When the doors at celebrity chef Lorena Garcia's new restaurant, Chica, opened at The Venetian this fall, she became the first Latina executive chef on The Strip. Now, in her latest chat with Vegas, the chef dishes on why her eatery is ditching kitchen machismo for feminine energy, and opting to highlight Latin food with high-end flair.
Is it shocking to you to know that you’re the first Latina to become an executive chef on The Strip? LORENA GARCIA: It is shocking to me. I’m honored, of course, by the title and being able to make it, but I was surprised to find out I was the first. I know that we have so many talented female chefs. We can be Hispanic or not, or American, or Asian—it doesn’t matter where we come from, but the fact that we only have four or five female chefs on The Strip does really surprise me.
I've read your cookbook New Latin Classics, and have eaten at some of your restaurants that feature its recipes, but does this new location have a different inspiration than your previous ones? LG: Chica is really a compilation of all my travels and experiences from where I've lived in Latin America. Think Argentina, Peru, Brazil, and, of course, Venezuela, where I was born, and then add all the flavors of Central America, and Mexico—all the recipes I've created are really a fusion of all these flavors and these cuisines. So, all we want to do is elevate Latin cuisine. The dishes are really the foods we grew up with in Latin America, but presented in a high-end way.
Our tequila is from female tequila growers, our wines as well represent some of the unique female growers of grapes and wines in America. It's a feminine restaurant, like I've said, it's called Chica. We transform the aggressiveness in the kitchen into passion. That's what I always try to translate to my team in the kitchen. Let's get rid of this aggressive feeling we feel when we're in a rush, and turn that energy into commitment and an attention to detail. Something switches in the kitchen when you can do that and these beautiful plates start coming out of the kitchen.
I always love watching great chefs collaborate in the kitchen, and I'm wondering if there's anyone you've cooked with that you find most complementary to your own style? LG: That's such an interesting question... I can say, in contrast, someone I admire such as Curtis Stone, who has a completely different type of cuisine, but I get so taken away by his cooking and the techniques he uses in the kitchen. But then I have chef Art Smith, who is like my brother, and we cooked soul food the other day. I cooked soul food from Latin America and he cooked soul food from the states, and when we cook together it’s seamless. I always welcome another point of view, and I always say that we get inspired and learn so much from each other. That makes cooking with each other an exciting experience.
As a leading Latina chef, what do you make of the growing Hispanic presence in restaurant kitchens across America? LG: Since I first stepped foot into the professional kitchen maybe 15 or 20 years ago, the workforce was Hispanic. Maybe the leaders in the kitchens were French, but the guys and girls on the line, really making it happen, were mostly Hispanic. Now you see so much talent starting to be recognized for their skills and their passion for food. Believe me, you’ll be amazed to find out at many of these French restaurants that there are people from Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Colombia, cooking your food. I’m excited to see more amazing talent becoming leaders in the kitchen.