From Top Chef Masters contestant to Taco Bell spokeswoman, chef Lorena Garcia’s passion can be felt through the television. Even over the phone, you can’t help but become excited about whatever project this busy Venezuelan is working on. Presently, she serves as the executive chef for the Miami International Airport and operates airport cafés in Dallas/Ft. Worth and Atlanta. Next on Garcia’s to-do list is preparations for the opening of her first Las Vegas restaurant, Chica, by Yardbird parent company 50 Eggs, which is slated for a spring opening in the former DB Brasserie footprint in The Venetian. Vegas Seven managed to steal a few very-early-morning minutes with Garcia, who just returned from a trip to Peru, to get to know the Las Vegas culinary scene’s next leading lady.
What’s the concept for Chica?
I’ve been cooking for so many years, and my style of cuisine is what I call “fresh, modern Latin.” It’s the representation of Latin cuisine in the United States, where we become one culture when we land in the U.S. That’s what I wanted to bring to Chica: the emphasis from Venezuela, where I was born, but also Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Central America. We have such amazingly beautiful ingredients and techniques, but I wanted to have that common thread of how we make food. Food that you can relate to whether you’re from Mexico or Argentina. When you come to Chica, you’re going to be able to relate to our food. I’ve made and tested every single recipe on the menu. I want to make sure that I represent who I am: a Latina in the U.S. [It’s] the flavors that we have and the cuisine that has developed from all the Latin American cultures that we have here in the U.S.
After [my trip to] Peru, I am revived. I am already making a few tweaks in the menu, being inspired by so many beautiful ingredients and techniques that I saw during my stay. I’m excited to jump into the menu again before we get into the restaurant.
What’s on the menu?
I wanted the menu to be approachable. I take inspiration from the main dishes that you will find in the U.S. For example, the burger—that, everybody knows. If you want a great burger, you’re going to be able to have it at Chica, but Lorena style: The arepa is our bread in Venezuela, and I [use] these breads for our burger. It’s gonna be delicious, but at the same time different. I have the mac con queso; instead of using pasta, I use Peruvian corn, but with the same fusion of cheeses and delicious fresh hearts of palm and spinach. With the ceviches, to honor Mexican cuisine, I have a presentation of my white ceviche where I make the tostadas with a little pico de gallo, made with poblano peppers. And we bring the aji dulce, which is a delicious aji or chili that you find, again, in the northern part of South America. We have coctel de camarones, which is a shrimp cocktail presented in a different way. We have arepitas, a different approach to Latin cuisine that has never been done before. We’re going to bring something different to Vegas, a representation of Latin cuisine as we see it in the United States.
How did you become involved with this project?
I’ve been fortunate enough to know John Kunkel and 50 Eggs for many years. They own Yardbird, which is at the Venetian. And [50 Eggs] has been extremely happily working with them at The Venetian. This opportunity arose and, again, I couldn’t have been more happy to be partners with John and 50 Eggs and bring this restaurant together. My dream has been to finally find a home. And lucky enough that John and I were able to get together and bring this proposal to The Venetian and now it has became a reality. So I couldn’t be happier for my first restaurant to be in Las Vegas. I love the city; it is a perfect location for us. And to be able to bring the flagship of the restaurant to Vegas, it’s gonna be fantastic.
I hear you actually once worked in law?
Yes, I went to law school and graduated in Venezuela, and then I became a paralegal once I arrived in the U.S. That wasn’t my passion, but food was. I had the chance to go to culinary school here in the States, which I didn’t in Venezuela. So I came to the States, traded my law books for the knife and cutting board, and dove into the career that I’m so passionate about. And like I always say, if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, success will come later.
And you went on to stage at the Ritz in Paris and throughout Asia?
A teacher at my school said that if you have the chance to travel the world and learn about different cultures, techniques and ingredients, you’re gonna be able to find your own voice. And that is exactly what I did. I set out on a tour and visited Asia twice. Italy is a big influence of mine and, of course, Latin America, my home base. So I thought of that at that time, after I finished school, and I try to do it every year, just to take a trip and dive into the culture of different countries and bring it into my cuisine.
You have also been involved with an anti-obesity campaign, as well.
I created the program, Big Chef Little Chef, about 10 years ago, and we actually have a school here in Miami that we adopted. We hold classes for children and their parents on the basics of cooking, and how to eat and cook healthy. What I like is that we’re teaching kids where ingredients come from, how to store them, how to prepare them and how to serve them. It gives them a little more ownership of what they make.
I realize that when children are involved in the homework of cooking, they become better eaters; they’re more open to taste different dishes. I learned that it was an easy progression to start making a little change for the kids who cannot afford going to restaurants or even the kids who sometimes the only meal that they have during the day is at school. It was important to me and we were fortunate enough to be able to go to different schools here in Miami Bay. I’m extremely excited for all the things that we’ve been able to do with Big Chef Little Chef.