by Dan Koday. May 8, 2017
Collaborating with John Kunkel, the owner and founder of the Miami based hospitality group behind Yardbird, 50 Eggs Inc., this is undoubtedly a big moment in Garcia’s career because the strip is as coveted as much as it is challenging for celeb chefs (It’s worth noting that Eva Longoria’s now-closed restaurant and nightlife concepts only lasted two years there.) But the Venezuelan-born Garcia — who says she’s poured her heart and soul into the project — is more than up for the challenge.
“Developing the menu for Chica has been one of the greatest joys of my career. I am so proud to share my exciting Latin flavors and cuisine with the thousands of travelers from around the world who visit Las Vegas,” she says. “Latin cooking will now be showcased on one of the world’s biggest stages.”
Ahead of the opening, we spoke with Lorena about Chica, the challenges of opening in Vegas, and her favorite dishes on the menu in this exclusive interview.
Why did you decide to name the restaurant ‘Chica’?
To name a restaurant is a process because you have to see what names are available, which are taken, and consider something that is original — a name that represents the cuisine and what you’re doing. Some names were floating around like Chica Latina…everyone that knows or speaks the language is going to know that it’s a Latina anyway. Me, being the executive chef and making the food, they’re going to know and make the right connection. We wanted a name that was short and easy to pronounce in all languages, so Chica came about and stuck to us. It’s a name that characterized a lot of my points of reference, so I figured why not.
As one of the first Latina chefs on the strip — what does this moment feel like in your career?
It’s kind of bittersweet. Of course I’m extremely excited and humbled to be the first one to be on the strip in Las Vegas, but at the same time I wish that there would be more. What’s refreshing or comforting is that hopefully we are paving a path for other female chefs to come. Not only to Vegas, but around the world, to showcase our talent as chefs because it is definitely a male-dominated industry. It’s a dream come true to be honest and definitely a milestone in my career.
Who would be another Latina chef you would want on the strip with you?
OH! You can’t do that to me. You’re going to put me in trouble with tons of my friends. It would be so difficult to do that because there are so many talented female chefs. There is 2 (two words I cant understand 5:20) there in Las Vegas and even though she’s not a Latina, she’s amazing. I admire her so much for all that she and Susan have done through the years — they were the pioneers actually when it came to two hot tamales growing up in my profession. I used to see them and was like ‘wow’ I definitely want to do that. And now to be able to be friends with them and be able to talk about the experiences, is something incredible. There are new generations of chefs coming up that I don’t even know. Las Vegas is an incredible place to have a restaurant. There are definitely tourists out there and it is a perfect way to showcase your food.
How did the collaboration with 50 Eggs come about?
I called John Kunkel and I said, “Hey I want to open a restaurant, what do you think?” And he said he wanted to open a restaurant too. We joined forces and the amazing concept of Chica was born. We worked on the development of the idea, what it would look like, and the name. He’s from Miami and someone I’ve known for many, many years and we were able to reunite when I was ready to do this. It was a fantastic match because he is already at the Venetian with Yardbird so he knows the customers and the operation. For me it was a perfect marriage. And so we had the opportunity to present to the Venetian and here we are.
What are the challenges of opening a restaurant in Vegas or in a casino in general?
The scale! It’s always a challenge — every baby is completely different. It’s like having a child. You have labor pains, then the baby is born, and you have to very careful and give it a lot of love — a lot of kisses and that’s exactly how I see each restaurant. The airport is a totally different challenge, and a different thing for me to do, to make it work for the traveler. Now when you’re on a property such as the Venetian, not only do you have the intensity of the amount of people you’ll be serving, but [the pressure of] being responsible to your partners — in my case to the Venetian and 50 Eggs. And you want to make sure the menu is feasible and acceptable to all of the people who go there. Like if I cook just for you, or for four people in my house, it’s different than if I’m cooking for 400 people. It could be the same recipe, but it’s a matter of a lot of training, a lot of testing, and being able to stick to your idea and stick to your flavor, but at the same time be flexible when it comes to how are we going to execute this dish. How is it going to go through the line, how will it get to the costumers — of all those things. The bigger the scale, the more difficult. You have to really focus it and make sure the beginning of the recipe is exactly the same to the end.
Since this menu is based on comfort food, what are some of your favorites?
For me, when I created this menu, it is all about the love. It’s so cheesy, but it really is. The idea, when I started cooking it, was because I wanted to share those moments of love with my friends and family. Actually, my best recipe is when I’m cooking at home outside and one of my family members or friends is screaming “Lorena, oh my god this is incredible!” When I hear those voices of excitement is when I start thinking and bringing all these ideas. Even if you’re not from Venezuela or South America, I want to create a memory of when you were hanging out with your family, when you were younger…those flavors. So for me, it’s to create those moments through my food and that’s the energy I put into all of these beautiful dishes. Being able to connect with my customers or the people who come to the restaurant at that level. My favorite dish, I would have to say, has influences of all the countries from South America that I am attached to. Either I lived there, or have been for long periods of time in that country. My favorite dishes…I can tell you that I eat the Asado Negro Arepas that I’m going to be serving at the restaurant. Those are little arepitas with the cheese from Venezuela. Or the Lomo Saltado from Peru — a beautiful dish that all of the houses make — we’ll be able to elevate it through presentation. Amazing chimichurris and Meyer lemon rotisserie chicken that is going to come out from the grill. Peruvian corn that I have created called Maz con Queso with a bigger sweet kernel so it’s very conducive to the sauces that we are making as a side. It’s the type of food that you crave every day — that’s what I wanted to bring to the table.
What was your first food memory?
My first food memory is very vivid. I did a picnic — I think I was 6 or 7 years old — a picnic in the living room. I woke up very early and I made arepas, and huevos, scrambled eggs with green onions and tomatoes, and a little bit of café con leche. When you looked in the kitchen there was flour and eggs everywhere. My mother almost had a heart attack when she saw the kitchen, but then she turned around and went to the living room and I had all this set up on the floor and I thought it was just going to be the most amazing surprise for my mama to wake up to her breakfast. So, that was my first food memory. I was so little, but since then that has been my favorite breakfast ever.
Lastly, what do you think about what’s going on in Venezuela politics wise…what would you want to say to the Latina readers to let them know what’s going on down there or how they can help?
I don’t like to talk about politics, I always stay away from that, but something that I can tell you is to create awareness. Really trying to help in any way shape or form. And even though it doesn’t seem like it, I think that Venezuela is in a moment where humanitarian help is so needed. You can not find food, you cannot find medicine…just the basic needs and I think it goes beyond what the political situation might be. And as much as I can I try to send food and medicine to the family that I have there. I always stay in touch with them, making sure to support them in any way that I can. I hope that change is here for them and that the country hopefully gets better and they have the basic needs that they need in order to have a happy life.
Chica opens at The Venetian on May 14th 2017. Visit www.chicalasvegas.com to make a reservation.