You'll find this article in the June 2017 Issue of the Arizona Foodie Magazine. Want a subscription, so that you'll be the first to get the next issue coming out Sept. 1st? Go here: Arizona Foodie Magazine Subscription
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Photography by Chanelle Sinclair
I can’t help but feel excited as I drive up the single lane road into Sedona. Perhaps it’s the majestic scenery, or maybe the positive energy from the vortexes. I remind myself that it’s a short 2 hour drive from Phoenix and I’ll have to make a trip back. However, today the scenic hikes and the energy readings are not the reason for my visit.
I’m here to talk with Chef Lisa Dahl. Her restaurants are top rated, and we’ll be dining at Mariposa, her most talked about restaurant. I’ve been eager to taste the Sedona food scene, but the true beauty I find is Chef Dahl’s compelling story.
As I drive into the parking area, the stunning red rocks give me a warm welcome. The restaurant stands alone like a trophy displayed among sprawling views of the massive mountains. It’s peaceful, it’s breathtaking, and it’s a reminder of how amazing our world is.
I love Mariposa’s large covered patio. Its screens open wide to give guests the perfect view during their meal. I sit myself in the corner booth and waited for Chef Dahl to arrive. Within a few minutes, I see her walking towards me in her chefs coat, and she waves for me to move to the back table. She wants to be closer to the kitchen in case she’s needed.
It’s lunchtime and guests start to filter into the restaurant. Before I know it, the place is packed. We escape into the kitchen, and she asks about my vision for the article’s pictures. I can tell she’s meticulous like a great chef needs to be, so I gently suggest we wait until the photographer gets here. Besides, I’m anxious to get started with the interview.
We sit back down at the large high-topped table, and our server pours us water. I’m not sure what to expect from this renowned Chef, but I can tell by the way her staff acts around her, and by the way she talks to them that she is highly respected and cared for. I can also see that she is a strong woman and deserving of her success. She knows what she wants, she’s self-taught in the kitchen, and she’s driven by a powerful story to spread love.
I ask her about her experience in the fashion industry as a child.
“I grew up in the clothing business,” she says. “I was always in fashion. I look back at my clothing career, and when I was 1, my mother would change my outfits five times a day. That stuck with me throughout the years.”
“And what are your fashion rules today?” I ask.
“My shtick is to be grubby by day and dress and express at night. My mom was my biggest influence. I was born in that retail atmosphere. In fact, just two weeks after my birth, she went back to work. I was toted around everywhere. Even as I got older, I was always into hospitality and loved helping people dress and find their right look. That was my whole career.”
I’m fascinated by her fashion background and urge her to continue. She talks quickly about her fashion career and moving from Indianapolis to the Bay area.
“I started working in boutiques and became a rep for clothing manufacturers. I even helped design accessories. For the last ten years that I was in fashion, I moved into footwear. I co-designed footwear out of Spain. I got to travel to all the fashion shows, and I was at the height of fashion.” She paused and smiled. “But I also adored food. That was always my dream, to have a restaurant.”
Chef Dahl’s expression glows as she brings up her son in conversation.
“I had my son, Justin, during this time. It was hard because I traveled too much and didn’t get to spend enough time with him. I was a single mom and a very young mom. I had him when I was 17, and I was a child raising a child. We learned as we went. Being a mom is hard, and back then the world was not as dangerous, I didn’t think.”
Her demeanor changes and she looks out towards the mountains.
“I always say, when that happened to Justin, that was the end of my innocence. I’ll never forget that song, I think it was by the Eagles, The End of Innocence. That was definitely when my world shattered.”
I didn’t want to pry. I can’t imagine how painful it still is for her to tell this story, but Lisa continues.
“He was being a good Samaritan. He just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He intervened in a street robbery that was taking place. He thought someone was taking a backpack from someone else. It was really a horrible diversion of sorts. It wasn’t just something that Justin thought looked really dangerous to this other person. He met up with the wrong guy, and you know, he didn’t make it through.” She looks down. “It was horrible.”
My eyes well up with tears as she speaks. The thought of losing your son at the young age of 17, or any age, is an unbearable thought.
Chef Dahl takes a drink of her water. “I just felt that I couldn’t stay in that area anymore because we had grown up there together. You know, we moved from Indianapolis when he was in first grade. He went to first grade all the way through high school in Marin County, and everything was too much of a reminder.”
I sat silently, not wanting to interrupt. I listened to Lisa and sensed her feelings in her words.
“I just felt like it was time to start over. I was traveling in my footwear business, and it was impossible to continue to do what I was doing when I moved here to Sedona. I was trying to gather myself and fly out to see clients. I felt like a fish out of water.”
In the hall, on the way to the bathroom, you’ll see two paintings side by side. A mother and her son. It’s a constant reminder of why she’s doing what she’s doing and that he’s always there with her.
“After a year, my boyfriend and partner at the time found a location here in Sedona for the original restaurant, Dahl and DeLuca. I made a dedication to Justin, as I do in each of my restaurants. They all have a sense of purpose, and in some of them, you can feel an energy. Like in Dahl and DeLuca. People can really feel the presence of angels.”
She pauses to fill up her water cup.
“I feel Justin brought me here. Everything I’ve done more or less led up to this location, even without going after anything. That’s why I named this restaurant butterfly in Spanish. Mariposa, it’s about transformation and its meaning is very purposeful.”
“I moved within a year from the Bay area to Sedona, in December of ‘95. I felt like I couldn’t go through the motions. It was just too sad being in all those places and being where it happened. I don’t remember more than just really wanting an answer on where I could go to feel comfortable and to begin to go through the healing process. I’d been to Sedona once before, but I never envisioned Arizona as a place that I would live. Sedona is different though, and it is very healing.”
She scans the filled patio as if surveying the guests to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves.
“Even though I have a hectic lifestyle, I do feel that this place is such a reminder that there’s a higher purpose to life, and to everything, and we’re not really in control.”
Dahl points towards the red rocks. “Those mountains are your reminder that we are small. It’s such a special place, and I did spend a lot of time getting to know the area. I never came here thinking that I was going to open a restaurant. That wasn’t part of the agenda. I did love to cook, but the idea unfolded after about a year.”
I asked her if it was like an unsettling feeling inside her or more like a nagging voice telling her she should open a restaurant and begin to cook for others.
“I was so raw,” Chef Dahl answered. “I don’t even think I consciously knew what I was doing in most respects. I was simply putting one foot in front of the other and trying to keep my head above water. Until I found my house here, I was just going through the motions. I only realize now how long it truly takes, I mean you never heal, but it takes on so many layers.”
She’s trying to find the words to describe what she went through but I can tell she’s struggling. In reality, is there any way to explain that kind of loss to someone who has never experienced it?
“I just recently uncovered a huge box of memorabilia that was in my garage. I couldn’t believe the earlier days as I went through the paper articles and all the things. I still couldn’t believe what had happened, how it affected me, and how I got through all of those things. It’s kind of a wonder.”
She smiles and her voice takes on a positive tone. “Thanks to Sedona. I believe I made the right move. I miss his friends, but I think this was definitely planned on some universal level. I think it was meant to be that I would continue to touch lives through being his mom and through honoring his memory because it’s a healing process for others too. That’s what I find so poignant and cathartic, so many people who have also lost children or a loved one - they come here hoping to get some kind of comfort. I end up meeting them and it always, for me, makes my tragedy come alive again, but then if I can be of some support, it’s a pretty amazing thing.”
She pauses and wipes the condensation from her glass. “We have so many people coming from all over the world. I was thinking about it the other day, how I’ve met millions of people. We get over 300,000 guests a year, and I get out there and talk to the guests and listen to their stories. It goes on and on. I think about those numbers, and it’s overwhelming to think about the magnitude. Justin and I have created a little bit of magic here.”
I agree with Chef Dahl. She has created something magical and inspiring. I ask about her first kitchen experience.
“I always say, I was a very good amateur cook. I use to be the one that everyone would call to cater a party.” She laughs. “I catered my own wedding. I catered everyone’s parties. I had a great mother chef, grandmother chef and probably my biggest influence was my nanny. She was from Georgia, and she taught me how to cook soul food. Now I cook Italian and Latin soul food. It’s no different. It’s the same approach. We keep our cooking very simple and very natural. I used to cook a lot as a teenager, and I always thought that Justin and I would have a restaurant together.”
Chef Dahl starts to talk about one of her longer relationships. The same man that moved to Sedona with her from the Bay area.
“I started to cook with Andrea. He’s a professional Italian Chef, a fabulous chef, but quite a dramatic character to say the least. He was the typical Italian from Rome, bad boy, with lots of emotion, macho but with a heart of gold. The one thing about him is that he had a magical touch with his sauté style. To this day, we use the same delicate approach to our sauté dishes. It’s a fast sauté, without overdoing things.” I can feel her excitement as she tells me about her early days in the kitchen.
“Back then, I was a sous chef, and I taught myself how to be one by just doing what I did at home. The restaurant was a small 100 seat restaurant, and I held my own with Andrea in the kitchen. When we started, I only had one other woman in the kitchen with me at Dahl and DeLuca. I taught her how to cook.”
“My partner would take all the credit, but he remembered to boost my confidence, and we both knew I was a darn good cook. He would tell me that the sauce I made was better than his Sous Chef in California. However, when it comes to how the world views a women Chef and a man, I was doing all the work, and he was getting all the glory. I was in the back working my ass off day after day, answering the phone, taking the reservations, stirring my sauce and calling the purveyors. I couldn’t let anybody understand what was really going on because I was afraid that we could lose our restaurant.”
“When I wrote my first book, my father had just passed away, and I was heart sick. One day I just wanted to write and cleanse my soul. I had planned to go to Tuscany, and it was my hope that the travel would prepare me to write. The minute I got on the plane, I had a notebook in hand, and I started to purge my heart. I let go of the partnership with Andrea. I had to finally find my own identity. I had to be who I am. I had to have my own voice.”
A server delivers several dishes to the table next to us. She pauses and looks at what they are served. She pardons herself and goes to speak with them. When she returns, she tells me she was checking to make sure that the dishes were how they wanted it.
She continues. “When I finally said, it’s time to write my book, it wasn’t to air my grievances, it was just to say what I do here. I wrote it from the foundations of what makes a gourmet restaurant. I was also sharing what makes me tick, what I think about, and the passion of cooking for healing purposes.”
Her expression glows as she talks about her experiences with guests and how much of a connection she feels Justin has to it all.
“I feel like what is drawing people to us is that they can taste the love that is in the food. When people come up to me in any of the restaurants, they tell me that they can feel the intention and love through the food they’re eating. It’s a huge commitment because the only way you can retain that through all the restaurants is to exemplify that everything you do counts. You must be mindful of each aspect.”