For Gabriela Machado, creating an exquisite amuse bouche — her foie gras crème brulee with Grand Marnier crackle and gold leaf, for example — begins where all of her recipes do: in her boundless culinary imagination.
Born and raised in Venezuela, educated as a graphic designer at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, the chef-owner of Midtown’s Copperbox Culinary Atelier has forged a distinctive path into the world of high-end dining. Slender, striking and intense, Machado has also managed the myriad challenges of living with type 1 diabetes for most of her 38 years. Today, she is a sought-after chef, yet she sometimes restricts herself to the tiniest tastes of her own food.
“My instincts, my sense of smell and touch — for me, it’s the world,” says Machado in her cookbook-lined office at Copperbox. “I can taste everything, but it’s just a drop. My husband says it’s like Beethoven writing music he didn’t hear.”
Her husband, economist Rafael Alcantara-Lansberg, has been in her life since he spotted her at a party in Caracas when she was 15. He was 16, a self-described “dork,” but he thought, “I need to meet this girl.” They lived together while she was at the Art Institute and he studied philosophy, economics and political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Practical yet adventurous, they used the housing stipend Machado’s parents provided to travel, exploring the world one great meal at a time. Of the woman who has been his wife since 1999, Alcantara-Lansberg says, “She has tenacidad — persistence. ... She’s strong in a way I know I’m not.”
It was Alcantara-Lansberg who set her on her career path. As a newlywed in Caracas who knew little about cooking, she began making chicken empanadas for him — empanadas so good that he told her, “Oh my God, you need to write the recipe and sell these.” In 2001, she founded the Sans Remorse Baking Co., creating healthy chicken, spinach, ricotta cheese and Splenda-sweetened apple empanadas, as well as extravagantly sized muffins that she supplied to top Caracas gyms and the Automercados Plaza’s supermarket chain.
With no money to grow the business, she changed course in 2002, launching a VIP catering service she ran for six years. Studying with a Cantonese chef, then learning about Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine, she became a voracious reader of cookbooks and a chef unafraid of experimentation. “I try to respect tradition, but I put things together differently — like Italian with Japanese,” she says. “I don’t have boundaries when I’m cooking, but I don’t like being labeled ‘fusion.’”
In 2008, Machado bought into a gourmet food shop and catering service that became Atar-Gabriela Machado. Two years later, Alcantara-Lansberg proposed that they move to Miami, where his firm, New Market Analytics, had relocated its U.S. headquarters. She cried at first, but by the next day had bought a plane ticket and called her sister-in-law, who had a place in South Florida.
“In 10 days, I had a car and a house here,” Machado says. “I know what I want.” After a few restless months off in the summer of 2010, Machado conjured the dream that became Copperbox. Her husband, New Market’s CFO and chief economist, explained that the numbers didn’t add up. “She said, ‘I want to do a restaurant where I don’t have to serve every day. I want to serve no more than 25 to 30 people,’” Alcantara-Lansberg recalls. “I said, ‘That makes no business sense.’ She said, ‘Why don’t you make it work? There must be a way.’”
Together, investing their savings, they found the way. After looking at locations on too-expensive Miracle Mile and Coral Way, they settled on a former wood shop at 3328 N. Miami Ave., and by Nov. 15, Machado had the key. She designed the interior, creating an intimate L-shaped dining area with her office on one side, a space for wines on the other and a kitchen at the back.
The interior walls were painted in multiple coats and shades of copper that glow by candlelight. The exterior, an art-paint blend of penny and pink copper, reflects sunshine and moonlight. That distinctive look and a discreet plaque beside the entry door on Northeast 34th Street announce, “This is Copperbox.”
What the chef and her team have created, starting with invitation-only meals a year ago and expanding to two public “atelier nights” in March, is as much a dinner party as a restaurant. Couples, singles, friends and strangers who pay $125 each for food and wine arrive at 8 p.m. They spend an hour getting acquainted as they sip bubbly Gratien & Meyer Saumur Brut Rosé and sample Machado’s intensely flavored hors d’oeuvres.
Once seated, they move through the six courses of a menu Machado changes every eight weeks or so, each dish accompanied by a wine chosen by Leticia de Mello Bueno, Copperbox’s wine and cheese expert as well as its branding and development guru.
For a recent soup course — crème of Granny Smith apples with a mousse of ricotta, cilantro, pickled apple and scallions — de Mello Bueno found a wine that worked well, but then couldn’t get it anymore. So she began tasting again. “On the fourth try, I found a wine from Hungary, which was drier and less minerally. Sometimes, you want to complement; sometimes, you want to contrast,” she says. “Doing the wine and cheese requires tasting each menu a few times and taking copious notes.”
Machado’s design sensibility is clear in the way each plate is composed. “She feels things need to be not just great but aesthetically satisfying,” her husband says.
For one of her signature dishes, she and five team members work together to place slices of Hudson Valley duck breast precisely in the center of a sauce striped diagonally across a white plate. Mousseline of Cara Cara oranges, puree of parsnips and leeks surround the meat, with tiny, perfect green leaves placed in exactly the same spot on each plate. If a crumb falls onto the pristine white, it’s plucked off with kitchen tweezers.
Gastronomes from South Florida and beyond have taken notice of Machado’s creativity, attention to detail and commitment to in-season, locally sourced food. While in Miami in March to judge a Slow Food competition, Cooking Light editor Scott Mowbray tasted her poached lane snapper with sweet tomato relish and beurre blanc made with coconut water and champagne, as well as her vibrant pink beet ice cream and tiny cotija cheesecake.
Her food, he comments in an email, “...was lively, almost fun. It made sense rather than being a stunt. It was, above all, delicious rather than just interesting. You could also see in the presentation her skills as a graphic designer — little plates and boxes and flourishes that, again, were not so much precious as happy and beautiful. My conversations with her revealed a very, very serious cook who I think will definitely be going places.”
Slow Food Miami president Renee Frigo Graeff agrees. “Gaby’s food has a depth of flavor that’s really lovely. Each thing on the plate is so important and takes so much time. Is there anybody else in the city who’s working this way? I think she’s like our couturier of dining,” Graeff says.
Robert Hudson, managing partner of the law firm Baker & McKenzie, and Jocelyn Cortez, founder and CEO of the Minerva Capital Group investment firm, have each hosted private dinners at Copperbox, and both praise Machado’s passionate artistry. “Gaby is really committed. She’s into food in an intellectual way. She’s doing this because she wants to, she loves it and has a real passion for it,” Hudson says. “For Gaby, food is an art,” Cortez says. “She caters to a very sophisticated palate, the kind you develop when you travel and have tasted so much. She delivers that in the course of a three-hour experience.”
In July, Machado and her husband will take a break to go to Europe and recharge gastronomically. When they’re not working the sometimes brutally long days of a chef-restaurateur and an investment advisor, they nest in a small South Beach apartment with an American bulldog, three little Chihuahuas and two big Maine Coon cats. The animals, Machado says, “have a nanny, because we work long hours. And I weigh their food, too.”
Machado, who has an insulin pump nestled under her chef’s jacket, raised $10,000 this season for the Diabetes Research Institute by donating private Copperbox dinners as prizes at fundraisers. Diagnosed with diabetes at age 2, she has been advised by her doctor not to risk pregnancy, and she and her husband are fine with that.
“We’ve been together so long, I don’t know how to introduce anyone else into the relationship,” she says.
Alcantara-Lansberg drops by Copperbox on many of its atelier nights, and he takes note of the moment when the kitchen lights are turned off and his wife peers out the window at guests surrounded by hydrangeas and roses, bathed in candlelight, savoring her food and chatting away.
“When she feels that hum, that’s what she’s looking to do,” he says. “She gets home and can’t stop talking, she’s so happy.”