Due to the impact of COVID-19, The Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, including CHICA Las Vegas, is closed temporarily. CHICA Miami is serving pick-up and delivery only.
Chef Lorena Garcia opens a new restaurant in Miami, extending the reach of her celebrated Latin American cuisine
By Sara Perez Webber
You may have tasted Chef Lorena Garcia’s tapas at the airports in Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth or Miami. Or you might have discovered Garcia’s cuisine on a trip to Las Vegas, where her CHICA restaurant occupies an enviable spot at The Venetian Resort on the Strip. Or maybe you’ve dined at the new CHICA restaurant in Miami’s trendy MiMo district, where starters include Lorena’s Arepa Basket, and especially hungry diners might be tempted by the wood-fire grill menu—including such options as Peruvian whole fish, Brazilian tomahawk ribeye and Venezuelan braised short rib.
Bringing the flavors of Latin America to a wider audience has been a mission for Garcia, a native of Caracas, Venezuela. While she originally intended to study law, the kitchen beckoned, and Garcia graduated from Johnson & Wales University with a degree in culinary arts. After landing her first job as an apprentice at The Ritz in Paris, Garcia honed her skills across the globe, working in Italy, Japan, Korea, Thailand and China. Yet her childhood roots and extensive travels throughout Latin America greatly influenced her cooking style.
Garcia opened her first solo restaurant, Food Café, in Miami in 2002 (she sold it and a second restaurant in Miami’s Design District in 2008). Additional openings followed as Garcia broadened her profile by publishing cookbooks, appearing on numerous shows on both English- and Spanish-speaking TV (including Top Chef Masters and The Biggest Loser), and even launching her own cookware line.
Most recently, Garcia opened the second CHICA restaurant in her home base of Miami. Catering Magazine recently caught up with Garcia to find out more about how she’s spreading the love for Latin cuisine.
CM: Congratulations on your new CHICA restaurant in Miami! Could you tell us a little about the restaurant and the menu?
Garcia: Opening CHICA Miami was a dream come true! Our menu delivers the robust and vibrant flavors of Latin American cuisine and offers a taste of so many cultures, with influences from Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina.
CM: How is the CHICA restaurant in Miami different from CHICA at The Venetian in Las Vegas?
Garcia: CHICA Miami is very similar to our big sister in Las Vegas, but I like to really customize the guest experience throughout. We thoughtfully crafted the Miami dishes, drinks, live entertainment programming, interior design and décor to match our neighborhood in MiMo [an area along Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard featuring Miami Modern architecture]. We’re not in a casino and have the opportunity to feature outdoor dining on our beautiful terrace. While CHICA Vegas offers breakfast daily for locals and tourists alike, CHICA Miami wakes up just a bit later and focuses on lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. On Saturdays it also turns into a lively late-night experience for those who want to transition from dinner into a vivacious night out!
CM: What’s it like to have a restaurant in such a high-profile location on the Las Vegas Strip?
Garcia: It’s an absolute honor to be the first Latina chef on the Las Vegas Strip. Staying true to Las Vegas, CHICA is able to provide a diverse experience, no matter if you’re looking for a casual meal, business meeting, or an over-the-top and indulgent dining experience. Given our location within The Venetian Resort, we have access to any ingredient our heart desires…only in Vegas can you serve the freshest, most sustainable and responsibly sourced cuisine right in the heart of the Mojave Desert!
CM: How did your airport restaurants come about, and do you have any plans to expand the number of locations?
Garcia: The decision-makers of HMSHost walked into my restaurant years ago. They asked, “What would you serve at an airport?” I immediately went back into the kitchen and cooked food that was delicious and portable to the traveler. A few months later I got the wonderful call that I was one of the chefs that they were appointing spaces to at the airport. We continue to explore locations nationally and globally to expand the brand.
CM: What inspired you to originally change career paths, from lawyer to chef?
Garcia: I pursued law because in my family they are all attorneys, and it seemed to be the natural choice at the time. However, I realized that my passion was cooking, and I decided to follow that calling and enroll in culinary school. Best decision I have ever made!
CM: Latin cuisine seems to be gaining in popularity in the U.S. Why do you think it’s catching on, and which Latin cuisines in particular do you see gaining traction?
Garcia: A couple of reasons—there is a higher concentration of people from Latin America in the U.S today, and people today are more open to trying new flavors. Venezuelan, Peruvian and Argentinian cuisines are gaining traction and becoming more familiar in the U.S.
CM: What are some of your favorite Latin ingredients and dishes?
Garcia: I love spices, like coriander and cumin, and herbs like cilantro and thyme. My favorite dishes are ceviches, cazuelas and arepas. They are my go-tos these days!
CM: How did you come up with the idea for your nonprofit, “Big Chef, Little Chef,” and how does it help children develop healthier eating habits?
Garcia: The idea came about when I traveled to different commitments and speaking opportunities throughout the country and noticed how many families were suffering from obesity. I would see young children, ages 5 to 6 years, overweight. I felt the need to do something about it, and that’s when I created Big Chef, Little Chef. The program teaches families and kids healthy habits of cooking and eating through hands-on classes.
CM: With your restaurants, television appearances, cookbooks and cookware, you have a wide reach. What will you be focusing on most in the upcoming year?
Garcia: I’ll be focusing on all my restaurants, and development on both digital and television in 2020.
Chef Lorena’s Grilled Peruvian Octopus
Served at CHICA in Las Vegas and Miami
1 Spanish octopus (3 to 4 pounds)
2 ounces olive oil
2 sprigs thyme
3 garlic cloves
Clean octopus head to get the innards out. Marinate the octopus in all the seasonings, and steam for 1 hour and 45 minutes. Let cool in refrigerator.
Mojo Rojo Marinade:
240 g (8.5 ounces) mojo
5 g (1 teaspoon) chipotle puree
3.75 g (3/4 teaspoon) cumin powder
5 g (1 teaspoon) smoked paprika
25 g (5 teaspoons) olive oil
Emulsify all ingredients together with a hand blender.
AjÍ Amarillo Emulsion:
190 g (7 ounces) mayonnaise
55 g (2 ounces) ají amarillo paste
28 g (1 ounce) lime juice
Whisk all ingredients together.
For the plate:
120 g (4.2 ounces) octopus
30 g (1 ounce) Ají Amarillo Emulsion
30 g (1 ounce) Mojo Rojo
3 padrón peppers
1 tablespoon crispy quinoa
15 g (.5 ounce) Brazilian pico
Marinate octopus and padrón peppers in mojo rojo. Grill octopus to get skin crisp, about 2 minutes on each side. Grill peppers until blistered on both sides. On the plate, spoon the ají amarillo emulsion and top with octopus, padrón peppers, crispy quinoa and Brazilian pico.
*Conversions from grams are approximate.