Chef Lorena Garcia talks about vision for Chica

When Latin American celebrity chef Lorena Garcia first came to Las Vegas seven years ago she had no idea she would one day be here with her own restaurant. Lorena came to shoot the “Top Chef” cooking show challenge but en route to the remote studio set up in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas she passed by The Venetian where a wall displayed a lineup of all-male celebrity culinary icons.

She vowed that one day she would create a vision board putting her photograph in the center of the men promising sometime in the future she would reach their same level with a Las Vegas venue. She didn’t win “Top Chef” — only getting as far as the semifinals — but she did eventually land her own Chica restaurant at The Venetian. And now she has a new vision board. She’s convinced that will come true, too! More on that a little later.

We sat down together for dinner with some of her favorite dishes where she told me: “The reality show was six, seven years ago but that wall of the culinary titans was in my mind all the time. It was something that definitely caught my eye and I wanted to be what it represented more than anything.

“I actually drew the board three years ago — and it was so definite that’s how come I returned to Las Vegas with Chica. It made it happen for me. I landed at The Venetian. When I was on the TV show, a dear friend told me, ‘It doesn’t matter if you win or you lose, it’s all about being remembered.’ Now, I’m remembered all the time!”

Q: One never really thinks of it as a smart, hip cuisine here in Nevada. Maybe in Miami, yes. But there was some education here, yes?

A: Absolutely. I think that one of the biggest challenges is how you can make a food that is almost street food and very, if you would, pedestrian to a point, and how we can elevate it to the highest level, but it’s still being approachable. And I think that is the key, because Latin cuisine is all about that sentiment, that feeling, and that was something that I always kept in my mind, that I wanted to be approachable but at the same time, I need to make it high-end and really what it represents who I am today. And that’s when the menu was born.

Q: When we think south-of-the-border cooking, we always think Mexican. But there’s a big difference between Latin American cuisine and Mexican food?

A: One hundred percent — when you see Mexican cuisine, you’re talking about chiles, spices and how these mole and strong sauces come about, and it’s definitely one of the patrimonies of the world, so it’s very worldly known. But, we have such a melting pot of cultures right in Latin America, and when I say Venezuela, Columbia, Central America, all the way down to Brazil, Peru and Argentina, we have common threads of ingredients but techniques are different. And me spending so much time in Latin America and Argentina, lived there for many years and have spent tons of time there. And, maybe from Venezuela, I figure why don’t I do what comes through me, which is my studies, my techniques, and what I have been learning through my years of culinary arts. And this style of cuisine was born.

I’ve been in this country for almost 30 years, and I have to work with ingredients that we find here in the states. So, it’s almost like a representation of Latin America to a culture of Latinos in the United States, that have a little bit of everything and we want to be identified with this culture. For example, if somebody from Mexico or Argentina comes to Chica, they’re gonna find something in the menu that: “Oh, I know what it is all about. I know what to expect from this.”

Q: It’s an interesting career choice and change because you set out as a lawyer and then turned your back on the profession?

A: At the time it seemed to be like the biggest mistake, turning my back on a great job with a beautiful office, and wearing amazing clothing, and long nails and manicures. And I gave all that up for my chef jacket, cutting my nails, putting a ponytail back, but I absolutely love my profession, and I think that you need to love what you do.

Q: Were you cooking before you were training to be a lawyer?

A: I remember going to high school and pre-school and making all these excuses in group studies so I could cook for my friends. And actually with the era of technology and Facebook, I have my friends from years ago, and they said, “Lorena do you remember when we were in sixth grade and you would make four-cheese pizza?” I don’t know, whatever. But I would always find my way into a kitchen.

Q: How is it now after being here five months on the Strip, you are one of a handful of women? Is it still a boys’ club?

A: I am 100 percent convinced that it’s a boys’ club, but I think women are stepping out of the kitchen in their homes, and they’re coming into the real world, which is a strong kitchen that when you see the personalities that leave the kitchen, they’re strong women, they’re leaders. And I think that we have so many talented female chefs. I wish that we can see more.

Q: How have you felt about cooking and running a restaurant in Vegas? Is it tough?

A: It is tough. To a point though it’s what I expected. I think that I am … having exposed to the masses when it comes to how to do the description in the menu so people can feel familiarized with the dishes, and not be so boring. And, John Kunkel, my partner, from Yardbird has also taught me and inspired me in so many ways, of how we can keep the integrity of the brand but also be accessible to those people who just want their meat and potatoes, people that eat like that. So that’s what we wanted to do, not only from the ingredients that we use and the method of cooking, but also the description in the menu, so you feel comfortable walking in and knowing what to expect.

Q: What do you think of the food scene in Las Vegas?

A: Unbelievable. Let me tell you, I came here years ago and they change and they grow. The culinary scene here in Las Vegas is like the best in the world. I think that you have to be good to sustain in Vegas because mediocre or just good-enough restaurant is not gonna cut it. So, you really have to be outstanding and understand that quantity cannot sacrifice the quality of the food, and that’s the tricky part.

It is more than what I expected. I thought that I was a little, not skeptical if you will, but anxious — that would be the word. I felt a little anxious about how my cuisine was going to be perceived, and it has a big responsibility to be on that wall, as well because you better have the pipes, and you (better be) walking the walk. But then, I see the response and it’s been absolutely amazing and super supportive, and you have been an amazing part of that, so imagine how happy I am. And I continue to put (out) the effort, you see me here every month.

Q: Let’s have a little fun. What would you order if you came to Chica for dinner?

A: I’m a very simpler eater, so I don’t eat much. You know what, I love my huancaina sauce and my salads. I love my burger, it’s absolutely delicious. The steak and frites with the churrasco, the chimichurri and the papitas chicas with the huancaina sauce, and the French Fry. Brunch, oh my goodness, we’re talking about arepas, cachapas, empanadas, and take it to the next level. It’s something that when I come in, it’s like I feel a little bit of home here.

Q: Is it difficult to get ingredients in America, Nevada especially, for Latin American cuisine?

A: It is not. I mean, we’re bringing some of our ingredients from L.A. We bring others from Miami, and flours and something very specific from my distributors in Venezuela. So, it hasn’t been that difficult because I think through the time and the boom of Latin cuisine in the states, we have been able to have accessibility to these ingredients. It’s been actually easier than what I expected to be.

Q: So what’s been the difficult thing?

A: The difficult thing. You know, really trying to respect the brand, and not forget that if somebody wants a pizza, we’re not going to make a pizza just to sell it. I think that when we can stay true to our brand, to what we do, the culture and the feeling that we want when you walk into Chica. And I think that keeping that, and at the same time being profitable — being accessible, switching a little bit of the energy of aggressiveness in the kitchen into passion and really giving that energy to the food, because something happens to the person that is making the food. When you see a cook that is just frustrated and angry, almost, because there is so much heat and so much intensity, when you can turn that into passion then you go to the people. And, that’s when you have the best.

I think that has been one of the most difficult things — is trying to gauge some of that and make it a focus — if I can explain myself well. And, again, when you walk outside, how by our description and by our food, (we are) also able to be accessible.

Q: Who’s the cook in Latin America, the guy or the girl?

A: The girl will do the cooking in Latin America for sure. And it is funny because when you go home, moms and the ladies at home are the ones that cook. But then you step out into a professional kitchen, and then you see like this big man doing it. So it’s interesting.

Q: Would you describe Las Vegas being a challenge for you? How would you describe your arrival in Las Vegas?

A: I think that you always have to have a challenge, and you have to give a little bit in order to make things happen. Like anything in life, you have to be flexible and you have to accommodate if you really … if you aren’t flexible you’re gonna break … and the bending. So, I think that really knowing how to be able to accommodate without losing the essence of what we do — that has been the most challenging thing, and yes, definitely it is a challenge.

Q: Being honest a lot of people, thought of you as an unknown factor at the beginning when you first came here. Nobody knew you. Everybody said Latin American food in the Italian Venetian, oh, I don’t know how that’s going to work, taking over the DB Brasserie space. Three strikes against you from the very beginning. Were you frightened?

A: I was unknown. there is always a little bit of anxiety, if you’re gonna walk the walk, you better do it, and you have to have the pipes. But I have a certain level of confidence because when John, my partner, and I sat down, I thought that I was ready. And, I didn’t do it before because I wasn’t. So I think that the confidence came through when those moments of insecurity comes about, right, so I think that I’ve never done a step in my life in my career without being confident about it. And that’s time to do it.

Q: This is your fourth restaurant, but your first big proper one? The first three are airport boutique eateries in Miami, Atlanta and Dallas. Is having a proper place intimidating in itself?

A: Totally, and a big learning experience. But let me tell you, there’s not a better feeling than a recipe that I created, take it to a scale and then turn around and see 200 people sitting in the restaurant eating it. Having that projection of an idea that it was born and how from the moment of execution to actually seeing it live, it is a feeling like no other.

Q: Is every night opening night?

A: It is every night — opening night, absolutely, at least in my eyes. We’re very much in touch, and as you see I like to be present. And one of the things that they tell me in the kitchen is that: “Well, chef, we didn’t expect to see you so much,” and that’s OK.” I want people to know that I am here, that I’m not just gonna be the face on the wall. … I’m in the kitchen injecting that energy. They have their training, they know what they’re making, and it’s not about that. But it’s really for them to see that the passion, idea and the love behind it are here to support them, and I think that has a lot to do with it as well.

A restaurant has to have a soul. And I am the soul here at Chica. You have to put your face (out), you have to show up. And, that’s what I try to do every single month, in all my places, not only here.

Q: So, tell me the most favorite thing on the menu of yours — the No. 1 favorite.

A: That’s a tough one. Robin. It’s like picking your favorite child. You know my sauces, my picos, they’re done with so much finesse. When a pico de gallo is made by knife skill, which is how we do it here, we don’t put anything in the robo cook or start blending things. That would be one of my favorite things because no matter what you put it on it’s just absolutely amazing. My arepas, because it’s the food that I grew up with, and being able to see an arepa in The Venetian in Las Vegas, you can imagine what it does to me.

Q: It’s all a form of street food isn’t it?

A: It is. We’ve been able to elevate it. I infuse different ingredients like beets, cilantro, black beans, carrots. We infuse it and we elevate them, and the way that we present them and cook them is definitely different, but yes, but I just want you to have a bite and feel, “Hmm, I feel home.”

Q: So, Chica food is not ordinary food by any means?

A: Not by any means. Let me tell you that every single dish has been thought out. We make our own bacon. We make our own Chicon for our Cubano sandwich. We’re not slicing any processed meat. Everything is extremely fresh. Our salsas, like I said, and our picos are made with knife skill. We marinate, our chicken takes two days into the brine into the marinade to put it on the grill. So we take our time and we do it well

Q: You got here thanks to a vision board. Something tells me though you’re too strong not to have drawn a new vision board. What’s on it now?

A: On the vision board now will be many sisters for Chica, many little sisters for Chica. Also, continue to do television, which is something else that I absolutely love. I started producing now. I’m an executive producer for a couple of shows. And that has done a lot for my career. I love to communicate, and God has given me that passion as well. And continue to write and chef.

I continue to be in touch with the food. I cook every day. I’m in the kitchen every day, and that is something that I never want to miss because I think once you lose in touch with your kitchen, something gets lost. So I like to stay grounded that way.

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