Chef LaLa: Thought Leader – Hispanic Biz Digest

Expanding Beyond Hispanic Cooking To Being Thought Leader Builds Sales For “Chef Lala”

Laura Diaz has grown her business outside the Hispanic community while building bridges for her company and other Hispanics.

Known internationally to fans as “Chef LaLa,”she has devoted her life to two passions: mastering and refining Latin cuisines (all 23 varieties) and educating her fans.

At the same time, she has morphed into an ambassador, philanthropic leader, and professional business leader for women.

Her most recent challenge, spured by the birth of her first child, is teaching clients and the general public about how to enjoy this complex cuisine in a healthful fashion.

Along the way, she has shown other Hispanic business people how to grow their firms both inside and outside the community.

Diaz grew up in Los Angeles helping in her family’s Mexican restaurants where she inherited her father’s passion for cooking (he was the chef in the family).

In college, she first studied to be a cardio-pulmonary therapist. But part of the way through her studies, she realized it wasn’t the career for her.

She bought her own restaurant and decided that she wanted to study cooking to find out how to make the great dishes that she loved to eat.

She sold the restaurant to her father, enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu and attended classes at both the Southern California and Paris campuses, and opening a catering business (SAVOR! Caterers).

She became well known as a caterer and began doing political and entertainment events for clients, such as the Reagan and Bush families and Lionel Ritchie.

As her reputation grew, she was asked to speak at events about the relationship of food and health for organizations such as the American Heart Association.

Rather than lecturing those with a medical condition, such as diabetes or heart disease, that “you can’t eat that,” she focused on the ways that they could get the nutrients that they needed and still enjoy their cultural foods.

“I believe that I can make a difference–maybe even on a national level–by educating people about how to choose food that is actually good for them and that tastes great, too,” she said.

“That’s my mission. And, I’ve learned that you have to give people appealing choices for them to be willing to change. They don’t want to know what they can’t eat; they want to know what they can eat,” she added.

She describes herself as a “perpetual student” as she has gone on to become a certified nutritionist, an overweight management specialist, a certified child nutritionist.

Diaz is very conscious of the need to continue her education and stay up-to-date as medical teachings and practices change regularly. She constantly studies the newest findings–especially regarding heart health and diabetes.

Three of her four grandparents died of complications arising from diabetes. Heart disease caught her attention because it is the number one killer in America, yet it is a disease over which an individual can exert some control. According to Diaz, a lot of the elements that contribute to heart disease are due to the American diet–informed decisions about what we eat and drink can save lives.

“Things have changed for the better concerning general interest in eating well. I no longer feel like I’m ‘nagging’ people about eating right,” she argues.

“They’re more aware and want to be empowered to take care of themselves; they want to be healthier. I encourage people to be conscious of what they’re consuming, even if they choose to eat something that is high in calories or fat. I believe that if they know, they will make good choices most of the time,” Diaz adds.

Then, she added with a laugh, “Let’s face it—none of us are going to be perfect all of the time.”

To round out this new mom‘s very full plate, philanthropy and community service are practically another career for Diaz.

She spends 40 percent of her business time on philanthropic tasks. In this last year alone, she has taught about nutrition or provided her support in other ways to charities as diverse as the American Heart Association, the Liver Foundation, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, Para Los Niños, L.A.’s BEST and V.I.D.A.

In July of 2007, she received Macy’s ‘Star Award,’ for people who make a difference in their community, and General Mills’ ‘Corazon de Communidad’ (literally, ‘Heart of the Community’) award.

Whether she’s teaching nutritious cooking at a Farmer’s Market or on a television show, Diaz is on fire with her desire to share everything she has learned to make people’s lives healthier and happier–one meal at a time.

She has one book in stores now (Latin Lover Lite) and another scheduled to be published in March 2008. And she consults with restaurants and companies who want to introduce authentic Hispanic flavor to their menus and serve healthier food. She also hosts a syndicated television show called “U Lala!.”

With all of these activities, Chef Lala could focus on business and working around the clock, but she is very determined to live a balanced life and makes conscious choices to make sure that she has quality time with her son and her family.

Like many Hispanic business leaders, she shared that she doesn’t ever want to take her family for granted and that no matter what she is working on, she will stop it to play with her son, eat dinner as a family, and tuck him in at night.

She also makes time to focus on her marriage outside of the work that she and her husband do together.

Also, like many Hispanic business leaders, the family is involved with the firm.

She calls her two sisters, Myrna and Veronica, her best friends and shared that her family often accompanies her to philanthropic events to cook, bartend or just support her, in addition to the hired staff that she brings with her.

Becoming a mom also influenced her commitment to healthy living and cooking. Diaz shared that she had struggled with her weight over the years beginning in childhood and when she entered her medical training, she began trying to pay more attention to what she was putting into her body and the choices she was making about food.

When she became pregnant with her son, she really started paying attention because it was no longer just about what she was getting, but also the nutrients that her child needed to grow and develop.

She temporarily went back to her old ways about a year after her son was born because of her busy schedule and wasn’t always looking at the quality of the food that she was eating.

However, being a mom made her realize that if she was worthy of making healthy decisions while pregnant, she was also worthy of it on her own, and has committed to making good choices for her own health.

In order to be successful as a business owner and manager, she has surrounded herself with good people and an efficient team, has learned to delegate and believes it’s important to learn what others do, so that she can have reasonable expectations in their work for her.

She has formed alliances with other companies that enable her to manage all of her tasks and focus on what she needs to do.