Performers who know they're star quality still have nervous moments just before they go on stage. In the same way, even an experienced and confident chef is going to have some butterflies when they first open their own restaurant, and Melba Rodriguez is no exception.
"At first when I opened Chef Melba's, I thought, oh my gosh, I'm going to die here. There was not much activity, and I had come from high-volume restaurants where we were busy from opening to closing. It took me a while to get in touch with the rhythm of this place."
Chef Melba's restaurant is doing fine now, and Melba herself has settled into Hermosa Beach. She spent years cooking in high-end seafood restaurants like King's Fish House and 555 East, then as Executive Chef for Mc Cormick & Schmick's. Her first restaurant as owner, the intimate and eclectic restaurant on Hermosa Avenue, is the culmination of a dream that started when she was a girl in El Salvador.
"My mom got divorced when I was seven, and my sister and I used to work really hard to help her around the house. There were two choices of jobs, cooking or washing and ironing the clothes. I always chose cooking, simply because it was what I liked. I planned the menu even when I was a kid. They used to give me the money for the week, and I would stash just a bit so the next time I went to the market I could buy something a little different. Cooking was just in my blood."
Ten years later, after Melba's mother took her daughters to America, it seemed natural for Melba to go to cooking school, first in Virginia and then at California's prestigious Culinary Institute at Greystone Mansion in St. Helena in the Napa Valley. Stints with several prestigious Los Angeles area restaurants followed, and she finally ended up at the McCormick and Shmick's in Pasadena. Though Melba was an innovative chef who came up with new ways of using the exotic seafood that the restaurant specialized in, her creativity was not always appreciated.
"You need to try different ideas to see what the customer base needs. You're not going to do some fancy idea in Pasadena, because the people who eat there are older, not the hip-hop clientele. When I worked at the restaurant on Rosecrans, I served the thirty to fifty-year-old career men and women, and they wanted an upscale, inventive cuisine. The Rosecrans location was the most successful location of the whole chain when I was there."
The job with Mc Cormick & Schmick's was good to Melba - she rose within the organization and was flown out to open branches in San Diego and Minneapolis - but like many ambitious chefs, she longed for a place where she could have complete creative freedom. She started looking for a place of her own in 2004, and when a Korean restaurant failed in Hermosa Beach, she saw her chance.
"When I came to Hermosa, I thought, this is a perfect spot for me. I think Hermosa had a necessity, a desperation for a really good restaurant, Look at so many other places here, they are bars that serve food, lounges, not really centered on food. There are only a handful of places in this town that are really about cuisine and not trying to be something else. There is huge potential here, because people who live here love their community, they want to dine here. I learned about this community from them. In the beginning, starting a restaurant is like being a soldier - you are working all the time, active all the time, seeing nothing but the next job to be done. It took a while to slow down and start learning about my customers, my community."
One of the things she learned is that they were inclined to appreciate the very type of food she wanted to cook. - a light, health-conscious style of dining that draws both from her training and her ancestral culture.
"I use some Salvadoran ideas in my cooking. We use fruit and relishes with fish, and I cook with extra-virgin olive oil, like we cook with back there. There, we pick vegetables in the morning and eat them in the evening. It's a small country, you can go in twelve hours from the mountains to the sea, land border to ocean. We cook with things from both, all fresh.
"There are a few things from that cuisine that I wish I could get here. There's a flower called loroco that has a beautiful aroma - we use it in soups and cheese dishes. I recently found a source for it here, and I'll probably be using it on my menu soon. There is also a fruit called sapote that has an intense orange flesh. Usually in the US you can only find the white sapote, which doesn't have the same flavor. You can get frozen orange sapote sometimes in Mexican markets, but it just doesn't have the same character."
Melba has some confidence that she can use those exotic ingredients at her restaurant, because her customers have shown considerable appreciation for her inventions so far.
"This is a very adventurous community. People try everything - I created a ceviche with fresh conch, key limes, and coconut. I named it 'Milk of the Tiger.' I thought, this is good but it's the weirdest thing I've ever done, and I wonder if people here are ready. It was well received' people bought it, and they loved it. I haven't had even one dish that I've created that people haven't appreciated."
Melba detects a shift in our acceptance of certain types of flavor, a change she has long anticipated. In fact, she once had a problem because she was just a little too far ahead of the curve.
"I remember in 1990, when I was cooking at the Clearwater Café. We were very health-conscious, using organic ingredients, cooking with fresh chutney, and people didn't get it. They weren't ready for those ideas, but they are now. I think that those concerns with health, with light, fresh flavors, are going to move more into the mainstream. You will be seeing those things at coffee shops. People are concerned about obese kids, about their own health, and they're changing their diets. I think we will see a lighter, healthier future."
Melba thinks that future has already arrived in Hermosa.
"People here exercise, they like to eat healthy, and I consider that when I cook for them. I use a lot of wild seafood and as many organic vegetables as possible, and I go to the farmer's markets to pick out my fresh berries. It takes a lot of my time, but it shows. "
There are compensations for that extra effort, though they aren't monetary, at least as yet.
"My business has been growing, my dinners are spectacular, and I'm getting busier and busier. I'm probably not going to make as much money I used to at McCormick & Schmick's, and I don't get stock and bonuses, but I'm happier - I'm my own boss, and I can be with my family for the holidays. It's a give and take. Besides, I get to spend time in a community that I love.
"It might seem strange, me coming from a South American country where it's hot, but my favorite season here is fall. I love to walk, especially in October and November when there's a nice breeze in my face and I can wear a jacket. It's kind of romantic to walk on the beach… I'm not busy every day from 3 to 5 PM, and I walk on the beach or around town."
So does Melba Rodriguez plan to spend the rest of her professional career in Hermosa Beach? Her answer is guarded.
"Everyone has ambitions, and I have my own. I would like to have a little bigger place without the parking problems in this location, so I'd like to eventually move someplace else, but close to here. Even if I eventually move, I want to keep things small. I like the people I meet at my restaurant, especially at the wine dinners I have every month. I did an Argentine wine diner, gaucho cuisine with three wines, ending with maté tea, which you are only supposed to drink with friends. All these strangers were passing the tea to each other, and it was like a big family gathering, and I was the one who made it all happen in my restaurant."