How one L.A. restaurant created the ‘perfect fish sandwich’ for Jordan Peele’s ‘Nope’
Amid alien contact, thrilling chase sequences and cathartic emotional beats, “Nope” considers a range of ideological concepts — legacy, race, exploitation and the taming of nature among them. But writer-director Jordan Peele’s summer blockbuster also poses a more fundamental question: What makes the perfect fish sandwich?
Eagle-eyed viewers might recognize Peele’s fictional fast-food chain, Copperpot’s Cove — where O.J. Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya), sister Em (Keke Palmer) and their Fry’s tech-support tag-along Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) seek comfort in a fried fish sandwich after a narrow escape — from the blue-and-yellow food packaging that appears on the Wilson family’s dining table in Peele’s previous film, “Us.”
Peele, in “Nope’s” press notes, declined to confirm that the two films exist in the same universe. (“Those are speculations I am happy to let people make,” he said.) What he did disclose was where those fictionalized Long John Silver’s fish sandwiches come from. To build the screen-perfect bite, Peele tapped chef Gilberto Cetina of Holbox, a favorite restaurant of Peele’s and a little sliver of the Yucatán Peninsula that’s hidden inside L.A. food hall and cultural space Mercado La Paloma.
The lauded Mexican restaurant specializes in seafood, serving colorful tostadas, aguachiles, a range of tacos, wood-grilled fish and bowls of crushed ice studded with piquant razor clams — but no fried fish sandwiches.
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For months Cetina noticed a customer he would later learn was an assistant on the film’s production team regularly pick up enough food for eight to 10 people, never disclosing for whom the orders were placed. Eventually a request came in without any context: Could the chef make a fish sandwich?
“I’m like, yeah, we can make you a fish sandwich,” Cetina said. “So we made a fish sandwich, and the following week, he came back and he said, ‘Hey, my employer really liked your fish sandwich; can we get eight fish sandwiches?’”
The chef’s other restaurant, Chichén Itzá, also within Mercado La Paloma, utilizes Yucatán-style pan Francés baguettes for its cochinita pibil tortas and other sandwiches. Baked in the Holbox ovens, they were convenient and at the ready whenever a mysterious fish sandwich order would roll in, and they’d be filled with the same tempura-battered fried fish that usually appears in Holbox’s Baja-style taco. After weeks of orders, many of them including the makeshift fried fish sandwiches, came clarity: The assistant’s employer was Jordan Peele, and he wanted to set up a meeting about the fish sandwiches.
“First thing that went through my mind was craft services, right?” said Cetina, who has years of catering experience but none in the film industry. “It really never occurred to me that, you know, he’d be asking for us to create a sandwich that would be part of the movie, and I had no context.”
Cetina met with “Nope” producer Ian Cooper and other members of the production team and was first flattered, then awed by the scope: Production designer Ruth De Jong and prop master Michael Glynn both lent a hand to create the chain’s wrappers and cups, while the chain’s logo — a pirate-hat-sporting, winking parrot — was conceptualized by artist Joel Waldrep and sculpted by David French. Peele himself hand-wrote the menu for his imagined restaurant chain, which is itself a nod to “The Goonies” character Chester Copperpot: one of a seemingly endless number of pop-culture homages and clues in the director’s oeuvre (and in “Nope,” one of several specifically alluding to Steven Spielberg).
Everything was planned to the last detail — a remarkable amount of thought and precision for only a few moments of screen time, Cetina marveled. All they needed were the fast-food-inspired sandwiches.
A couple hundred of them.
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“I was asked to design the sandwich that would fit in with that theme but that would also be something that I would cook here, that had our kind of personality and flavor,” Cetina said. “Jordan’s idea was, ‘Look, we don’t want it just to be a prop, we want you to make it on set during the shoot. And we want you to make 200 sandwiches to feed the entire crew.’”
The restaurant was first tasked with developing three prototypes for a more intimate tasting, which is when Cetina finally met Peele. The Holbox team prepared a grilled fish sandwich; the skin-on branzino, cabbage-slaw- and pickled-onion-bedecked fried fish sandwich; and a third option that Peele loved so much one wound up in the final shot despite not being exactly what the production was looking for: a red-onion-jam-topped fish “burger” — which Peele and the team dubbed “the Chum Burger” — that riffed on Holbox’s house-made fish sausage with ground kanpachi, but formed into a patty. He ditched the pan Francés for brioche buns from local bread behemoth Röckenwagner Bakery, and they had their camera-ready fish sandwiches.
After the tasting, with less than one month before shooting, everything moved quickly. The production team organized a photo shoot of the sandwiches at Holbox to mimic fast-food menu photos for the menu boards in the film. Logistical planning kicked in for Cetina and his team: How could they feed 200 people? Where would they cook? Could they prep the sandwiches from within the small A-frame burger shack done up as Copperpot’s Cove?
In September 2021 Cetina, two employees, and friend and fellow chef Eddie Ruiz (Mejorado, formerly of Chica’s Tacos) arrived as extras and experienced an industry entirely separate from their own — wardrobe, shuttles to the set, filling out SAG cards — before diving into cooking in the Copperpot’s kitchen between takes, handing out sandwiches to the crew from the restaurant’s drive-thru window. During shoots, Cetina and his team tried to eavesdrop from the kitchen, roughly 20 feet from the actors, to overhear whether they dug the sandwiches.
Afterward, Cetina received a surprise he wears with pride and donned for his own trip to see “Nope”: an embossed leather wrap jacket.
While the chef admits he was hoping to see more of his handiwork in the final cut (what he deems “that Big Mac ‘Pulp Fiction’ moment”), he was thrilled to watch his food on the big screen and catch glimpses of his crew working in the background.
“It was a lot of fun to see Eddie’s shoulder,” he laughed. “It was a little bit like playing Where’s Waldo watching the movie. We got a kick out of it. It was my wife and my sister and myself [at the theater], and we might have gotten a little excited during that scene in the movie. Some people were telling us to be quiet and we didn’t even realize it.”
Though he hasn’t done so yet, Cetina says he would love to add the “Nope”-inspired fish sandwiches to the Holbox menu as a special. After all, as the film’s alien-documenting protagonists put it, “You can never go wrong with a fried fish sandwich.”
Staff writer Jen Yamato contributed to this report.
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