The coronavirus pandemic has shown that for restaurants, community comes first – including staff, guests, and professional peers. Operators are quick to stand in solidarity and share struggles and successes. As part of OpenTable’s partnership with Top Chef’s Restaurant Wars, we tapped into that spirit of generosity, asking chefs to tell us about the ups and downs of their careers: lessons learned, mistakes made, and their personal evolution along the way. Hear their stories, get inspired, and find resources to help in uncertain times here.
A native of Caracas, Venezuela, Lorena Garcia has spent her culinary career introducing Latin flavors to a wider audience. In addition to Top Chef, she’s appeared on shows on Telemundo and Univision. Her job titles include chef and entrepreneur behind Chica (with locations in Miami and Las Vegas) and also cookware designer, cookbook author, and founder of a nonprofit fighting childhood obesity. Her picture hangs on the Wall of Culinary Titans at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas. In short, Garcia has done it all.
With her experience have come plenty of learnings about hard work, following her passion, and targeting the right market. Here, she talks us through her path to success.
What’s the best advice you’d give to another chef or restaurateur who’s opening their first restaurant?
Really prepare. Opening a restaurant is so much more than just the food and service – it’s about understanding every aspect of the operation. Have your projections for four months, six months. Study the market even before considering opening.
What was the most exciting moment in your career?
Opening Chica, my dream restaurant, with those flavors that I wanted to bring to the table – that is one of my biggest successes.
What about mistakes you’ve made in your career? Are there any that stand out?
Absolutely. The lessons I have learned through years of working in restaurants, television, my nonprofit, and my books have helped me understand who my customers are and target to their needs.
Early on in your career, when you were presenting Latin American food to audiences in the US, were there challenges you faced?
One of things I learned cooking internationally is that people on the East Coast are different than people on the West Coast. Corn tortillas are common on the West Coast. On the East Coast, people feel that corn has an almost raw flavor. What are the things that you’re going to adapt? It’s an interesting learning curve, creating foods and flavors that are understood throughout the county.
Your photo sits among pictures of Thomas Keller and Emeril Lagasse on the “Wall of Culinary Titans” outside The Venetian. What was your reaction to seeing yourself there, or how did it feel to get that recognition, especially as the first woman?
I wanted to be in Vegas and be in the company of chefs I look up to in my career. First, I was surprised to see myself there. And after I took a minute to think about it, I felt gratitude and full awareness. These are the moments that you know to continue what you’re doing, that you’re on the right path. You can actually visibly look at it. Every time I go to Vegas I feel that involvement, that love, and it gives me fuel to continue to do what I do.
You’ve partnered with Taco Bell to expand their menu. What made you want to take on that project, and how did you approach it?
I thought about it for a long time before committing to a project like that. I had the opportunity to reach the 40% of the population that goes to Taco Bell – let’s bring them an opportunity to eat something low in calories, not full in fat. I changed some ingredients that needed improvement – guacamole, pico de gallo, rice. It was an opportunity to feed so many people who may not be able to afford a $30 meal.
You originally studied to be a lawyer. At what point did you realize you wanted to change paths?
The first time I realized was in my first job, the very first day that I had a case I needed to bring to court. I thought, this can’t be my career! I left the same day and followed my passion. I enrolled in culinary school the same year. My mother and brother thought I was out of my mind that I left my job to peel vegetables, but thank God I did.
But law school helped me with thinking logically and making the decisions I needed to make in my career. It’s something that taught me a lot throughout my journey.
You mentioned before how important it was to understand every aspect of the business as an owner, beyond the kitchen. How did you learn those skills?
I started with my own little restaurant, working my butt off. I opened with $40,000 and my best friends in front of house. I was doing everything. I figured, if I’m putting all these hours in, I want to do it for myself.
It was a small restaurant, and in six months there was a line outside with a 45-minute wait. I put eight more tables in, and it grew like that. I have a strong belief: every step at a time, like a ladder. Don’t rush; give it the time you need to give it. Only time and practice will give it to you.