After nabbing the law degree her mother prayed for, Lorena Garcia left her native Caracas, Venezuela for Miami to start a new life. As a girl, she’d woken her family up with café con leche and arepas; she was a baby reina de la cocina, known for cooking big meals at family parties. But when she moved to the United States, it was time to leave all of that behind. One her first big day as a paralegal, she dressed up and stood tall as she walked into the office. Then, she had a panic attack.
“I knew it wasn’t for me,” says Garcia, who is now one of the most famous Latina chefs in the United States, Venezuela, and well beyond. “I thanked them for the opportunity, walked out, went home and signed up for culinary school. My mother was really not happy, but she has finally, and just recently, gotten over it.”
As the first Latina celebrity chef to open a restaurant on the Las Vegas Strip, Garcia has now given her mom plenty of bragging rights. Just in time for Mother’s Day on Sunday, May 14, she unveiled Chica, her take on modern South and Central American food, in the 9,395-foot space where the Venetian Hotel & Casino used to house Chef Daniel Boulud’s db Brasserie.
Garcia calls her vision for Chica “an eclectic menu with influences from South America: from Argentina, up through Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela, that all comes together in celebration of one culture.”
The project launched after she pitched the idea of starting a new restaurant with long-time friend, John Kunkel, the CEO of 50 Eggs, a Miami-based restaurant group. Kunkel, who is best known for turning 26-dollar fried chicken into an international franchise with his Miami southern food staple, Yardbird, was a natural fit to develop upscale Latin comfort food.
“John and I have been talking about this restaurant concept for two years,” she says. “When a spot opened up in the Venetian where he has Yardbird, we went in and pitched them on the magic Latin cuisine and culture and won the spot.”
For Garcia, portraying an authentic, but broad, portrait of Latin cuisine is paramount.
“At Chica, in every dish, you feel the tradition of the country where it was located,” she says. “I want each dish to evoke a memory of place, of culture and of flavors. For example, my huevos rancheros dish rests on an arepita. We make all the masa, along with all of our ingredients, in house, and it’s those kind of twists that will make the dishes both recognizable and special.”
Garcia’s 21-foot photo is now featured next to the likes of Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck, and Emeril Lagasse.
With Kunkel’s help, foodies, hipsters, international socialites, and the Strip’s beautiful people are sure to pack the well-publicized restaurant and make it a hit. But will she reach the Latino community she’s hoping to represent on huge scale?
The breadth of her career certainly shows an opportunity. After getting her culinary arts degree at Johnson and Wales, Garcia trained in cuisines around the world, working with renowned chefs in countries like Italy, Japan, China, Korea, and Thailand after doing a stint at the Ritz-Carlton in Paris. She first ventured into the world of Latin cuisine with her restaurants Food Café and Elements Tierra in Miami’s Design District, where she blended Asian and Latino influences.
She closed both restaurants in 2008, and then pivoted to an approach that would re-define Latin food for mass, diverse audiences: the thousands passing through the bustling airport hubs in Miami, Atlanta, and Dallas Fort Worth. As the executive chef of Miami’s airport, she defined Lorena Garcia’s Cocina as an interpretation of “Latino favorites” with a healthy spin. The “Latin lite” concept stuck. She went on to consult for Taco Bell to help them lighten up their menu, wrote two books on healthy Latino cooking, and started her own line of cookware for HSN. After an appearance on Top Chef Masters, she had entered the public sphere via the unofficial fast track to mass appeal: reality television and fast food.
Now, with her 21-foot photo featured at the Venetian next to the likes of Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck, and Emeril Lagasse, she will be seen as the Latina chef for the hordes of foodies descending on the Strip this summer. But local Latino podcasters wonder if the Strip can ever truly represent Latin American cuisine.
For the Latino communities of Las Vegas, native foods live at the Broadacres Swap Meet 10 miles northeast of the Strip, and in the eastern Latino neighborhoods far from the glitz of the Strip, where the streets flood when it rains and infrastructure crumbles. In these neighborhoods, abuelitas sell tamales and pupusas out of their garages or the backs of panaderías. Peruvian means Lomo Saltado at the Inka Express. You get your Mexican from Los Tacos or Tacos El Gordo. Argentinian is empanadas at Rincón de Buenos Aires. And people outside of the community are visiting more than ever.
If you really want to see different cultures in Las Vegas, you go to the Broadacres Swap Meet. That’s where it happens.
“When it comes to culture, people aren’t depending so much on the Strip,” says Justin Favela, who is an artist and the co-founder of the Latino identity podcast Latinos Who Lunch with curator Emmanuel Ortega. “People are coming to Vegas now to see the real Las Vegas. With so many brown people? Of course the food is going to be off the chain.”
“Las Vegas has always been proud of bringing cultures together,” adds Ortega. “They advertise that you can go everywhere from Paris to Brooklyn in just a few steps on the Strip. But the reality is, if you really want to visit different cultures, you go to the swap meet. That’s where it happens. There are even shuttles that go there now.
So can Garcia’s new endeavor cross the class divide between upscale Latin Chic and the down home Latino cool of local street food?
“People are going to come to try her food, but while they’re here, they’ll go to other local places too, and that’s important,” says Favela. “At the oldest shopping center in the area, which is like this shitty, run down 1960s shopping center. There are a lot of old-school restaurants there, and the most famous Thai place is called Lotus of Siam. On any given night, there is a top chef there eating, because it’s so good. She will be there, and I’m sure she’ll go to the taquerías, that’s what connects these places.”
Garcia confirms this theory, and the idea that she’ll be visiting every local spot she can. For her, staying as close to her roots as possible defines success.
It’s so impactful to teach people the foods of my country.
“I’ve always been doing this,” Garcia says. “I learn and am inspired by all great cooks, whether in their homes, on the street or in fine-dining restaurants.”
Garcia’s road to success didn’t always feel like a straight line to Vegas. But along the way, the pieces slowly seemed to fall into to place.
“The day I opened my first restaurant, I was doing everything, prepping, washing dishes, and spending long hours standing,” she says. “In the early days, it was so much work, not to mention pain. One day I landed on the hot line. I burned my fingers and my face, twice, and even singed off my eyebrows and eyelashes. I definitely wanted this career to go through that. I am so excited about Chica because for me it’s so impactful to employ so many great people and teaching them the foods of my country. This week—I finally saw the project come to life. It is literally a dream come true.”