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Crooning and Cooking at Opera Alley Bistro 

Madison Lopez at Opera Alley Bistro, where he's both chef and musical entertainment.

Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Madison Lopez at Opera Alley Bistro, where he's both chef and musical entertainment.

Amid the sound of an elk and bison burger sizzling and the warm aroma of the day's soup, Madison "Mattie" Lopez's tenor cascades from the pass-through window between Opera Alley Bistro's kitchen and dining room as he belts out Frank Sinatra or Johnny Cash with a little Michael Jackson sneaking in.

Table conversation sometimes stops when customers hear Lopez singing behind his protective wall. They listen, tap their fingers on the Formica tabletop or maybe even sing along. Lopez is a bit shy for prime time — folks can listen to him sing but he's not ready for them to watch him sing. He comes into the dining room to talk to the folks he feeds. He knows the diners' names, how crispy they like their potatoes and if they like onions. He knows his food is good but the reassurance is nice.

Voted 2022 Best Chef by the readers of the North Coast Journal, 28-year-old Florida native, who was bullied as a kid, is still far too shy to sing without a wall between him and his audience. But while he's cooking in the intimate bistro, with its tables for two, four and a couple for six, regulars sometimes make requests. If Lopez doesn't know the song, he'll learn it by their next visit.

"The majority of our customers seem to enjoy it, and my philosophy is, if it keeps people happy, why suppress it?" asks Opera Alley Bistro co-owner Kyall Widmier. "I asked why he didn't go on The Voice or some talent show, but he seems comfortable when people don't see him," he says. "If there were an American masked singer competition where people sing in costume and don't know who you are ...," Widmier muses, his voice trailing off.

"Singing and cooking gives customers an experience they couldn't have gotten someplace else, and [my cooking] gives them food they couldn't get anyplace else," Lopez says. He sang while he worked at Gallagher's in Eureka, too, and before that at Chubby's Chicken in Florida.

Growing up with two older brothers and two younger ones, Lopez says his childhood was filled with two things: music and food. "Food is about love," he says. "There was so much love in the food I ate growing up." It was in Nana Harding's kitchen, with his mom and his grandmother singing along with the radio, that he learned that food and love go together. "It was homey," he says, "It had a really cool glass-burner stove with speckled glass where the burners go." He gestures above his head and smiles at a memory. "There was fake ivy and fake fruit over the cabinets for years."

Long car trips brought out the singing when Lopez was a kid and when puberty lowered his voice, his family started noticing. Around the same time, they noticed his cooking talents, too. He was still a pre-teen when the matriarchs of the family started encouraging him to experiment. It might have been just a tuna casserole, but when he suggested a little celery, a little onion, a pinch of salt, he says Mom and Grandma let him think he was creating a whole new dish. Then it got fancier and he learned how much he enjoyed cooking fish, especially salmon. "Salmon is a beautiful fish and it breaks up perfectly on the fork, and ... a nice glaze ... complements the color and the sweet smell," he says.

Opening his own restaurant someday and feeding people is Lopez's heart's desire.

"If I can provide that home-cooking experience to people who haven't had it recently because their family has passed or they're estranged, that would be a big thing to me," he says. He's got performing dreams, as well. Looking around the Opera Alley Bistro, Lopez, who studied tap and jazz as a kid, says, "I want to sing and dance and do that Michael Jackson kick." He says he imagines himself getting beyond his protective wall, adding some fancy footwork to his repertoire and being a lounge entertainer some fine day.

Cooking and singing professionally would be a double gift from the universe, he says. "A lounge singer with a band behind me and people sitting in circular booths is how I see myself," he says, adding he knows it'll take time to overcome his awkwardness in front of people. "I want to stand on a stage with drums thump-thumping and singing my heart out."

Ettie Chaiet (she/her) is a writer based in Humboldt County.

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