This week's On The Line singles out Chef Lindsay of Nirvana Grill for guidance on running your own business. Her kitchen experience with Pascal Ohlats and zpizza help build the foundation for her inevitable culinary venture. She also discusses how Oprah inspires her. Want more? Read up on our busy bee over here in part one.
Hardest lesson you've learned:
Don't expect everyone to take care of your business the way you do.
What would you last meal on Earth be?
No clue. There is nothing that I have to have that I can think of — other than ice cream. I am a sucker for ice cream. I like the salted caramel from Dolce Gelato, down the street [from Nirvana Grille's Laguna Beach location]. Coffee-flavored ice cream and Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia are also favorites.
Who's your hero, culinary or otherwise?
I don't know if she's a hero, but I truly admire Oprah as a woman. To be so inspiring to impact, inspire and encourage people through humility to be better people as a whole and individually is incredible. I think that with what I do, I feel acknowledged when I am able to know that someone chose us to have a memory that will last their lifetime, and that I am doing what I am supposed to be when I am in the press or chosen as a chef to be recognized. It validates me and what I do.
I think that powerful women can have a great career, but sometimes at a consequence. Oprah has found a way to constantly be a leader for women to be who they are, and find power and strength to do something that will make a difference.
Tell us about your food-service-industry background.
I studied at Orange Coast College and worked for caterers such as La Cienega, Fox Studios, Universal Studios in LA and Pascal at Sherman Gardens. My second year of culinary school, I started at Traditions By Pascal, as well as the Ritz-Carlton, where I ended up deciding to work for almost six years in numerous areas in the back and front of the house, where I would then meet my husband. I quit to pursue full-time the catering I had been doing on my own for about four years.
After about six months on my own, I was offered a job at zpizza as its corporate chef, as it went national with a newly developed franchise option. After a year and a half, I felt it was time to branch out on my own. Three months later, in July 2006, [my husband, Luis, and I] opened Nirvana Grille in Mission Viejo. Two years later, I found out I was pregnant with Diego. At the same time, we heard about a restaurant that closed in Laguna. We took the information and leaped to find out if this could work for us, and thus we took over the space in December 2007, when I was 4 months pregnant, and opened in March 2008, when I was 7 months pregnant.
What is the biggest challenge about owning your own restaurant?
Every day and doing too much that then takes me away from all the experiences that I am missing being a mom. With events and shortage of staff at times, I have missed many memorable occasions that I hope I will be able to experience over again. [Editor's Note: At the time of our interview, she was short three people in the kitchen.]
Is Diego, at 3 years old, a foodie-in-training? With two parents who cook well, does he have any nontraditional favorite eats?
Diego has the most in-tune palates that we laugh. He knows when we switch his milk, and it must be at the perfect lukewarm temperature, check test and all, since he was about 14 months old. As far as food, he is a self-proclaimed vegetarian; he will not eat meat, even if we hide it. He is a veg king, though. He loves asparagus, kale and green beans with goat cheese, pine nuts, swiss chard, sweet potatoes, all berries, and, of course, the norm: pasta, quesadillas and grilled cheese. He will not do the PBJ, burger, sandwiches, chicken fingers and other staples you may expect. Maybe it is us; maybe he is just very particular, like I am about what I wish to eat?
Are there any advantages or challenges to working with a spouse?
The advantage is that you always have a rock behind you, any way you look at it. In the end, we are in it to the death of it, and we are the life behind it. Good, bad or indifferent, we do what it takes and have the passion and drive to make people happy and have a successful business in what we love doing. I am definitely the one who pushes things forward, moving into new projects and expansion, which drives Luis nuts at times of my need to always have too much going on. Working day to day is better, in that we have the ability to work at separate locations! It keeps us a bit closer, but have our moments of frustration with each other. One good thing is that we get over things pretty quickly and can move on from heat-of-the-moment interactions.
Give us an example of your “clean” California cuisine. Take a dish off your menu, and break it down with what purveyors you use and their corresponding ingredients?
Our recipe [see Part Three] would be the same for ease. We get the scallops from Santa Monica Seafood. They are dry-packed Nantucket Wild Diver scallops from Maine. They do not have any fillers or additives to make them larger and are a U10 count. Our lentils come from Indian Harvest, which are organic, and they are a great grain source. Our asparagus, microgreens, dairy citrus and spices come from Ingardia Brothers, a local product company in Orange County.
What dish would you tell newcomers to Nirvana Grille to try first?
Depends on what they like. I eat different than what we may be known for, as I want a lighter option (since I eat our food daily). I go for our oven-poached halibut, which I love, or the polenta and chard and add a piece of protein. But the seafood di mare, which is our third-most-popular dish, is a great try. Besides the rack of lamb, the veggie plate, I must admit, will be one of the bets you will have, as each of the seven items on it is cooked differently from the others. Add a piece of protein for the non-vegetarian, and it is perfect.
What would you be doing if you weren't in this business?
Probably still catering or a corporate chef for a company. I have had the insight like that of my dad; I am great at spotting all the things that may be going wrong when we travel or dine out, and a secret shopper would be a great job as well [Editor's Note: I agree, mystery shopping is fantastic; I mean, getting paid to eat…C'mon!] ; traveling around and helping improve the little things we often miss, even in our own day-to-day operation we have. It is hard to see things from the inside.
What advice do you have for those who might be thinking about a career in food?
You better love it! It has long hours and is underpaid. You will work holidays and miss out on being with friends and family for special occasions, and it is very hard work physically and emotionally, depending on your job. . . . But I could not see myself in any other business. I love the adrenalin of an event or being on the fire line.
What do you see yourself doing in five years? Ten years?
In the next five years, I would love to have another child . . . a little girl. We would also like to move our Mission Viejo location to be able to have a bar, be in a more desirable location, and expand for group space.
As far as 10 years, we would like to have expanded and set up our business well enough that we are able to spend more time with family and travel. Diego has been fortunate, at 3, to have traveled to San Francisco, Mexico, Hawaii, France, Spain, Austria and Bali. We would like for him to continue as he grows to have the great appreciation for diversity and what other countries value in food, life and history. As far as more with business, I do have a dream, but that is something I will keep to myself for the moment.
Nirvana Grille has locations in Mission Viejo and Laguna Beach. Click here for the website.