Welcome to our new website!
March 24, 2022

Family Ties with Lela Cross from The Pacific NorthWest


Join us in this episode as we reach back to Chef Lela’s past and realize where her inner Chef comes from growing up in a big family. And how she developed a palate for tasting and cooking great cuisine. This passion led her down the path to become a Chef, Food and Beverage Director and Restauranteur. She mentored with Tom Douglas and catered for Robert Redford. 

Connect to Lela:  https://www.lelacross.com/

Connect to Voice4Chefs: https://www.voice4chefs.com/
Subscribe on Apple, Spotify and IheartRadio or wherever you listen.

Support the show (https://www.buymeacoffee.com/MichaelDugan)

Transcript

Michael Dugan:

Today on the show, I would like to introduce you to Lila Krause. She's a consultant and author, the restaurant tour and soon to be releasing a new cookbook. Mila, welcome to the show.

Lela Cross:

Hey, thank you, Michael. I'm excited to be here.

Michael Dugan:

I'm very excited to have you on the show. I can't wait to learn from you and learn about your journey becoming a chef.

Lela Cross:

Oh gosh, it's really interesting because you know, as we've spoken before, I just realized I'm I've been in this business for almost 40 years. So it's like trying to figure out like, which which parts to talk about, you know, there's so many different journeys so

Michael Dugan:

I have some great questions for you. And I thought I'd start out with just a beginning of your journey. What was it like growing up for you? And did you have any connection to food at an early age?

Lela Cross:

Oh, you know, when I was in Mexico, and I really thought about this podcast, I was on the beach and I just sort of let things come to me in the memory that I really just was really vivid was you know, probably I was five, six somewhere around there and just you know, tippy toeing at the edge of the table and watching my grandmother make tortillas from scratch. Just you know, going on and on about you know how you you know have to just be gentle and how you roll and you know, the amount of flour that you put on and then you know watching her make salmon cakes, and so just and just remembering the smell of like a slightly little burnt tortilla. But I come from a you know, a very traditional Spanish family. And really what was important was food gathering events, huge family. The great thing for me is like I was able to choose where I wanted to eat, we live next to our cousins and our aunts. So I didn't like what you know what my mom was cooking that day. I was I could pop over to my aunts to my grandmother had a choice of food.

Michael Dugan:

So it's incredible. So you had a lot of family around you. Yeah.

Lela Cross:

And food is huge. You know? It's it's a it's a language, it's a voice. It's color, you know, music, because, you know around the festivals and music and weddings and things like that. So food is it just is all of it for me growing up in that in that type of tradition, which I'm sure you know it just it's a language that crosses across the United States across the world. It's more than the gathering and the smells and the spices and

Michael Dugan:

I love that. I mean, you're painting a great picture for everyone who's listening and for me, it's really sounds like a great journey that you had.

Lela Cross:

More importantly, are you hungry at Michael? No.

Michael Dugan:

Oh my gosh, it's well right now while we're recording, it's actually dinnertime. So I always end up recording right around lunch, or dinner or breakfast, lunch or dinner and it's just funny talking about food and then my stomach to start corralling. So what was your favorite thing to eat when you were growing up? Was it the tortillas was it and where did you go and what

Lela Cross:

did you eat? Interestingly enough, my mom married my father and my father was black French and so we had a mixture of soul food you know the cornbread greens that you know the the ham hawks and so I had a really interesting dynamic as a child as far as foods and flavors and and culture. I loved you know the greens and like cornbread and but then on the other hand I also loved the chili and the tamales and the you know just even the roasting of the chilies you know when the harvest comes the smell you know the price in the air. Gosh, it's just hard to say I kind of love it all.

Michael Dugan:

It sounds like a great variety of food. Right? And I love how you can pick and choose that there was fights that you went to somebody's house and want to do to come to their house.

Lela Cross:

Oh, right. It's, yeah, it's interesting, but I can't really say that I can choose one over the other. We had two different food cultures in our homes, you know, and my mom just became an amazing cook. She eventually opened a tamale, you know, factory out of the garage. And then she was also a beautiful pastry chef, you know, so we work with chocolate and sponge sugar and things like that. So interesting background

Michael Dugan:

so as a child like as you were growing up, did you aspire to be a chef or what what did you want to be?

Lela Cross:

He went to school for pre law and ended up in at the university I you know, like every most people have to end up getting a job because you know, you want more money. So I ended up getting a job in a restaurant through a friend realizing like, Oh, I'm I'm kind of good at this, you know, I could be really fast. And then from there I met a gentleman who was a teacher at a technical school and the restaurant that I worked in he came by and was recruiting people to go to culinary school. It was kind of a side program for the CIA. So the Culinary Institute of America. And so I enrolled in the program. It was a two year program.

Michael Dugan:

Part of me. Where was it located?

Lela Cross:

I went to University of Las Cruces. Okay, from there. I just met this gentleman and then the restaurant that I worked in California. New York Yeah, they have the the the Napa Valley go. So from there, I ended up in the program and from there, you know, we had to work hours restaurant hours do testing did a lot of terrain as far as like competitions and things like that and then just ended up really loving it. That's what I that's the direction I ended up going in. I ended up getting a business you know, an economics degree in business and then I attended like two more years of culinary school decided to move back home, which is Santa Fe, New Mexico, worked in a hotel Lafonda Hotel, which is a historic hotel. I was there for 14 years and worked my way through up as a chef and then the food and beverage director and then from there, I moved to Washington. And ended up opening a restaurant here. There's a lot in there. I've met some amazing chefs along the way some mentors. When I first moved here, I worked with Tom Douglas a

Michael Dugan:

But now you mentored with Tom Douglas.

Lela Cross:

Yeah, you know, it's a very short stint. It was more on the business side of what to do when you open your own restaurant and what not to do the what to do.

Michael Dugan:

He's one of my idols. Actually.

Lela Cross:

He's solid. He's been so amazing and solid. In our food industry. It has opened the door for a lot of different situations.

Michael Dugan:

And what was the name of your restaurant?

Unknown:

Oh gosh, a couple when I was in Olympia, I had a little restaurant with two partners. It was called Capatalle. And then the second after I think we were there for probably about maybe 11 years and then the building had to fire from there. We had to move so we went down into a little bit more center of Olympia downtown. We opened a restaurant called Sella Blue. It's a great name. It meant several things to blue sky and you know, Italian or Spanish or whichever one you wanted to interpret. So it was a it was a fun little space. Oh gosh, we were there for about three years. Then we had the downturn of the economy. At that point. It was pretty hard. We struggled and eventually ended up having to close

Michael Dugan:

So for a lot of people, especially right now one of my favorite restaurants called the Moghul Palace in in Bellevue, Washington, which is north of you closed and they've been open for 22 years.

Lela Cross:

Yeah, it's an interesting we're in a place where you have to make those decisions, you know, you know, sometimes, you know, for at this point in time, it's like, a different. We've been forced to change our lives. Or lifestyle, to think differently to move differently. And you know, out of that comes new, you know, obviously, a lot of new restaurants and retailers and businesses will pop up, and unfortunately, a lot of other ones will will fade away.

Michael Dugan:

. That would be one of the questions I always ask the chef's is what what was a major fork in the road for you? And it sounds like closing down a restaurant would definitely be a major fork.

Lela Cross:

Major forks. Yeah, it's interesting because I somehow I end up with lots of different opportunities.

Michael Dugan:

I laugh because the reason I laugh is because chef Tracy, who was a wonderful person that I interviewed with and we've kept in touch, I would ask her that question. She goes, Oh, I have a whole set of cutlery. I just burst out laughing I thought it was really creative

Lela Cross:

cutlery. It's crazy, because that's what we you know, I mean, we collect it, but in all honesty, I still use the same knife that I had, like 10 years ago. Yeah, me too. It's like I have all this beautiful knives in front of me and I'm still using, you know, my $10 knife.

Michael Dugan:

Have you ever heard of Forschner that's a knife I started with and cooking school. wooden handle and I loved it and then I went up to the Heinkels and I didn't like the handle. I just love that wooden handle. It felt so comfortable my hand. Eventually when I got married, I think I got rid of it but

Lela Cross:

Your an old soul like.

Michael Dugan:

And proud of it. Okay, so as you progressed, what what was what was next in your career?

Lela Cross:

Oh gosh, I had a lot of opportunities. I've met some really amazing people what I think ended up to be really important to me probably about five or six years ago, was really creating partnerships with people and you know, just really getting to know our community. Giving back was really important to me. So many people had given to me along my journey that I felt like I really wanted to give back to people who worked for me who worked people in the community organizations. Definitely city of Olympia. Yeah, just a lot of I felt like it was my turn to. Not necessarily I've we've always been part of the community. But you know, I felt like it was time to not worry so much about success, but to focus more on building the community around us. I think that was a fork in the road for me. You know, my original dream was like oh, have three or four different restaurants and, and but then it just got more important to me that my community started to be more important, you know, building an empire at that point.

Michael Dugan:

Is there any one community project that stands out?

Lela Cross:

Um, you know, we do a lot for SafePlace hands on children. Sam, there's so many smaller organizations and organizations in Olympia that need support are the Washington Center which is you know, are great. It's a performance center. So

Michael Dugan:

starts okay.

Lela Cross:

Yeah. So and then kids, a lot for kids, making sure that they get opportunities.

Michael Dugan:

Definitely. And that's, that's amazing. Now, you've lived in Seattle for a while. How many years would you say,

Lela Cross:

Oh, I haven't lived in Seattle. I've lived in Olympia.

Michael Dugan:

Well, Seattle to me when we're talking to people around the world. They'll see it as Seattle, Washington or Washington State probably Olympia probably about what an hour.

Lela Cross:

It's a pretty quick jaunt.

Michael Dugan:

Yeah, so we have listeners from 15 countries now. Oh beautiful for them living in Washington State. How long have you lived in Washington State?

Lela Cross:

I have been here since Gosh, I'd say okay, how was it when I moved here? I think I was like in my 30s when I moved here, so probably a little over 30 years. Okay, but I've been in Washington.

Michael Dugan:

So that defines you as local?

Lela Cross:

Yeah, I think so.

Michael Dugan:

What three things would you tell someone that's visiting from another country or out of state that they should see in Washington State?

Lela Cross:

Well, gosh, it's a hard question because there's so many things. I mean, you see, yeah, it's a beautiful place. And it's, there's something magical about it. So that would be one thing. I think, you know, going down the coast. A lot of people love to do that. To be honest with you. The first thing I tell people is like, you just want to eat your way through here. That's true. Yeah, I mean, and now we have all these beautiful breweries and you know, distilleries. I mean, we've grown in lots of different ways in the last two, three years, and really, it's about experiences. I think I would start with food, but I think you knew that say that right?

Michael Dugan:

Oh, definitely. That's, that's where I would start. Who would you say, as you're thinking about your career, who do you follow that you trained with that you felt was a good mentor? And you mentioned Tom Douglas. Are there any other chefs that you follow? Or you've been mentored by?

Lela Cross:

Follow all different kinds of chefs. You know, right now there's some some pretty incredible young chefs that are coming up. I'm doing a project. It's a Brazilian style menu. I've been in has a little bit of Peru, all those areas. So I've been kind of focusing on the chef's in that area right now. I have to, there's so many in my mind, it's like all these little pictures are coming up in my head.

Michael Dugan:

Oh, another question for ya is for all of us, you know, the pandemic has been really tough and how have you coped with it? What what is it that you do to keep yourself motivated and alive? How do you cope with it?

Lela Cross:

Well, it was, you know, I I've kind of continued to move. I work on a farm on Tuesdays. So I was able to kind of commit to the earth, you know, vegetables, planting, growing chickens, you know, so I was able to stay close to the Earth and it grounded it grounded me a bit. So that job became you know, two days a week and then three days a week I was outside can exercise moving. I wanted to stay connected to people. So we created you know, little groups where we went out to, not necessarily you know, where we met in a large space and we all set six feet apart. Once a zoom you know, where we connected. My daughter lives in Spain. They were in lockdown way before we were

Michael Dugan:

speaking Does she live in Barcelona? Oh my gosh, I've been there.

Lela Cross:

I know. It is amazing.

Michael Dugan:

The truth is truly amazing. And the food is incredible and the people are incredible and the music and oh my gosh, what an experience. We traveled quite a bit. My wife. I've always told people when I got married, I had to hang on because she just loves to travel. And I love to travel for the food and the culture and the people. Exactly. Yeah. But it's been Yeah, that's one Yeah.

Lela Cross:

So I'm pretty excited. She's coming home for the holidays. So she says she's going to try and sneak a bunch of him on board. So hopefully we'll have some some really lovely Saronno for the holidays, right?

Michael Dugan:

Oh my gosh, there him is. Wow, amazing. You know the pandemic. It's been pretty tough but it sounds like you've done some good things to figure out how to cope with it. I think it's all about perspective really. Figuring out how to navigate that and and also support structure being around people. And if you can't be there in person, Zoom is always a good good way to connect or a phone call.

Lela Cross:

Right? Yeah. And then just you know, still cooking, you know, helping families who need it, you know, just just a lot of different things. I think that was important is still staying connected, being of service, helping to support the restaurants that were open and able to move forward. Whether it was you know, one step at a time. It was my way of still being part of the community.

Michael Dugan:

Right now. I know you have something coming up. I know you have a cookbook plan. Do you want to tell us a little bit about it? Maybe a sneak preview.

Lela Cross:

It's called gather it was inspired by the you know, wanting to create relationships and how people gather. And I think it came from like just being the way that I grew up is you know, just remembering how amazing the gatherings were and the events or functions or birthdays and weddings and the relationships that I've created along the way with people. One of the features is Sassy Seafood, two amazing, incredible women who own their own boats and they can this Tuna.

Michael Dugan:

that's awesome.

Lela Cross:

Yeah. And if we travel I'd love for us to do a little piece on them sometime. And they're just I mean, it's, they're strong and they're empowered and did a beautiful photoshoot on the beach with their product. I'll send you a couple photos of that. Please do. Yeah, that's what inspired me to do the cookbook. Just people it's it for me. It's really about people.

Michael Dugan:

Yeah, I have to agree. I mean, you know, that's what that's what food does. It brings us together and really really connects people language. Yeah, it's a beautiful language and anyone that works in this business, you know in service understands that it's amazing how common that belief is that I've discovered from the people I've interviewed with and met along my journey. Now we're gonna get to a section that's one of my favorite parts. It's called let's get cooking. So, I know you've been to Barcelona is there any one special place in the world where you've been that connects you to food and culture?

Unknown:

Oh gosh, I plan a vacation or trip it's always around food. I've we've been to Costa Rica a couple times. My my experience with Costa Rica you know outside of the mosquitoes and everything else was the best experience that I had was when we'd be on the beach families would invite us to eat with them. So you know, we'd say hi, we'd start asking questions. I my eyes get really big and all of a sudden, we're having a meal with this, this family on the beach. And you know, they're showing us how to open and drink coconuts and know how to you know how to just eat with our hands or fingers, you know, so it's, and those are, those are the things that I remember the most because they're intimate, they're colorful, you know, like, just the food language is all about, you know, togetherness, love. It's, yeah, it's incredible. And that happened to us in Costa Rica. I was in alwacu I think a couple years ago. And the restaurants I mean, the food is incredible there. It's you know, it's pretty clean. It's it's the restaurants are really high end restaurants. And they're gorgeous. They're atmospheres done services. Amazing. That's one of my favorite places. There's a couple of distilleries there to the country and the markets and markets are huge and incredible. Had some really amazing food. There.

Michael Dugan:

Can you describe three of your favorite specialties?

Unknown:

I really love working with salmon, salmon have like all these you can dress up salmon any way you want. It's so I love that I can add texture to it. I love that I can you know paint a picture on it and then also that I can put any kind of application to it and it gives a texture you know anywhere from nuts to leaves to you know potato anything so salmon is one of my my favorite things to play with grits. I love grits for the same reason I'd say probably my next favorite thing would be I'm not sure I'd have to think about the third one.

Michael Dugan:

So salmon and grits. Anything from your past?

Lela Cross:

Well the salmon is from my past. grits are from a little bit of my past because of my father in the southern cooking. And you know, I would love to say beans but as a child, I just didn't like beans at all. I'd say you know, corn, corn has so many applications, you know, corn meal, you know sweet corn, you know, you could hear it anyway. So I'd say corn would be another one of my favorites. To play with.

Michael Dugan:

So another challenge that I love to offer the chef's what would your desert island dish be?

Unknown:

Well, you know, in our last restaurant Dillingers, we had a doughnut bread pudding with a you know a bourbon we started with a bourbon ice cream and kind of a nice little caramel salted Carmel on there. It was our best selling dish. I think we've probably sold maybe 3000 of those things. Wow. And it's always been my favorite. This has always been my favorite. It's not an island dish.

Michael Dugan:

Well this would be if you're stuck on a desert island. Oh yeah, right right coconuts for sure. What about this is a big challenge for ready for this one. This is my favorite question. Have you ever had a kitchen disaster? And can you tell us about it?

Unknown:

Oh, I was doing a movie opening for Robert Redford, Hargrove Greenfield. And it was in the historic museum from where our hotel was. So it was I'd say two or three blocks down the way running across the street and my ice carving. We dropped the ice carving. And so we all cried and then I had to run back into the kitchen and redo an ice carving in like 30 minutes. It was the center of the of the event. Super stress there the ice carving that quick. Up until that point they take two to three days to do sometimes. I was so happy that I had ordered an extra block because I normally don't Yes, we watched it melt afterwards.

Michael Dugan:

Wow. Oh, I just can't imagine that. That would be devastating. Yes. But then you picked yourself up and you moved on.

Unknown:

Oh, yeah we've had the normal life where you lose electricity or power and they're in the middle of Yeah. You know, I think my last disaster was a fire alarm went off and we had it was a show night and we had to evacuate the restaurant in the middle and you know people had to go to the show without any food. So we did we did offer for them to come back afterwards and feed them but I just the sound of it having to evacuate you know the restaurant, and people all just up and ready to go somewhere. You know that that was terrible.

Michael Dugan:

Oh my gosh. As we wrap up, can you share anything like a life life lesson or life lessons learned along your culinary journey?

Lela Cross:

I think just be open to opportunities people that if you listen long enough as you talk to people and I mean as you're probably sitting here picking out things that you like and are excited about it. I mean, I think what I've learned is like people have so much that they can contribute and want to contribute. For me it's in the people that I meet it's always in the languages is food that sits close to people and to me that's it's intimate and that's what I get so passionate about. The lesson I've learned is to just listen because everyone has passion.

Michael Dugan:

Yeah, that's a good, that's a really good lesson. So how can we support you and the community at large?

Lela Cross:

We're about to launch our new partnered up in a distillery called Seattle distilling. And we're launching hopefully next year. And so hopefully the next time we have a conversation it will be about Seattle distilling. Oh,

Michael Dugan:

I love it. Yeah,

Unknown:

We've got whiskey we've got a two year whiskey, three year two to three year rye and a five to six year brandy and we also do gin and vodka. So that's my that's my next journey. And

Michael Dugan:

Again, you're out in Olympia, Washington. Yes. So how do they find you? How do they find your website?

Unknown:

And right now it's

Michael Dugan:

I want to leave everyone with a quote by Julia Child. People who love to eat are always the best. People. What does that mean to you?

Lela Cross:

Oh, gosh, I remember growing up with Julia Child and just it's my community. It's my like minded, you know, community where we get we gather we eat, we laugh, we have fun. I mean, that's how I would, I would take it

Michael Dugan:

I love it. Well, Lila as we wrap up, I just want to thank you for coming on the show and you are truly a voice for chefs.

Unknown:

Thank you.When I started shopping, it was hard and it still is a hard business especially for small businesses who are there you know who are the business owner and the chef and you know, with the wife or whoever partner works the front of the house, the industry has changed a bit, but it's still you have to love it and you have to have so much passion to keep doing it. Day to day

Michael Dugan:

That's very very