“Losing three fingers in an industrial Cuisinart was the last thing I thought would happen to me,” Chef Lisa Stalvey told Modern Restaurant Management magazine for our “Talking With:” series. “Being 24 and thinking I was immortal and nothing would ever happen to me was devastating psychologically. It took a long, long time to process.” Stalvey’s healing process is recounted in “Food, Sex, Wine and Cigars: A Memoir.” Her 38-year career in the culinary industry includes a 1980 apprenticeship with Wolfgang Puck that led to becoming his head chef at Spago, Sunset and working as a line cook at Ma Maison. She currently owns and operates two catering businesses, Malibu Catering and The Malibu Chef.
Why did you choose a career in the food industry or why do you feel the industry chose you?
I didn’t choose – it definitely chose me. I cooked at home with my mother when I was young, and in my teens I actually took over the shopping and cooking for four people on a very low budget. I wanted to be an artist and tried acting, too. I started as a waitress to earn money while in art school, then fell in love with the head cook. One day, I asked him to make an omelet for me. He told me to make it myself. He couldn’t believe how natural I was at cooking and told me I needed to be in the kitchen.
I was also in acting school and when I graduated, I was immediately offered an audition for a movie. Elated, we went to lunch at Yamamoto’s but I was introduced to the casting couch, which I didn’t take. Depressed, I went shopping like I did when I was disappointed. I drove into a parking lot I thought was a dress shop and it turned out to be the most famous restaurant in Hollywood, Ma Maison. I didn’t know who Wolfgang Puck was, or the magnitude of the restaurant, but I was offered a job and took it. I knew then I was meant to be a chef.
Why did you go back and forth and pursue other career avenues?
I pursued acting because I thought someday I might have a cooking show, and to be honest, it was an ego thing and something most of us tried to do living in Los Angeles. Art school was truly the avenue I chose because I loved painting, sculpting and also studied music. I come from a very artistic family. My progression into cooking made sense to me as I could ‘paint’ on plates and gets paid to do it, too. Being an artist required money and a lifestyle that wasn’t attractive to me. I did try to leave the restaurant business several times, but it kept coming after me.
Why do you feel so many mentors in the industry found you?
Today I know why, but back then I thought it was because women were in demand because open kitchens were popping up everywhere. When I was head chef at Spago, I believe I was one of the few women back then leading a kitchen of this caliber. Arrogant as this sounds, I didn’t think it was a big deal that I was in this position, but it bit me in the butt to think like that. It was huge deal that I was Wolfgang’s head chef and only seven years into my career. Today, I know my career was a gift from God. As I said before, I tried to leave it several times to do something else, but He had other plans.
What did they see in you that maybe you didn’t see in yourself?
I don’t know! I was very insecure, bullheaded, competitive and anorexic. Ironic as that is, I was. I was also given lots of freedom of creativity all the time I was unaware I was making my co-worker’s jealous. I was so naive, but I must have been more confident than I realized or I wouldn’t have landed work in so many amazing restaurants.
How does working in a restaurant compare with running a catering company?
They are both difficult, yet exciting. In the restaurant business products are delivered to you, which makes life very easy. In catering we’ve got to go out and buy everything making the work a bit harder. It’s kept me in shape lugging all these groceries up countless stairs over the last 15 years, which is a bonus.
My progression into cooking made sense to me as I could ‘paint’ on plates and gets paid to do it, too.
I miss the nightly rush of cooking in the restaurant though. I compare it to like being on the firing line in a war, it’s challenging and exhilarating. Working in an open kitchen makes it more exciting. Watching the customers while eating brought me joy because they always looked happy and satisfied. Catering is like bursts of excitement, just not as consistent.
Which do you prefer?
It’s hard to say. I’ve thought about getting back into the restaurant business, but on a different scale. We’ve started a new company called Butter Barn Butter. It’s grass-fed, organic or all natural and non-GMO flavored butters. I would love to open a store that sells them, making fresh butters daily and offering warm artesian breads, and having a coffee bar that would use our flavored ‘Bullet Butter’ for flavoring. Some day maybe, but I think I prefer catering. I can choose when I want to work or not. It definitely gives me more freedom to write and create new ideas.
You’ve dabbled in many aspects of the food industry—what roles particularly challenged you?
I think most of it was relatively easy for me, but I never truly understood how food cost worked. I was so much more interested in creating and physically cooking that I never took the time to get it. I was fortunate to have people do it for me though. I am dyslexic so it made it a real challenge. I created a system of my own which seemed to be sufficient.
Why did you write a memoir and what was that process like?
My memoir was originally supposed to be a cookbook while I was executive chef at Bambu, Malibu. The format was simple- create a recipe, add a pairing of wine with it and offer a cigar to smoke afterwards. Cigar smoking was a huge in the ‘90s. Twenty years later in 2012, I came to God. It was quite the high. I’d never felt that good in all my life. Things weren’t working the way I was as a person anymore and needed a change and He was it! Then, I found my book when switching my files to a new computer and it hit me like a ton of bricks. This was meant to be my story. I literally sat down and threw it all up in a month, loaded with dyslexic writing. I was all over the place. After trying to fix my 500 pages of work for a year, I realized I needed help and hired a coach who helped me restructure my memoir without changing my style. That took almost nine months. The whole process was amazing and I was surprised it took only a month to get a publisher.
How does writing compare to cooking?
They both feel good to me although not quite the same. I love cooking, as it’s physical. I’m not a desk person at all. It’s all an instant gratification thing. Writing requires lots of sitting and rewriting, far from instant gratification. Cooking takes one-sixteenth the time to prepare, cook and serve compared to writing which takes months, even years to finish a book.
What are issues challenging the restaurant industry today?
The rising liability insurance, the workman’s compensation insurance, the quarterly taxes, the food cost, the impending rise in minimum wage, the square footage and other things today that make it almost impossible to make a living, yet stay open. It shouldn’t be this way.
What would you say are some high points of your career so far?
The top are being the head chef at Spago in 1986, writing my memoir, cooking for Prince, The Artist, cooking for Benjamin Netanyahu and running the most successful restaurant in Malibu in 1993. After that starting our butter company, conquering my disease, creating two products and two cookbooks for Newman’s Own in 1999 and being allowed to do what I love to do and make a living at it. I love it all. God is in charge and He always makes room for all He wants me to do. I’m learning daily to go with the flow and be the best God wants me to be. I am blessed and grateful for my life because I’ve done what I wanted to do and look forward to more of the same. There’s nothing more rewarding.