Paige Riordan of Scarlet Kitchen & Lounge: “Have fun!”

Have fun! We work in one of the most difficult and intricate industries. There’s so much happening at once from managing costs of goods to customer experience, If you don’t have fun and connect with guests and staff, it’s easy to get burned out. It’s important to enjoy the journey and laugh a lot along […]

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Have fun! We work in one of the most difficult and intricate industries. There’s so much happening at once from managing costs of goods to customer experience, If you don’t have fun and connect with guests and staff, it’s easy to get burned out. It’s important to enjoy the journey and laugh a lot along the way.

As part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Paige Riordan.

As Executive Chef and Owner of Scarlet Kitchen & Lounge in Rancho Mission Viejo, Paige Riordan pays homage to time-honored family recipes and East Coast classics brought to life with the finesse and flair of West Coast farm-to-table cuisine. An East Coast native, Chef Paige Riordan has cooked in some of New York’s most prestigious restaurants including Reynard at The Wythe, widely recognized for bringing farm-to-table cuisine to New York City. She attended culinary school at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City, where she honed her skills in holistic, plant-based cuisine guided by whole foods and wellness.

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?

In my twenties, I lived in NYC. Watching the bustle of the city was thrilling to me. I was incredibly intrigued by how restaurants and bars orchestrated an experience — one that simultaneously celebrates culture, history, nostalgia, and nuance. It was like a symphony. I saw how it was such a labor of love; a blend of chaos and creativity. And I was drawn to it.

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?

The menu Scarlet Kitchen & Lounge features elevated East Coast classics brought to life with West Coast flavors and ingredients. I grew up on the East Coast and my father was a commercial fisherman, much of what I create at Scarlet is inspired by summers spent along East Coast from Martha’s Vineyard to Cape Cod.

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

On Mother’s Day last year, California was experiencing the height of the pandemic. Because dining out was prohibited at the time, we decided to offer a special prix-fixe menu AND our regular menu for takeout. We’d never done takeout before and were drastically unprepared. We were hit HARD with orders — and all at once. At one point, we had about 40 people inside the restaurant trying to socially distance as they waited for their orders. It was a disaster, but most of the people were understanding, given the circumstances. We gave everyone a free round of drinks to enjoy as they waited.

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?

We were only open for 3 months before we were forced to close our doors due to statewide COVID-19 mandates. In California, the shutdown happened on St. Patrick’s Day. We were expecting a big turnout and had just placed huge orders with our purveyors for food and drinks — none of which we were able to sell. Having opened just a few months before, we were just gaining our momentum, getting into our groove, and establishing ourselves in the community. However, we persevered and found unique ways to continue operating and serving our community.

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

My goal is to illicit an emotion in our guests. Whether it’s creating a space for people to make memories or to evoke a sense of nostalgia. I want my restaurant and our dishes to be able to transport people to a place they’ve never been or one that’s familiar yet distant — whether it be a slice of home or an inspiration to travel.

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

I love a perfectly-cooked grass-fed filet or a beautifully marbled ribeye paired with a full-bodied cab. My guilty pleasure is Opus One.

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

I find inspiration all around me. It could be anything from music to nature to life’s little nuances and experiences. Much of the inspiration for the menu at Scarlet comes from heirloom family recipes and nostalgic dishes that remind me of growing up on the East Coast. Music reinvigorates me when I need a boost of creativity.

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

We’re looking into bottling and packaging some of our signature sauces and dressings. This is a big undertaking, but it’s been a long-term goal of mine and many of our customers have been asking about it. I’m really proud of our sauces and dressings, and I am so excited to bring them to the masses!

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

Find the right people to work with you so you can take time off and recharge. If you take time to train your team and treat them well, your restaurant will run like a well-oiled machine.

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” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Don’t expect to get it right the first time. During our Friends and Family soft opening, we bit off more than we could chew. I’m so grateful we chose to do that, because it made me realize we needed more practice before we opened to the public. When opening a new restaurant or even introducing a new menu, it’s essential to work out the kinks beforehand.

2. Expect the unexpected It’s important to get all your ducks in a row and systems in place so you’re ready for anything. Trust me — anything that can happen, will happen.

3. Nurture the people that work for you. Invest in your staff and they will invest in you.

4. You earn respect by giving respect. This may be the Golden Rule, but unfortunately it can be a rarity in kitchens. Everyone from front-of-house hostesses to back-of-house dishwashers play an essential and integral role in the restaurant.

5. Have fun! We work in one of the most difficult and intricate industries. There’s so much happening at once from managing costs of goods to customer experience, If you don’t have fun and connect with guests and staff, it’s easy to get burned out. It’s important to enjoy the journey and laugh a lot along the way.

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

Liquid Gold — this is 100-year-old family heirloom recipe for pork-and-lamb ragu and pappardelle. My husband’s grandfather was a founder in the CIA in the late 1940s. At the time, he and his wife were stationed in Cairo, Egypt, where they had an Italian chef who lived with them. She was from Florence, Italy and this is her recipe. It’s a Riordan family recipe that’s been passed down from generation to generation ever since.

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.

I am an advocate for mental health awareness — especially in the culinary industry. The restaurant business is grueling. Chefs and kitchen staff work 70–80 hours a week. But there’s stigma and fear surrounding mental health concerns like burnout, anxiety, and depression. I’m working to bring light to this by inviting open conversation and acceptance surrounding the mental and emotional struggles people in the culinary industry face.

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

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