Expert Q&A: Lisa Dahl of Dahl Restaurant Group
Working toward a career in the culinary arts? Don’t miss this expert job advice from Lisa Dahl, named 1 of the country’s 50 most impressive female chefs by USA Today.
Her name is synonymous with the Sedona, Ariz. restaurant scene and for more than 20 years, Chef Lisa Dahl has been leading the charge in expanding culinary palates all across Red Rock Country. Now, with a Food Network appearance under her belt and two new restaurants on the horizon early next year, she’s busier than ever. All of this considering, Lisa still made time to sit down and offer RUBY readers some sound and honest advice on pursuing a career in the culinary arts. Here’s what she had to say.
OK, Lisa. I know you’re a busy woman, so let’s get right down to business: As the owner and executive chef of Dahl Restaurant Group, how do you spend most of your time?
I split my time between each of my four restaurants every day of the week. My office at Dahl Restaurant Group is where I’ve made a sanctuary and a think tank for my projects, new ideas and new menu items. I don’t get to spend as much time there as I’d like, but it really restores and motivates me. Above my desk hangs the mantra I’ve built my career on, “When you cook with love, you feed the soul.” It’s where I feel most creative, and where I go to gather my thoughts and myself.
I typically start my day at Mariposa Latin Inspired Grill, during the lunch hour. When I arrive, the first thing I do is get into the kitchen and get hands-on with the people working the line. I’ll make a salad a different way, I’ll manifest from the ideas I’ve culminated. I’m a Midwest girl who believes in the value of putting in a hard day’s work. I now have 250 employees and serve close to 400,000 guests annually, so I have the opportunity to meet people from all over the world.
It’s so surreal to me that guests know who I am when they arrive, and ask to meet me or to sign a cookbook. Hearing that I inspired someone, or was the reason for their journey to Sedona, is unreal. I never saw myself as a role model. When people know my story and visit my restaurants, I have a connection with them before we even meet. That’s more important than the food, more important than the restaurants. It’s a responsibility that weighs on me and I don’t take it for granted.
I also workout religiously. I will not forsake my exercise for anyone. I have to get out and let the beauty of nature cleanse my mind.
We know so many women who aspire to a career in the culinary field. Can you tell us, what are three pieces of advice that you’d give to an up-and-coming chef or restaurateur who dreams of someday being at your level?
First, is to be a cook, first and foremost. Find your own style and be true to it. So much today is gimmicky. Don’t compare yourself. Find the essence of your soul. I cook from my soul, not because something is in fashion.
Second, when you’re a chef and a restaurateur, you have to do it for the right reasons. It’s not for the glory. It’s more than feeding people. It’s welcoming people into your home and giving them an unforgettable experience, every day of the week.
Third, your life is not your own. I think back to the days when I had one restaurant, one menu and one focus. Now, with four restaurants and two more on the horizon, I often think, “What did I get myself into?” You have to stand back from yourself and ask, “What am I doing this for?” In my heart as a cook, I just love to bring the essence of my soul to the plate of the people that I serve. This is my calling.
Great guidance! Speaking of, is there anything you wish you’d known at the beginning of your career – a piece of advice you wish someone would have given you early on?
I wish I would have known more about the challenges associated with the operational side of owning multiple restaurants. When I first started, we were a mom-and-pop shop. With what I know now, I would have gone back and organized in a different way, and educated myself more on the operations and technology side of things.
You’ve earned a lengthy list of accolades alongside your name. What would you say you’re most proud of in life and your career?
More than anything in the world, I’m proud of being a mother to my son, Justin. Having a son who made such an impact in his life makes me proud beyond belief. He is my legacy. His influence is felt through everything that I attempt to do in his name. He was such a powerful soul that he can continue to touch others, even though he’s not physically here.
Professionally, there have been a number of recent media accolades that have made a big impact on me personally as well as on my business. USA Today wrote a phenomenal story about Sedona’s emerging dining scene and credited my work as the culinary driving force. I was also included in their “50 States: 50 Female Chefs” among an impressive list of women that I admire. When things like this happen, it blows me away. I’m just this little chef in Sedona, Ariz. who has followed her passion. It starts so small, and then you wake up one day and realize you really have to rise to the occasion.
Thank you so much, Lisa! We’re going to finish off this Q&A with a question that we ask every guest: What’s yet to come for Dahl Restaurant Group and how can RUBY readers become a part of your community?
I have two new restaurants – Butterfly Burger, a couture-burger lounge, and a second location for my wood-fired pizza restaurant, Pisa Lisa – opening early 2019 in Sedona’s Village of Oak Creek. I’m also continuing my work on Project Soup Hope, an initiative that donates 50 percent of proceeds from soup sales at our restaurants to food banks in disaster-stricken areas.
Social media is a great way to stay connected with what we’re doing in Sedona. Each restaurant has an Instagram and Facebook that really gives you a flavor for what we’re passionate about. This is going to be a big year for us with a lot of exciting announcements, national TV appearances, two new restaurants and a second cookbook in the works.