Talking Shop with Chica’s Lorena Garcia and John Kunkel
As one of the country’s top celebrity chefs, Lorena Garcia is best known for her television roles on Top Chef Masters, America’s Next Great Restaurant, and multiple shows on Telemundo. In May she opened Chica at The Venetian and became the first female celebrity Latin chef to grace the Vegas Strip. While she was in town last month we sat down to chat with her about her transition from law to the culinary profession, what it’s like to be on a reality competition TV show and some of the dishes she has created at Chica.
You grew up in Venezuela. What led to you coming to the US?
We used to come to Miami every summer and it was always a dream of mine that after I graduated from high school, I wanted to come to the States. But that didn’t happen. I went to law school and as soon as I finished, my family moved to Miami and I came with them.
How did you transition from earning a law degree to becoming a chef?
I came from a family of attorneys so my mother said to me, “You are going to law school,” which I did. But I always found an excuse to be in the kitchen and loved cooking for friends and realized I wasn’t passionate about law and wanted to follow my passion. I attended the Johnson & Wales culinary school, which had a campus in Miami. It was risky, but the best decision I ever made in my life.
How would you describe your cooking?
Fresh, modern, Latin. It is the compilation of all the Latin cultures. When we talk about Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan or Argentinean cuisine, it is one culture in which we have a melting pot of ingredients and commonality of techniques. There are many similar dishes and ingredients in all of South America and I think that unifies our culture here in the United States.
Can you give us some examples of dishes at Chica that reflect these influences?
I wanted to make a menu with dishes reflecting places I’ve lived. We use Peruvian corn, salsa verde from Mexico and everyone as soon as they sit down at their table receives a basket of arepas, which are a biscuit using corn instead of flour from Venezuela.
You are the first female celebrity Latin chef to helm a kitchen on the Vegas Strip. How do you feel about that?
Incredibly proud, surprised and extremely happy to be able to have the opportunity with the blessing of my partners, to have a presence in Las Vegas, and to be at The Venetian, which I think is one of the best properties on the Strip. To be somewhere of this caliber, it’s really a dream come true.
You are well known for your appearances on Top Chef Masters and America’s Next Great Restaurant. What’s it like appearing on a competition reality show?
There is nothing you can do to prepare for this. It’s an experience like no other, very intense and with no days off for two months, cooking a ridiculous amount of food. It allows you to be creative, think on your feet and shows you what you are made of.
You still oversee your restaurant operations in the Miami, Dallas and Atlanta airports. How do balance your time overseeing them and Chica?
We do nothing alone; we are part of a fantastic team that makes everything happen. I spend time in Las Vegas as much as I can and come here once a month for three or four days.
What are some of the dishes you like to eat at your restaurants?
We have home cooking that is flavorful, good food. At my restaurants we serve arepas in different recipes and presentations. The ceviches are incredible; I like our mac con queso, which is my version of mac n cheese, but with corn instead of pasta; we have amazing moles; herb-crusted rack of lamb; marinated chicken rotisserie; short rib cooked long and slow; and black eyed pea mash.
After having a restaurant here in Las Vegas now, what do you think of Las Vegas as a food destination?
As John Kunkel says, “Being good is not good enough, you have to be great.” In Las Vegas you have to be excellent because there is the largest concentration of incredible restaurants and names of chefs.
What do you like to do with your free time?
I have a two year old, so there is no such thing. I try to sleep when he does, but that rarely happens. Spending time with my family fulfills me tremendously. I’m also working on a book about cooking for children with 100-150 recipes that teaches moms what to eat when they are pregnant and what to feed their children to train their palate so they are not a picky eater.
At age 46 John Kunkel has accomplished more than most do in a lifetime, first developing the successful Lime Fresh fast-casual concept in Florida and later selling it and founding his Miami-based 50 Eggs restaurant group, which includes Yardbird Southern Table and Bar and Chica, both at The Venetian on the Vegas Strip. We sat down with him to learn about his backstory, philosophy of restaurant concept creation and how he came up with the interesting 50 Eggs moniker
How did you become a chef?
My first job when I was15 was as a dishwasher and then a line cook, and have since worked every job in the restaurant business; so I appreciate how important every role is.
You’ve accomplished a lot at a fairly young age, first with developing your Lime Fresh fast-casual concept into a very successful chain and then doing the same with your 50 Eggs restaurant group. To what do you attribute your success in developing highly successful restaurants?
Tenacity. I never give up, and have conviction, because there are a lot of obstacles in this business and a lot of restaurants fail. It’s all I know and it’s definitely a calling. I don’t know how to do anything else.
How did you come up with the name 50 eggs?
Back to that hard headedness and tenacity. About the time I was starting the group I watched the Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke, where he eats 50 eggs, but in multiple scenes he shows tenacity and never gives up.
What locations do you have restaurants in?
We have four different concepts with locations in Miami, Las Vegas, Singapore and one opening soon in L.A. and are considering new restaurants in D.C., Chicago, Denver, Hong Kong and London.
You’ve branched out from Miami to expand with Yardbird in Las Vegas and now Chica; how come you chose Las Vegas?
We first got a call from MGM, but it wasn’t the right fit. Later I talked with Patrick Lange (Vice President of Global Restaurant and Nightlife Development for the Las Vegas Sands Corp.) and he was our champion and wanted us. Management said no at first, but I kept plugging away and eventually they agreed. Las Vegas is scary because it’s a highly competitive market. There are amazing food and beverage people in this town and we found an amazingly high quality staff.
How would you describe the cuisine of Yardbird and Chica. Are there any similarities between the two as far as philosophy or what you are trying to accomplish?
Yardbird represents all things Southern and you feel like you are in the South. Chica is a celebration of all things Latin with high energy. Similarities are the passion and great people at both. We want to do it right and we connect back-of-the-house with front-of-the-house.
How did your association with Lorena Garcia come about?
Funny story. I had a house in Miami I was selling and she and her partner looked at it and while they didn’t end up buying the house, we all hit it off and became friends. This was well before she appeared on Top Chef. We’ve remained friends and I knew she’d be a perfect fit for Chica. I really enjoy working with her. She’s a very positive person, super high energy, loves cooking in the kitchen and loves talking to people. I can’t say enough good things about her.
I must commend you on deciding to feature a tap line-up at Yardbird consisting 100% of beers brewed in Nevada. What motivated you to do that and what is your opinion of local Vegas beer?
We started as a local restaurant in Miami and embraced the local audience. Vegas beer is awesome. We have great local artisans who are doing great stuff, so why go elsewhere. And we’ve taken the same approach at Chica.
What are some of the dishes you like to eat when you dine at your restaurants?
I gravitate towards specials and what’s new and love our rotisserie dishes. I’m really obsessed with the food at Chica right now. It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done as a company.
What are the future plans for 50 Eggs? Do you have any more Vegas openings in the works?
As a concept creator, I always have something cooking. It would be a totally different concept, but it’s about 18 months down the road. We have a great relationship with The Venetian/Palazzo and I’d love to stick with them if we have the option.
After having a restaurant here in Las Vegas for a few years now, what do you think of Las Vegas as a food destination?
Las Vegas has so many choices and representation and has become a dining destination where you can find great places on or off the Strip. The days of chain restaurants dominating the town are gone and craft cocktail bars and programs are taking off as well.
What do you like to do with your free time?
I am an avid water enthusiast and like anything in the ocean such as surfing, free diving and spear fishing. Living in Miami I get a chance to do that but I also travel quite a bit.