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A side-tilted view of a table filled with dinner food including vegetables and meatballs.
A full spread at Rose Park Roasters’ new dinner.
Wonho Frank Lee

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An Army Vet Returns to Los Angeles With Lessons From a Cooking Life Abroad

Chef Melissa Ortiz used to cook at the Afghanistan consulate in Kabul, and now she’s launching one of Long Beach’s most ambitious new dinners

With dinner service starting in an hour, Melissa Ortiz tastes her fermented chile butter before adding it to the lemongrass-flavored clam-and-bean stew. In the kitchen at Rose Park Roasters in Long Beach, most of her staff plate bread with homemade spreads at their stations; others are making another batch of seaweed granola for brunch the next morning.

Ortiz quickly checks on the dining room, making sure the team has switched over the tables from the cafe’s morning coffee setup to that evening’s dinner service. She walks back into the kitchen just in time to receive a delivery of miso and seaweed bread from neighboring Gusto Bread. From there she double-checks the printed menu, and then finds time to collect her team for a quick bite of potential new menu items like shrimp meatballs and whipped burrata with cherry tomatoes and yuzu kosho — and all before the first dinner guests arrive. It’s a fast, grueling schedule, something Ortiz knows well.

If there’s one consistent thread in Ortiz’s life, it’s been her love-hate relationship with discipline and structure. The Orange County native first brushed up against authority as a teenager, culminating in an ironic decision to immediately enlist in the military after high school. Naturally, she only told her parents two weeks before leaving on her first deployment. Since then, Ortiz has moved between two different worlds: the military and the culinary. She has spent her adult years in one form of service or another, bouncing between the Army and some of Southern California’s best restaurants, eventually culminating in leading roles around the world, be they at Long Beach’s Bamboo Club or the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. To say she’s been through the trenches, figuratively and literally, would be putting it mildly.

“I needed to learn how to create a structured environment from the military and professional kitchens before leading my own,” says Ortiz, who landed the role as the lead chef at Rose Park Roasters earlier this summer, reinventing its food menu and launching a new dinner service. “I can easily become over-consumed with the process, leaving no room for mistake,” she continues, “but my time in Afghanistan, learning how to navigate different cultures and a pandemic, taught me how to step back before reacting.”

Two workers in pink aprons turn meatballs inside of frying pans at a corporate kitchen.
Sous chef Brennan Villarreal and chef Melissa Ortiz.

Now Ortiz is in the middle of her next adventure, turning one of LA County’s most popular micro-roasters and coffee shop names into a dinner destination all its own, complete with table service, beer and wine, and seafood- and vegetable-focused dishes built on a lifetime of experience.

At 18, Ortiz enlisted in an eight-year contract with the military in the 126th Finance Battalion out of Fort Bragg, which took her around the world to places like Africa, Dubai, and Thailand. Once her contract was up in 2011, Ortiz found herself back in California with a G.I. Bill to use for further education, so she enrolled in culinary school at the Art Institute of California in Orange County. “I thought it would be an easy school,” laughs Ortiz, “and a way for me to get a paycheck while I figured out the rest of my life.”

Finding herself staging at Michelin-starred Mélisse in Santa Monica, Ortiz felt motivated by the intense energy of the kitchen. “I had absolutely no restaurant experience,” says Ortiz, “but I loved the intensity of Mélisse, which was like the military, and learned more in that kitchen than anywhere else.”

After graduating, Ortiz packed her bags and left for France for a few months to learn the fundamentals of cooking. “If I do something,” says Ortiz, “I do it 100 percent.” The next few years found Ortiz in some of Los Angeles’s top kitchens, including Little Sparrow in Santa Ana, Best Girl in Downtown LA, and finally Connie and Ted’s in West Hollywood under James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Cimarusti, when she decided to return to the military as a civilian contractor for a brief period to experience a different version of structure and save money for her future.

A takeout cooler and menu at a new coffee shop.
Seating, plants, and coffee bean bags at a new coffee shop.

In spring 2019, Ortiz signed up to be the chef at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan and put in her notice at Connie and Ted’s. She didn’t, however, leave until January 2020 due to the long process of getting all her paperwork finalized. “I had a year of limbo,” says Ortiz, “not knowing when I would be leaving for Afghanistan.” It was during that year that she first found herself at Rose Park as a cook, making avocado toast and developing a relationship with owners Andrew Phillips and Nathan Tourtellotte. She also helped open up the tiki-focused Bamboo Club in Long Beach during this period, developing the opening menu by creating dishes like the Thai tea-brined chicken sandwich.

“[The owners of Rose Park and I] stayed in touch while I was in Afghanistan,” says Ortiz, “and always said if the stars aligned, we would work together to build out the food menu. They were patient with me to filter out my ideas and life so I could commit 100 percent.”

Afghanistan was the opportunity for Ortiz to push herself creatively, in both her cooking and how she managed a kitchen. “I was serving up to 1,300 people in Kabul,” says Ortiz, “and was given free-range in what I could make. In the first few months before COVID hit, we were flying in crab legs and seafood from Dubai and the Maldives, fresh produce, pretty much whatever I wanted to cook. It was nothing like what I thought a government kitchen would be and helped me develop my seafood and vegetable focus that I’m bringing to Rose Park.”

A medium green dining room with shiny tile and lots of hanging plants and blonde wood table.

Around Easter in Kabul, things changed suddenly with a strict quarantine set in place (Ortiz had to twice isolate for 14 days due to COVID exposure) and new restrictions on food service. “We had to have a person serving food everywhere, pouring coffee, losing all of our self-serve options from before,” says Ortiz. At first, they were serving basic chicken and rice meals, but Ortiz quickly got bored with that and got creative. She taught her staff how to make chile pastes and toast, grind rice for homemade seafood patties, lay out grab-and-go charcuterie plates, and set up individual action stations instead of a communal buffet.

Relying on local nationals to help in the kitchen, Ortiz developed close relationships with many Afghans who had never had a woman as their boss. Because of the pandemic, rather than going home at the end of the night, the Afghans stayed on the compound in three-month rotations.

“They became my family,” says Ortiz. “I taught them how to cook, and in return they taught me a new sense of respect. In their culture you don’t yell or scream, which is very common in the culinary world. I learned how to be a mentor and appreciate the diversity of my team.” While in Afghanistan, the U.S. government announced the order of departure and Ortiz knew she had to get out before things progressed to a dangerous situation, so she resigned in May 2021 and left three days later.

“I knew this farewell would likely be the last time I’d ever see them again,” says Ortiz, who keeps in touch via WhatsApp with her former colleagues in Afghanistan. “I can’t help them, which is devastating,” says Ortiz, “so all I can do is be there for them any time of the day and be ready to do whatever I can if they make it to safety.”

Returning to Long Beach after some travel in July 2021, Ortiz knew she needed to be in a kitchen that was a part of her local community. She reconnected with the owners of Rose Park and they all recognized that those stars had finally aligned for their culinary expansion, which tasked her with redoing the daytime dishes and creating an ambitious dinner menu.

“We decided not to do a major rebrand since Rose Park is already in-tune with the Long Beach community and we want to be contributing to that, not creating something new,” says Ortiz. Similar to Sightglass Coffee in Los Angeles, Rose Park will be a counter-service cafe by day turned casual table-service dinner destination in the evening.

At first, Ortiz tested out dishes by adding elements to the current takeout offerings and starting up a weekend brunch before rolling out dinner. Ortiz’s new dinner service launched at the 800 Pine Street location of Rose Park Roasters on September 30 and runs Thursday through Saturday from 4 to 8 p.m., with a beer, wine, and non-alcoholic drink menu complementing seafood and vegetable dishes.

Her menu incorporates diverse ingredients from her time abroad, with a focus on seafood and Asian flavors. During the day she sells spicy cucumbers with ginger and fermented chile for lunch as takeout, but for dinner incorporates the crisp vegetable into a romano bean dish with miso ginger tahini and quinoa furikake. Her brunch menu features a melon parfait with coconut yogurt, cashews, kombucha chia seed jam, and seaweed granola (also sold as a grab-and-go item).

Two chefs shot from overhead work on a variety of dishes inside of a commercial kitchen.
At work over the induction burners.

Ortiz has a close relationship with Gusto Bread owner Arturo Enciso, who bakes an exclusive miso and seaweed bread she serves with smoked fish ’nduja, fermented pickle relish, and creme fraiche. Enciso had never baked with miso before but agreed to add it to his bread just for Ortiz.

In addition to building out dinner at Rose Park, Ortiz wanted to make sure the Long Beach community had a creative, powerhouse daytime cafe that the city could be proud of. From brunch through dinner, her menu features a wide range of house-made items using flavorful ingredients from the global pantry. Her lemongrass clam and bean dish fuses together Asian flavors with a classic Mediterranean flavor profile, swapping homemade shrimp chorizo for pork and a seafood stock made from scraps from her smoked fish ’nduja, shrimp shells, lemongrass, makrut lime, ginger, garlic, and a chile blend. She finishes the dish with fermented chile butter and some more miso-seaweed bread.

“I needed my experience in Afghanistan to be able to do this successfully,” says Ortiz of the slow rollout at Rose Park. “The military gave me the discipline and focus I need as a chef. I’ve gone through the trenches ... and have learned that if you want it bad enough, it’s possible. You learn from your hardships to be better because you try to do the opposite.”

From her high-profile job as one of the last chefs at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan to her extensive background in some of the best kitchens in LA, Ortiz brings an unparalleled dining experience to the Long Beach community. Harnessing the courage and passion she’s built over the years, Ortiz is ready to pour that into the food she’s creating at Rose Park Roasters.

For announcements on Rose Park Roasters menu launches, follow their Instagram, as their website will be updated closer to full opening.

A chef in a red hat and pink apron turns meatballs in a pan.
Chef Ortiz at work.
A vertical photo of pickled vegetables on a plate.
Seasonal crudite and sour cream dip.
A round flatbread with holes in the middle of it shot overhead on a plate with pate at the side.
Miso flatbread and smoked fish ‘nduja.
A tall bowl filled with grains and moked mussels on a wooden table.
Smoked mussels with kombu and morita chili ponzu.
Squash shown cut in half and topped with spices and rice.
Honeynut squash with sunchoke miso and furikake chili crunch.
An overhead shot of two mushroom portabello cuts with a thick glaze on top.
‘Shroom steak made of portobello and cold brew demi glace.
Five shrimp meatballs with toast and red tomato sauce.
Shrimp meatballs with san marzano tomato sauce.
Two employees cook in an open kitchen with induction burners at a coffee shop.
The open kitchen at Rose Park Roasters.
A chef in a red hat oversees a pan from behind a wall.
A group of employees in a mask stand posing for a photo in front of their restaurant.
Chef Ortiz and the Rose Park team.
Unmasked employees stand in front of a restaurant, posing.
The open, wide dining area of a coffee shop set for dinner service.
An open plan with cement and tile coffee shop.
A tilted angle of a wooden and cement coffee shop with house plants.
A dark green awning for a coffee shop named Rose Park.
A street, wide view of a coffee shop at the ground floor of an art deco building.
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