Q&A: Tara Lazar, chef and owner of Cheeky’s, Birba and JIAO

The entrepreneur on building her empire


Age: 37

Based in: Palm Springs, Calif.

Best known around town as chef and owner of three restaurants opened between 2008 and 2012 in Palm Springs’ Uptown Design District: Cheeky’s, a creative casual breakfast spot; Birba, an alfresco pizza and cocktail joint; and JIAO, which offers a fresh spin on Asian street food cuisine.

882 Cheeky’s eggs Benedict. Photo by Melissa Kaseman.

On using local ingredients

Not taking advantage of the desert’s local produce is “like being in Maine and not having lobster,” Lazar says, so she focuses on sourcing ingredients from within 100 miles. “We’re lucky to be in the middle of this farm belt,” and, with corn and other gems available all year, “why wouldn’t you use it?”

On Cheeky’s most popular offering

Diners swoon over Cheeky’s five-piece bacon flight, which features new flavours (like apple cinnamon, jalapeno and Thai sweet chili) each week, but Lazar never expected the sampler to take off the way it did. “It was a total joke,” Lazar says. “It was a cheeky take on stuffy flights.”

On her three must-have ingredients

Cheddar, arugula and chives are musts for Lazar’s kitchens. Sharp cheddar is a favourite because “it’s so simple and so American,” Lazar says, while local arugula offers a “more grown-up taste” than greens like spinach. As for her third key ingredient? “Chives make everything look pretty—and they taste good.”

On culinary field trips

Eating is the best job training for staff, says Lazar, who introduces her team to new cuisines and dining trends by organizing monthly culinary field trips in hot spots like L.A. or Las Vegas. “It’s important to always expose them to new flavours,” she says. When Lazar was preparing to launch JIAO in 2012, she flew her staff to Vietnam to sample Asian flavours firsthand.

On Palm Springs’ Uptown Design District

It’s no coincidence that all of Lazar’s restaurants—and her hotel, Alcazar—call the Uptown Design District home. Uptown’s locally owned vintage boutiques and funky shops create an energy you won’t find elsewhere in Palm Springs, Lazar says. “Everyone runs their own business here, and that’s rare.”