Staring your career knuckles deep in pizza dough at Domino’s might not seem like the most auspicious beginning, but for Diana Stavaridis it was the first foray into the food world which would eventually be her professional home. A BA in Marketing and Advertising from the University of Massachusetts led Stavaridis to a brief tenure in the Boston financial software sector, an important career step in that it taught her exactly where she didn’t belong.
Perhaps recalling those formidable days of dough-kneading, Stavaridis left the relative security of advertising for a culinary education across the continent, at LA Trade Tech. After cooking at several popular LA restaurants (including Axe, Joe’s, and Grace) Stavaridis eventually landed a job on the line at Grace. She must have impressed Chef Neal Fraser, because in 2006 he named her sous chef to his newest LA restaurant, BLD.
Diana proved such an integral part of the BLDkitchen that in only two short years she became the chef de cuisine, guiding the menu planning for the entire restaurant. In addition to executing Chef Fraser’s vision and honing her own style, Stavaridis is currently obsessed by the seemingly divergent pursuits of smoking proteins and attending to vegetarian and vegan needs on the BLD menu. Being welcoming and accommodating, after all, are the key elements of Stavaridis’ earliest food memories.
And while she hopes to someday own her own restaurant, preferably with beach-front views, Stavaridis is eager to keep expanding her already impressive repertoire in the kitchen at BLD.
Interview with Chef Diana Stavaridis of Bld – Los Angeles, CAAntoinette Bruno:
What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Probably my grandpa. I’m from Boston and grew up with my grandparents cooking a lot. My grandma is British and my grandpa is British-Irish. They were always making pot roasts and Yankee bread pudding.
AB: Did you go to culinary school?
DS: I went to University of Massachusetts for business and started in software, but I would have dinner parties at my house every week. So I moved out here and went to Trade Tech downtown and got my degree and started working with Chef Neal [Fraser].
AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
DS: I would recommend it. It’s a good foundation. Personally I feel you learn more on the job, but for basic sanitation and knife skills you get hours of practice.
AB: Who have been your mentors? What did you learn from them?
DS: Neal. I'd say [he taught me] how to work as a team. The first day I came to stage with him he was so relaxed, friendly, and open. He'll share any ideas and teach you anything you want. I staged at other restaurants that were very intense and uncomfortable, but when I went to Grace everyone was happy so I went every day until he hired me. I took a lot of his demeanor, patience and team attitude with me on the line. We're a team top to bottom in my restaurant.
AB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
DS: Be patient with learning. I'll get really impatient and want to be where Neal is but he’s been cooking for twenty-two years and I've been cooking for eight. I have my whole lifetime to learn. New ideas will come and new doors will open. I want to learn to cook a particular region, all these specific things, and I can be hard on myself. Accept where you are, push yourself with learning new ideas, eating out, and eating in different cities, as long as you keep plugging along.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
DS: I'm very involved in the local farmers market, I’m friends with them, I order from them weekly. We do a lot of charity work. We're involved with Taste of The Nation and hospitals. We're doing Good Day LA tomorrow for the city promotion of Dine Out LA.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
DS: When I grew up there was always an open door to come in and eat together. So when someone comes into [the restaurant] I want there to be someone to greet them. I talk to the waiters every day [to encourage] them to convey to the guest that this is how I'm making the pastrami, this is what it gets rubbed with, I want the guests to know. Everything is made in house here and it takes a lot of time and effort to make it. I like the guests to know there’s a lot of love put into something and not just slapped on the plate.
AB: What goes into creating a dish?
DS: I usually start with something left in the walk-in that I have to use. A lot of it comes from particular inspirations. Seasons are really big with me. As soon as it gets hot I'm working with poblanos and all kinds of chilies. Or I eat somewhere and get an idea.
AB: Do you think of texture and acidity?
DS: I like texture. I like to have some kind of crunch. I've been smoking [foods] a lot so I try to balance smoky with spicy and sweet. I smoke tofu, pork chops, and trout. We just put together a smoked tofu bacon dish. I've been doing a lot of vegetarian and vegan stuff here because it sells, maybe 50% [of sales] on a night will be vegetarian and some vegan. I always have at least one vegan option, and things that can be made vegan.
AB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
DS: I would say the ability to maintain a feasible labor budget and do what we do with how many people we have doing it. I have two or three guys who are amazing, if I could just have four or five it would be even more amazing. We put in as much as we can.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your career?
DS: I guess get through culinary school, wait tables and cater. Getting started.
AB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
DS: To be where I am today. Where I am right now I feel very thankful.
AB: Where will we find you in five years?
DS: You will find me running my own restaurant near a beach.