Lisa Dahl didn’t set out to become a chef or a restaurateur. She wanted to fulfil the dining experience.
She does so through the Wine Spectator award-winning Sedona restaurants Dahl & Di Luca Ristorante Italiano, Cucina Rustica, Pisa Lisa and Mariposa Latin Inspired Grill, which bring in about 400,000 guests annually.
“I try to design a package that fulfills the dining experience and I do that in a fast-casual pizzeria and with what is considered the finest dining establishment in Sedona,” she says.
Recently, Dahl was honored as the first recipient of the Best Chefs of America Hall of Fame Award by National Elite, an invitation-only, membership-based culinary organization that supports the best restaurants, chefs and restaurateurs across the country.
“I feel this particular recognition saw the intricacies of what (being a restaurateur) entails in a different way than, say, a James Beard Award, which everybody and their brother and sister would love to have, including myself,” she says.
“This recognition made me realize all the more that wearing all of these hats is a no small feat.”
The 2019 awards nomination process was open to the public and winners were chosen by a panel of industry influencers comprised of established food critics and tasting judges, organized by National Elite.
“This year, we considered a number of legendary restaurants, top chefs and renowned restaurateurs that are among the best in the culinary industry and Chef Dahl stood out to us above the others as we feel she truly embodies the next level of excellence our organization stands for,” says Jack Tien, CEO of National Elite.
Dahl grew up in the Bloomington, Indiana, countryside and moved to the Bay Area when she was in her 20s to chase her “hippie life.”
“I lived there and worked in the fashion business,” she says. “I think a lot of my more refined cooking aspirations were heeded there.”
Her only child, Justin Wesley Jones, 23, was killed when he tried to break up a robbery in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district on March 27, 1994. The killer was convicted of second-degree murder. Soon after his death, she packed her belongings and relocated to Sedona.
“Sedona was a place that was known for healing,” she says. “I thought it would be something I could try. I got to know people and took a lot of time to myself. I took hikes and felt the healing properties of nature.”
A year later, Dahl decided to be a restaurateur with Dahl & Di Luca Ristorante Italiano. Dahl introduced fine dining to Sedona more than 20 years ago and has since expanded to become the largest restaurant group in the area. Dahl also plans to open two new restaurants, Butterfly Burger, a “couture burger lounge” in September, and a second Pisa Lisa location.
“That was my passion and my survival at the time,” she says.
Dahl and her restaurants have since been featured on The Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay”, Travel + Leisure, Forbes.com, Thrillist.com, USA Today, The New York Times, Wine Spectator, Travel Channel’s “Food Paradise,” Huffington Post, MSN.com and Marie Claire. Dahl is also best-selling cookbook author with “The Elixir of Life” in circulation worldwide and a new book in the works.
“Tapas or antipasti are my favorite parts of dining because in all of our restaurants, those are to be shared,” Dahl says. “I think the dining experience is about the layering of flavors and textures and colors.
“I really roll out the red carpet on these categories so people can linger and enjoy more of the full dining experience. My goal is for my guests to come back. I was recognized because each of these four restaurants is experiential in a different way.”
At her Italian restaurants, Dahl is known for her Mother Sauce, which is actually her mother’s sauce.
“It’s a kick-ass marinara that can go with all kinds of different dishes,” she says. “It’s what you will crave if you love a very bold but gentle at the same time marinara. You will fall in love with that sauce. Whether it’s a parmesan dish like eggplant parmesan or lasagna, that is the foundation that sets us apart from others.”
Dahl’s restaurants are known for their delicate veal dishes and seafood combinations that no one expects in a small town like Sedona, she says.
“I’ve seen it over and over,” Dahl says. “People from New York or Chicago want to speak to me or give me a compliment. They can’t believe they find restaurants this refined and delicate and classy in every way in a town that is away from a metropolitan area.”
She’s hoping for the same response to Butterfly Burger.
“I’m so excited about that. I’m like a little kid,” Dahl says. “If you’ve experienced our burgers in the past at Mariposa or at the burger battles that I have been fortunate enough to attend, you’ll see it’s a cute and clever concept that is something different than a fast casual. It’s actually a couture burger lounge. Everybody is talking about it, to be quite honest.”
For each project, she looks to the memory of her son to get her through.
“Justin was a very unique person in that he was always the guy who gave hugs before anybody gave hugs,” she says. “he was a love child. WE called him the ‘golden boy.’ He’s the only person I have ever known who even though he is not still here physically on Earth, he is still in people’s hearts and minds.
“We use him as an inspiration and he’s with me all the time. We don’t call him ‘dead.’ We keep Justin right in our presence all the time. Other people who are experiencing loss will know if you keep them with you in this way, they’re still helping us. I believe he is actually my partner. I feel we co-designed the restaurants. I feel like, ‘Gosh, how did I just do that?’ I was guided.”
Dahl’s restaurants are different, but they have one thing in common: a mantra that she calls “corny.”
“It holds us together in some very special way: When you cook with love you feed the soul,” she says.
“That is the foundation of our belief systems. When I was able to just focus on cooking and making delicious foods, I brought joy to others. It helped me to forget for a period of time my own pain. We loved having our friends come to our parties and it was always the happiest times in our lives. You don’t see families dining together in the way we have in the past. It’s very upsetting.”
Dahl Restaurant Group
For more information, visit dahlrestaurantgroup.com.