Lindsay Smith-Rosales of Nirvana Grille: “Don’t take anything personally”

Making a living is harder than you imagined or planned for — restaurants can be impacted by so many different things. Look at us now, we are in the middle of a pandemic and we are one of the most impacted industries — we are all suffering. Our creativity is what is helping us survive right now by introducing […]

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Making a living is harder than you imagined or planned for — restaurants can be impacted by so many different things. Look at us now, we are in the middle of a pandemic and we are one of the most impacted industries — we are all suffering. Our creativity is what is helping us survive right now by introducing new concepts to keep from shutting down.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Laguna Beach’s Nirvana Grille, Owner & Executive Chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales.

Lindsay is in a category of her own. She has learned over the last 15 years’ operating Nirvana Grille the beauty and grace that comes with being a prominent female chef, wife and a mother of two young sons. Her culinary flare and gracious attitude to contribute has been largely shaped by being raised by an Ayurvedic doctor mother, a Native American antiquities dealer & landscaper father and a corporate executive and entrepreneur stepfather, all melding to support a fearless, self-starting, creative and self-assured mentality. This Laguna Beach native, high school dropout went on to become the Owner & Chef of an award-winning restaurant at 26 years old, the go-to chef of celebrities, to being featured as a celebrity chef on Food Network’s “Chopped.” Chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales of Laguna Beach’s Nirvana Grille is one empowered female that makes it all about charitable, organic, sustainable food that supports sharing food with family, cooking with love, tenacity, creativity and passion.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

When I was around 9 years old, I would often visit my grandmother and we’d watch Julia Childs’ cooking show on PBS together. We would talk about how Julia created her own recipes. I would take copious notes and then try to cook them.

I honestly can’t remember a time in my life that food was not a major part of my life — most of my memories have food included in them. Food is something that is so experiential. It is not just fuel. It evokes memories. Whether it is the smell of your grandma’s cookies; the taste of the first bite of the first meal you made; the meal you ate on your first date that you’ll never forget; a meal you created and shared with friends from far away while catching up. Food gives us so much.

Now that I own my own restaurant, I love being a small part of the memories created by my customers while dining at Nirvana Grille. In my life, food has always been my connection to family and friends. It has been the focal point for our time together — where we have been able to share our lives. The food I create is an expression of who I am, and I love that the people who dine with us get to experience a small piece of who I am while connecting to those they love the most.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

I enjoy cooking California Cuisine with Latin influences. I focus primarily on seasonal menus comprised of uncomplicated ingredients so that the food can stand on its own. Our philosophy is to use the most pristine ingredients and then bring out their true flavor by utilizing cooking techniques and ingredients that make the food shine.

What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food?

I was drawn to this style of cooking because of the way I was raised in Laguna Beach, California, where my restaurant is now located. As kids we never ate fast food, owned a microwave or had convenience food, so we had to learn how to make real food. Food really was something that brought us together as a family.

My life journey has had a profound impact on my cooking style and influences. I was raised first as a vegetarian and then as a pescatarian. My mom cooked everything from scratch, at the peak of freshness. At 18, I moved in with my aunt and uncle and began eating meat for the first time in my life. My aunt’s way of cooking was really different from what I had been exposed at home and was heavily influenced by wine country mixed in with traditional American foods. I then moved to Hawaii and would visit the farmers market every day and cook what was fresh and available. It was in Hawaii that I started to explore Asian influences in food and incorporate a clean and fresh style to the dishes I made.

After Hawaii, I attended culinary school to learn the classics and really, the nuts and bolts of cooking. Over the years I have been able to fuse the two and create dishes that are simple, approachable but with intense layers of flavors.

When I opened Nirvana Grille in Laguna Beach 16 years ago, it was at the same time I got married to a man from Latin America. It was through my marriage, I began incorporating Latin flavors into my food and expanding the flavor profiles of my clean, California cuisine.

As my life has evolved and I’ve continued traveling around the world meeting so many different people, my food has become a true reflection of that journey. Food has always been there for me throughout every stage and phase of my life. And I intend to continue living life and expanding the way I explore food and the cuisine I create.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Before we opened our restaurant in Laguna Beach, our original location was located further inland in Mission Viejo. I was truly an inexperienced restauranteur. I scheduled wine tastings with two vendors back-to-back. Each vendor brought more than a dozen wines for us to sample. I made it through the first vendor’s wine tasting but as the second vendor started to showcase their samples, I started to feel the effects of the wine. I did what any chef does and went to the kitchen to make a cheese plate, hoping that would help soak up the alcohol and get me through the second tasting. Well, it didn’t work. Let’s just say, I got to experience first-hand what it was like sleeping in our (at the time) newly remodeled bathroom.

What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Through that experience, I learned not to rush or overbook myself. It is important to give every vendor the time and respect to showcase their products properly. As well as to make sure my palate stays in tact so I can pick and choose the right products for the restaurant. The key to our profitability is to buy the right amount and the right products. Also, I learned my max is 10 wine tastings. Anything over that and who knows what could happen!

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

Laguna Beach had always been the city we wanted to open our next restaurant after Mission Viejo. Prime real estate in Laguna Beach was really hard to come by. We found the ideal spot to open, what was to be Nirvana Grille, and as we were to sign the lease, I found out I was pregnant. My due date also was right in the thick of the busiest time of year for restaurants in Laguna Beach.

We debated signing the lease but knew we wouldn’t get this opportunity again. So, when my son was born, I was back at work six days later. He came to work with me every day and my breaks became nursing breaks in the breakroom “closet.” We made it work and, lucky for us, my mom lived in town and was able to help me with my son during dinner service.

How did you overcome this obstacle?

I just made it work. I wanted it all. The family, the business, the success. And we were making it work. We somehow created balance. I learned how to work around the restaurant’s schedule to make sure my son got what he needed. Truly, what I’ve learned is that working moms just make it work. You learn to get your job done while also making sure you give your child everything they need.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

The key is putting yourself in your customer’s shoes. As a chef, it’s not only about cooking for my tastes but really understanding what the customer wants to eat. When I create a new dish, I always ask myself, “is this something I want to eat all the time?” If the answer is yes and my staff loves it too, I know it will be an easy sell to our customers.

Our most popular dishes, like the Poblano Chile’s stuffed with artichoke, fresh spinach, shallots, white wine and cream — are all indulgent but do not overwhelm you to the point of discomfort. We want to strike that right balance of giving our customers a treat for their senses but also stay true to serving our clean, fresh and healthy California cuisine.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

Wow, that is a really hard question. My mood is always changing so it’s hard to pinpoint one “perfect” meal. However, my go-to meal after a long day, is a very simply prepared grilled filet mignon, paired with our green peppercorn, tarragon and cognac cream sauce; pappardelle noodles with fresh crushed garlic, parsley, butter, salt and pepper and wilted, rainbow chard. That is my comfort meal.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

Over the last 15 years, my menus and my cooking style have shifted as a direct result of my life’s journey. I am influenced by everything I experience on a daily basis. The new places I visit, changing dietary needs, what my kids are willing to eat or something that I have tasted that I want to recreate using my own style and cooking techniques.

Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost? I love going to the bookstore or looking through my hundreds of cookbooks. The truth is I never actually read the recipes — I look at the photos to see how the dish was composed, what food pairings were used in the recipe. I use that as my starting point.

Seasons also inspire me to use foods that are at their freshest. Food waste is not an option for us at Nirvana Grille, so we pick each ingredient carefully and cross utilize them throughout our dishes.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

Since we are in the midst of a pandemic, we are constantly creating new projects to try and continue serving our loyal customers while our restaurant is closed to indoor dining. At the start of the shutdowns in March, we introduced a co-op market housed at out restaurant which garnered a prolific response. Our customers can come in and shop for the freshest ingredients, directly from our vendors.

We’ve had to be inventive and nimble to keep our doors open and are constantly introducing new ways to deliver the same caliber meal you’d expect if you were dining in the restaurant, in-person. Our to-go meals are now served on ceramic plates to maintain the integrity of the meal during delivery. We hold cooking demos via Zoom so you can make your Nirvana Grille favorites in the comfort of your own home. And there is so much more to come…

What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Balance. Even if it is finding a walk in the morning along the ocean, having breakfast with your kids, making small windows of time to spend with friends and family, staying communicative with your partner and finding healthy coping skills like meditation, journaling or whatever self-care means to you — taking care of yourself and your own mental health is key to thriving and surviving in this industry.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

After more than 20 years in the restaurant industry, I’ve learned a lot of things.

  1. You will always be late to everything. And it will be so hard to keep your commitments like you once did.
  2. Holidays, major events, life moments. You will miss them all. And you will need to learn to recreate those moments in different ways so that you can be there for your family and friends — building memories along the way.
  3. Making a living is harder than you imagined or planned for — restaurants can be impacted by so many different things. Look at us now, we are in the middle of a pandemic and we are one of the most impacted industries — we are all suffering. Our creativity is what is helping us survive right now by introducing new concepts to keep from shutting down.
  4. You have to LOVE what you do. Really, really love it. To continue investing in yourself. To survive, you need to be open to change and adapt at a moment’s notice.
  5. Don’t take anything personally. Especially at the height of a dining service. We all react to stress differently so at the end of each day, let the stress go and start your next day, fresh.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

It’s so hard to pick one dish but if you were coming to dine at Nirvana Grille, this is the full meal I would recommend. I’d begin with the Poblano Chile Appetizer and Grandpa Michael’s Kitchen Sink. For the main course, I’d order the Herb Grilled Loup de Mer Seabass with browned butter and lemon, french lentils and mixed vegetables. Finally, for dessert I would choose the House-made Goat Cheese Maple Ice Cream with Grand Marnier Glazed Seasonal Fruit.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The last year has really forced me to rethink how our restaurant functions. Our restaurant has been closed for indoor dining service for close to a year, so to survive, we’ve had to come up with new ways of doing business. When we opened our co-op market in March, providing fresh food delivered at reasonable costs, it was successful from day one. Its success and not being able to operate my restaurant in the same manner as I have for the last 16 years had me thinking — what can I do differently to reinvent my business and still make a living?

We have a very tight-knit community here in Laguna Beach. Since the start of the pandemic, we have all been supporting each other in any way we can — through idea sharing, supporting our elderly by delivering fresh food, providing support to survive and stay open. As we begin to plan for reopening and going back to business as usual, I am now looking at ways I can morph my restaurant to continue functioning as a fine dining restaurant, while also making it a place to give back to our community. We are still working out the details but what we do know is the next iteration of Nirvana Grille will be focused on investing in our future community and industry.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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