love with this project and I can’t wait to see it grow,” says Clark.