Catching Up with Felicia Ruiz of Lola Tapas: Plant-Based Diets and Getting Back to Her Roots

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Felicia Ruiz Natural Chef

Recently we've been talking about the local dining spots of former days and our trip down memory lane connected us with chef Felicia Ruiz, who many will know from Lola Tapas. Ruiz ran the well-loved restaurant until June 2010 and when it shuttered, many a Phoenician lost a favorite dining spot.

Fortunately, Ruiz isn't one to dwell on the negative side of life. And her fans will be happy to know she's still very much involved in the food community -- though in a different capacity.

"It allowed me to get back to my roots," Ruiz says of the restaurant's closing.

See also: 10 Metro Phoenix Restaurants We Miss

After a time during which Ruiz says she "disappeared," she returned to the kitchen with a new focus. For the last year or so, the chef tells us she's been focusing on learning about indigenous foods with the end goal of compiling a curriculum to teach people about healthy plant-based diets.

"I don't like to use the word 'vegan,'" she says. "I think it's gotten a negative connotation; 'Plant-based diet' lets people see everything they can eat."

Her education in the nutritional side of vegetable-focused eating has led her to an exploration of indigenous ingredients. As an Arizona native and 6th generation New Mexican, Ruiz says cooking with items like mesquite flour and cholla buds is a return to her family's traditional food ways.

It's a tradition she never lost while operating her restaurant, but Ruiz says she's now able to focus on exploring these topics and bringing that knowledge to others. She's teaching cooking classes and workshops, including an upcoming series about food as medicine at mod.i.fy in Scottsdale.

But.... Will we ever get our tapas back?

"The million dollar question!" Ruiz says with a smile when we ask. "People always ask me that. But I don't see that in my future."

(Though she does add that she'd "never say never.")

The chef declined to discuss the iteration of Lola Coffee that opened earlier this year at Sam Fox's the Yard. The coffee shop and wine bar didn't use the name "Lola Tapas," but did offer a menu of Spanish style tapas. Ruiz wasn't involved with the project at all, but again, she's not the type to dwell.

"It is what it is," she says of the restaurant, which closed last weekend and will reopen later this fall as a new "concept" later this fall.

Of course, anyone who ate at Ruiz's restaurant or has met her will understand the impossibility to recapturing what was lost when it closed. Ruiz says, "the timing was just right," to open the restaurant. Plus, she truly loved the space.

"I really did feel like I would take a breath and the restaurant would exhale," Ruiz remembers. "It was an extension of me."

Five words to describe your style of cooking: Organic (the process, not necessarily organically grown), essential, vibrant, aromatic, and satisfying.

When did you first discover your passion for cooking: When as a kid, I'd rather watch Jeff Smith's "Frugal Gourmet" rather than Saturday morning cartoons.

Your earliest food-related memory: Driving back home with my family, after spending the summer in New Mexico. They would bring back huge burlap sacks filled with fresh green chile. My parents would roast the chile outside, and I was in charge of bagging them by the dozen. We had enough green chile to last us the whole year!

Your biggest mentor in the kitchen: My auntie Lydia who owned In Season Deli on Mill Avenue.

The most important lesson he/she taught you: By example, she taught me that a woman could own and run a business if she was passionate in what she believed in and that being a vegetarian was not the latest trend.

The biggest lesson you learned while Lola Tapas was open: One of the most important lessons I learned is that there IS value in authenticity.

Would you do anything differently if you had a second chance? No. I loved that space. It was very much a part of me and my story.

Your favorite thing to eat as a child: My mother would make atole, a Cream of Wheat-like drink made from toasted blue cornmeal. I still make it for me and my daughter, especially when we are not feeling well. Native comfort food.

Your favorite thing to eat now: I could eat hummus every day. I think I do.

One thing you always have in your fridge: Fermented vegetables. I prepare large batches once a month...cauliflower, cabbage, onions, carrots...

The most overrated ingredient is...meat.

One local chef you admire and why: I'm sure he is admired by many for his food, but I truly admire Chris Bianco for his belief in the process.

Your most memorable meal to date: I don't have just one. Most of my memorable meals are overshadowed by memorable experiences. The food simply being part of the story.

One book you think everyone should read and why: Like Water for Chocolate. It's a short and magical story which reminds us that we all need a personal outlet. For Tita, the main character in the book, cooking was the one area in her life where she had freedom to express herself completely. I feel like that character when I cook.

Your personal mantra: I have many, but one that I stick to is from a Frida Kahlo painting: Viva la Vida!

Your favorite drink and where you like to get it: Water. Seriously. And I get it from the Water Connection on 40th Street and Camelback.

What local restaurants do you miss the most? Ayako of Tokyo at the Biltmore, Brookshires in Sunnyslope (I would eat there with my dad), the ever sleek Barmouche on Camelback, and so many more.

What's next? My path is still unfolding, but I am still immersed in food and headed in an exciting direction.

Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: Aaron Pool -- Gadzooks Enchiladas and Soup Patrick Karvis -- TapHouse Kitchen Marisa Lown -- Radical Cupcake Brian Konefal -- Coppa Cafe Kelly Fletcher -- The Revival Bob Tam -- Bitter and Twisted BJ Hernandez -- Havana Patio Cafe Matt Taylor -- Gertrude's at the Desert Botanical Garden Jennifer Russo-Fitzgerald -- The Market by Jennifer's Jared Lupin -- Umami Michael O'Dowd -- Urban Vine Dennis Delamater -- The Post Doc Brown -- Doc Brown's Artisan Ice Cream Josh Bracher -- Second Story Liquor Bar Chris McKinley -- The Local Chris Mayo -- Central Bistro James Fox -- Bootleggers Jay and Christine Wisniewski -- Caffe Boa Joe Absolor - Clever Koi Jason Grossmiller - Arizona Distilling Company Chris Collins - Grassroots Kitchen and Tap Perry Rea - Queen Creek Olive Mill Adam Brown - Noca Steve Kraus - Press Coffee Roastery Jason Raducha and Claudio Urciuoli - Noble Bread Sasha Raj - 24 Carrots Nick LaRosa - Nook Joey Maggiore - Cuttlefish Country Velador - Super Chunk Sweets and Treats James Porter - Petite Maison Cullen Campbell - Crudo Mel Mecinas - Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North Meagan Micozzi - Scarletta Bakes Tyson Holzheimer and Joe Strelnik - Snooze, an A.M. Eatery Paul McCabe - T. Cook's at the Royal Palms Eugenia Theodosopoulos - Essence Bakery Cafe Eddie Hantas - Hummus Xpress Jay Bogsinke - St. Francis Dustin Christofolo - Quiessence Blaise and DJ Aki - The Sushi Room Sacha Levine - Rancho Pinot and FnB Andrew Nienke - Cafe Monarch Kevin Lentz - French Grocery Aurore de Beauduy - Vogue Bistro Justin Olsen - Bink's Midtown Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz - Republica Empanada Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay

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