Off the Floor Episode 2: Cooking with Chef Lizette
What is a process anyway?
Sure, it's a sequence of events that lead to a greater result, but what is it that turns a process into a recipe? While a process includes the trials and errors, a recipe is predicated on one thing: Success.
Lizette Lopez, also known as Chef Lizette, has cooked dishes for some of the most distinguished people on Earth, but her recipe for the learning process is rooted in wisdom, paired with perspective, and served with an extra helping of heart.
Click the link below to listen to her interview.
CL: Chris Lynam
LL: Chef Lizette Lopez
CL: How’d you get involved in the culinary world?
LL: It literally started every Sunday when I was a kid. These big family dinners - 20 people around a table at my grandmother’s house. When I look back that was the catalyst, it really was. It really excited and resonated with me. Also my mother and grandmother are the best cooks I know.
I mean when you talk about passion, and I’m sure you understand this as a dancer; it requires passion, real vigor, and conviction to follow these kinds of industries. Something magical has to resonate. It can’t be practical, it can’t be the money part, it just has to come out of real love. So when I thought about what I saw as a young child and what I really loved - it all started with those family dinners.
And then I fell in with Julia Child: I was obsessed with her, I watched her on PBS, everything. Later she became my real-life mentor and completely changed my life.
CL: Wait, wow. The actual Julia Child?
LL: Yep! The actual Julia Child. I was obsessed, and, if you know me at all, you know that when I’m obsessed I go after what I want. I feel like that’s something that could resonate with anyone making anything happen. I don’t believe that there’s anyone on this planet that you can’t reach, that you can’t connect to, that you can’t build a relationship with. The only things that matter are how badly you want it and how creative and tenacious you can be.
CL: Did you grow up in New York?
LL: I was actually born in Mexico City, but I only lived there the first five years of my life and then we moved in San Diego. So California really has been my primary home. I built my career and my entire life there. I’ve only been in New York for four years now.
CL: Okay, got it. What’s the transition been like for you?
LL: There are so many parallels between New York and LA, but the energy is very different. I’ve always kind of known that instinctively. New York is a really majestic city. The minute you get out of the train station it’s a totally different energy. It’s electrifying. I’ve always wanted to live in New York. Forever.
CL: When it comes to Julia Child, how did you reach out to her? I’m sure it wasn’t over Twitter or something like that.
LL: (laughs) Well listen, there were cell phones, there was no internet, none of that.
CL: Did you write her a letter?
LL: Actually, I knew that she was on the board of the AIWF (The American Institute of Wine and Food), and so I became a member and then a chef. She would have her book signings and wine tasting dinner events, that type of thing. She lived on the East Coast but I knew that whenever she was going to come to the West Coast I was gonna go to that event. That was how you communicated: if you wanted to connect with your influencers, you just had to stalk them! (laughs) In the most respectful way of course.
CL: (laughs) Absolutely, so what was the turning point in that dynamic?
LL: Well, she saw me a lot. I went to any event I could afford. Cause at that point I was just starting out, still super early in my career, so for even $100 tasting event I had to have like 4 to 5 jobs. That was just manage a decent living, so to go to an event that cost $100 was a huge deal. I just saved my pennies, and little by little I got up to the courage to finally ask her at one of her book signings: “Could you give me some advice as a woman, as a person, going into the culinary world? What can I expect?” She literally gave the best advice ever, I’ve showered this over the internet for years now, she said “Be humble, and always keep learning.” Just those two things. It was the perfect recipe for me.
For me, the “be humble” part has taken years, cause y’know that’s more internal and concerns who you are as a human being, but the “always keep learning” always pushes me to never stay comfortable. Even now with years of experience I still push the envelope of what I could be doing next, what I could be learning, and what I could be sharing. It’s literally the best advice for any human being. To never really rest on your laurels. It’s great to feel accomplished and confident, especially if you’ve earned it, but I really believe in the power of constantly pushing yourself. So year after year, day after day, if you work with that compass, good things happen.
I’ve been following Gary Vaynerchuk too and it’s so heartwarming too to see the younger generation be a sponge to what he’s saying. They just keeping younger and younger: now he’s got like 12-year-olds, 9-year-olds, that are entrepreneurs, right? We can all have that opportunity to say the right to the right person at that right time.
CL: So when you’re really pushing yourself, do you give yourself like a work order? Like “I’m gonna make 10 new recipes” or anything like that?
LL: No, not at all. First of all I’m a private chef, so that’s my full-time job and so it consumes part of my day. I just always find pockets of when I have down time and use them to tweak something or reply to someone and things like that. So it’s something that I’m always strategizing. I think “where do I want to take this?” and “where do I want to position my personal brand?” And I’m always trying to engage. I’ll try and engage someone at say, 1 o'clock in the morning cause that’s when I have to do it.
And if you’re really trying to extend yourself, trying to develop a personal brand as a chef or as dancer or as anyone, you have to love that. There’s no way that you could put in as many hours as I do if you don’t absolutely love it. It can’t be that your compass is money, cause that’s always short lived. Because when you don’t see the dollars come in as quickly as you like you give up, you lose steam. I find so many people, even Gary’s audience, asking things like “How do not burn out?” It might be cliche, but it goes beyond passion: it speaks to your DNA, it speaks to your work ethic. I think the greatest gift my parents gave me was teaching me through their actions of what real work ethic looks like. Boy does that carry you far, even beyond passion, cause that tends to fizzle out a little bit. For sure at times in my career I have not been as in love with cooking. Because it’s physically grueling, and I would imagine it’s the same for your dancers. Sometimes it’s just that work ethic that enables you to do 20 minutes more, or another hour, or whatever the case may be.
CL: Is there something that reinvigorates you during times like that? For you is it like stepping away from food or a dish you cook or what is your spark usually?
LL: Well on the weekends, when I’m off, well I’m never off, but during those times I won’t cook for myself. I’ll go out to eat. I need to literally not have a pot or a pan in my hand, to not even be close to a grocery store. The grocery store’s basically my office.
What’s interesting is that when I was in the event world in LA - doing these super nice events, even The Oscars - it’s actually extraordinary. I have to step back, and I think to myself “Gosh Lizette, you’ve been to events that other people only dream of.” I’ve done more than 500 weddings, so I’m not someone, in their personal life, who’s gone to a lot of weddings. I haven’t gone to a lot of events, ‘cause I’ve lived them. That’s been my office.
CL: Yeah, and I was looking at your website and I saw that you’ve cooked 5 presidents, and Lady Gaga, so tell me about that. Cause for a lot of people there’s that first big leap outside their comfort zone, and so there was an event that you remember as the biggest departure from your comfort zone?
LL: Right after culinary school I got this really nice job, which was almost like my real school, at the Ritz Carlton in Marina Del Rey. It really culled every celebrity, and every athlete - they even had a contract with the NBA so anyone who played the Lakers would stay there. So I had this immediate access to every person you can imagine: from artists to musicians to athletes. And for some reason it was never nerve-wracking to be around famous people. I’ve never really struggled with that.
The one event that was truly awe-inspiring, and this was at an event-catering company that I worked at after the Ritz, was actually the Golden Globes, or one of those award shows. We fed 1600 people, and it was almost military-style. Literally in 20 minutes we fed all of these 1600 people. So the operations of that, the logistics of that, 100s of servers, in a really high-end place, was so fascinating to me. I was so flattered and awe-struck to have this amazing exposure to this perfect event. Aside from the Golden Globes and the red carpet it was the amazing feat of what it takes to feed 1600 people in under 20 minutes. That was fascinating to me.
CL: What an amazing start from you, right out of culinary school.
LL: Even in culinary school I had Julia Child. It wasn’t like I called her on the phone and we hung out or anything like that, but she recognized me. And as a Mexican-American woman, and I don’t know how the dance world handles this, to navigate the kitchens, especially in the 90’s was challenging. Let’s just face facts: the culinary world is still very male-dominated and to navigate that really hard environment so early on - basically you’re a tough cookie or you’re not gonna survive.
Then going into being a private chef for the most affluent people in the world, and now not just dealing with sexism but also racism and classism - I feel like how I’ve dealt with every “ism” is probably one of the things I’m most proud of myself for because it has not been easy by any stretch of the imagination.
Talent is the thing that ultimately speaks. It crosses sex, race, and even age. Now there’s so many young people wanting to get into entrepreneurship who deal with not being taken seriously, and that has to be hard. I think how you navigate as a human being through the adversities of your career, they’re gonna happen, is the ultimate reach of a person. Look at “success” - even though that’s so subjective, and there’s so many variables there - I feel like if you can be the most proud of yourself, of you’ve treated people, and of your career, that’s success.
I’ve been around the biggest names you can imagine, Steve Jobs, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, these big change-agents, and the thing I study the most is, when they think no one is watching, how they treat the average person; that’s what matters.
CL: Having cooked for so many of those people, are there any still on your “list” so to speak? People you’d really want to cook for?
LL: Great question, let me think. I think you might’ve stumped me!
I’ll tell you something: with Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, people on that level, and I mean that energetically - true givers of the world, when you have been in the presence of servants of the people the energy of the room changes. It’s electrifying. Everyone wants to be a better human being in that moment. To be in that moment is breathtaking. My heart is racing right now just talking about it. And they can be totally flawed human beings for sure, but when your compass is to be your best every day and you’ve done that decade after decade and your true calling is to be available to people it’s truly awe-inspiring.
But honestly the person I would adore cooking for is Gary Vaynerchuk's parents. He’s been such a mentor and such a great presence in my life and I’ve cooked for him 100s of times. I’ve been around them before, but to be able to thank them, the real givers of great things, that would be amazing.
CL: That’s really great.
Alright time for some rapid-fire questions! What would you say is your personal comfort food?
LL: My mom’s cooking. Anything she’s making.
CL: What is your last movie that you saw that made you really emotional?
LL: Y’know what made me emotional cause it made me laugh was that sausage movie. It was the most inappropriate, laugh-out-loud movie I’ve seen in a long time. I had no idea initially, ‘cause as a chef I go to see pretty much any food movie. It was so amazing.
CL: We have an event in New York coming up. So for our audience who might be attending, could you give some recommendations for good dining experiences right in Manhattan?
LL: It’s gonna be weird for me cause at this point when I go to a restaurant it’s not about the food, it’s about the service. So Sadelle's in Soho is a great breakfast place, and then Russ and Daughters which is more like a diner, but I’m telling you these because I don’t recommend anything that doesn’t have the combination of both great food and great service. I won’t recommend a place where the food was phenomenal but the service was lousy, I just won’t. It’s unfortunate because I have this passion for chefs, but when a restaurant doesn’t think about service they lose me.
To me when any restaurant, from a taco truck to fine dining, when they can make you feel like it’s an extension of your home, that’s what matters. I’m Mexican and that’s what is at my core and when you go to my country that’s how they make you feel: welcome in their home. The best restaurants know how to do that, welcome you into their home.
CL: Do you have any moments in your history that connect to dancing? If you could go back to any moment as a fantastic dancer, what would that moment be?
LL: Chris, what you don’t know about me, is that I’ve always been an extraordinary dancer. Going to back to high school, even elementary school, I was the first one out there. I wouldn’t wait. I’ve always had the moves, my friend.
CL: What would you want to say to all these people who have all the right character, and all the right ambition, who may have lost their way a little? Why should they stick with the process that they’re in?
LL: Julia Child gave me the most important thing with “be humble, keep learning” but I want to add my own 2 cents so I’ll add the third piece to that, which is to be kind to yourself. Be kind to the process. Be kind to where you are. When I say that to you, I say it to myself. As a creative, it all comes out from inside and sometimes it won’t come out. Sometimes you don’t have it or you lose that magic, and you have to be kind to yourself because it will come back. If you have the tenacity to stick with it, being kind to yourself will allow you to push yourself forward that one more day to get you through.
CL: Do you have anything in the works right now you want people to be aware of?
LL: I’m actually going to be doing a cooking show! And there’s so many things. So what I really want is for everyone to follow me on Instagram cause that is the place where I’m going to be sharing everything I’m doing. One post at a time.
Anything worth pursuing, whether it's cooking, ballroom dancing, or writing the next great American novel will have its share of challenges. It's what we do with these challenges, how we look at them, and the adjustments we make, that determine the eventual outcome, and reveal the true makeup of your character.
Chef Lizette embodies this in every way.
Whether it is the "problem" of connecting with her eventual mentor, the "problem" of cooking for over a thousand people, or just the "problems" experienced in creating her personal brand - she has turned each of those into opportunities, stairs up the process staircase toward her goals.
So whether you're a fantastic chef like Lizette, or you burnt toast is the best you can do for breakfast, we can all relate with her story of how she sees problems, how to continue in spite of them, and how to stay positive and kind to yourself through it all.
To follow more of what Chef Lizette is doing, visit her website www.cheflizette.com or you can find her, at all hours, on Twitter and Instagram at: @ChefLizette1
To follow more of the Off The Floor podcast, follow the link https://soundcloud.com/off-the-floor-podcast and stay tuned for more updates.
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