Chef Lorena Garcia’s passion for food extends beyond creative or epicurean satisfaction.
“It is purely the love for that interaction and those connections that happen when we are all eating,” she explained. “The most important partnerships happen in that exchange, in business, with family and friends, it all happens around the table or in the kitchen at home.”
Garcia’s new restaurant, Chica, opens at The Venetian this spring and will mark the first time that a major Strip eatery has featured a Latina head chef, according to The Venetian President and Chief Operations Officer George Markantonis.
“Chica is my baby,” Garcia said. “It is close to my heart — it is the food that I have wanted to make for years. It is the realization of who I am as a professional today.”
Garcia is highly successful in the kitchen and the broader business world, with popular restaurants at international airports in Miami, Atlanta and Dallas/Fort Worth, guest and host appearances on multiple TV cooking shows (including competing on “Top Chef Masters”), two cookbooks and a line of cookware.
“We are hoping to open in May — we are in construction now,” she said. “I will definitely be paying close attention to see that every single detail is taken care of. This is the first restaurant of its kind. First Latina in Las Vegas on the Strip. We have so many first things, and I cannot wait to showcase them.”
BLENDING LATIN CULTURES
Chica (Spanish for “girl” or ‘woman’) is owned by Miami-based 50 Eggs Inc., and will specialize in dishes inspired by the cuisines of Central and South America.
“We are going to be serving beautiful eclectic menus … that represent our culture as Latinos in the United States,” Garcia said.
The restaurant will feature a large grill where all the meats will be prepared in a variety of ways distinctive to particular nations, ceviche, Venezuelan-style arepas, a mixology program and a selection of female-vintner-produced wine representing every South American country.
“This is who I am today — as a Latina that came to this country, who has been raised in the culinary world in the United States.
“In absorbing all the cultures of Latin America, I noticed that people from Mexico, Argentina, Peru, we have a lot of ingredients in common. We connect through our language when we speak Spanish, so why not focus on a new style of cuisine that I call fresh, modern and Latin.”
She describes the processes as a return to culinary roots, creating new ‘classics’ from foundational ingredients throughout Latin America. “It brings in the sentiment of how I grew up (in Caracas, Venezuela), blended with the new techniques that I’ve learned through the years, and combining all of that knowledge in the epiphany of being able to open Chica.”
Garcia was preparing for a career in law at Santa Maria University in Caracas when her passion for the culinary arts tugged her abruptly off her planned life course.
“The day after I finished law school, I got a job offer to be a legal assistant,” she remembered. “On my first day, I walked into the office and I almost had a panic attack because I did not want to do that. I said, ‘If I have to be in an office setting, reading cases my whole life, I will kill myself.’ So I (realized) I needed to do something that I am passionate about, something that I love, in order to be successful. And that is when I decided I would go to culinary school and work my way up.”
She trained for six months at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Paris before embarking on travels to Italy and on to Asia for better insight into the practices of worldwide cuisine.
“I would offer my services for free, exchanging my labor hands for knowledge,” she recalled. “It has been extremely valuable. I think it is as important as going to culinary school — you need to learn the techniques out there and apply them in order to find your own voice. Knowledge is power.”
She considers Chica to be the culmination of all her efforts.
“The 20 hours a day I spend killing myself in the kitchen, the third-degree burns on my face, the cooking competitions, so many things that you do throughout your life and your career, and finally I feel at this moment — organically — being here. At the end of the day, this is who I am.”
THE BUSINESS SIDE
Despite her many successes as a chef, Garcia doesn’t count her years spent studying law as a waste of time. In fact, she attributes the development of critical business acumen that has helped create that success to that time at Santa Maria.
“I will thank my mother (Venezuelan politician Blanca Ibáñez) always,” Garcia said. “She said, ‘if you do not know what you’re going to study, you are going to go to law school.’ I think that gave me the capability to think logically. And with that came the business side of my career.”
AGAINST THE WALL
In anticipation of the opening of Chica, a 21-foot-tall photograph of Garcia was added to the center of The Venetian’s Culinary Titans wall Feb. 15, joining the towering images of Thomas Keller, Mario Batali, Buddy Valastro, Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse.
“I remember when I moved to the United States, watching Food Network and seeing Emeril Lagasse serve dishes and creating all these recipes, having an audience and really showcasing what the culinary arts are all about. It inspired me. I wanted to do that. I wanted to teach, I wanted to be able to communicate, which is one of my passions. I needed to prepare myself, and now — years after — I am here on the wall, next to Emeril Lagasse. So it is a big day for me.”
“Finally we will be adding a rose to the garden,” Markantonis told a gathered audience for the unveiling event in front of the wall of celebrated chefs, adjacent to the hotel’s porte-cochere.
“We are (adding) a talented chef, our first female chef. Chef Lorena is going to bring a whole new dimension to this property. I think it is going to be a huge addition, not just to the Venetian, but to the entire Strip. I could not be prouder to stand in front of this image.”
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
Garcia’s reception has not always been so warm when she has joined groups of men.
“This is a male-dominated industry,” she noted. “It is 200 degrees in the kitchen — very physical, very intense. I noticed through the years that I had to prepare harder and work harder to gain the respect of my peers. The first time that I walked into a big kitchen, I had guys working for me and I was the only woman. I found resistance from them, taking orders from a woman.
“For me to feel the space, I needed to feel at the time that I really knew what I was talking about. I needed to know that what they were doing, I had done it already, in order to get that respect.
“When it comes to being a Latina, my accent at the beginning of my career was a huge obstacle. But that almost became an asset as time progressed. It is my voice, distinctly me. I think having that acceptance (from peers and staff) allowed me to do that which I have done today. So I definitely have felt these challenges. Maybe not so much right now.”
She said she hopes that her achievements and profile in the industry can be the inspiration for aspiring chefs facing similar obstacles.
“I can be the first one, but I would not want to be the last one,” she said. “I want them to know that you can do it. You have to prepare yourself and you have to know what you are talking about and become a master in what you do, but you can do that. And if you love and are passionate about your career, it will happen.”
FOOD FOR LIVING
Garcia created the nonprofit organization, Big Chef, Little Chef, 10 years ago to help combat childhood obesity.
“We have 600 Miami public school students in the program, many from low-income homes where sometimes the only real meal they have is when they go to school,” she explained. “We create awareness with children and their parents – and we take it a step further, going to cafeteria school workers — teaching them the importance of healthy cuisine. Getting to the basics.
“When we teach the cafeteria workers, they can take the ingredients they already have and create healthier options for the kids. I believe as time passes, we become more aware of what we feed our children, and how we are feeding them and where we are getting the ingredients. I’ve seen tremendous acceptance of the program.”
She has also worked with Taco Bell to help create healthier and more appealing menu options — Cantina Bell — and helped develop healthier public school menus through the organization, Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded by the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association.
THE VALUE OF A THICK SKIN
Garcia said one of the most formative figures in her own career is the renowned Chef Pascal Oudin, for whom she worked at Miami’s Grand Bay Hotel between 1998 and 2001. “He was the very first to help me when I was in culinary school,” she said.
“He was tough, very tough with me. I had to make 3,000 dishes, and if one was not right, it would go onto the floor. That is how strict he was with me. I shed so many tears in the kitchen, but that is what made me. I do not think I would have found that strong voice otherwise.
“Once I walked out of the kitchen, that experience prepared me. It is almost like I developed a tough skin, and thank God he did that, because years after, when I’m in the kitchen with those 25 guys probably saying, ‘here comes a girl, she does not know what she’s talking about,’ I think that tough skin is what allowed me to not fail. To say, ‘let’s go for it, let’s go even higher and stronger and prepare even more.’ ”
Asked if she adopts the Chef Oudin mentoring technique with her own pupils, Garcia laughed … but only a little. “Let me tell you, I’m a very creative person and when I’m in a creative mood, I am super nice and super open about ideas,” she answered. “But once I am into my business, it is business. I think that is like all of life. It is a balance.”
The Las Vegas Business Press is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.