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National Restaurant Association - Lorena Garcia courts public favor with Latin flavor

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Lorena Garcia courts public favor with Latin flavor

As part of our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, the celebrity chef and former attorney talks about leaving Venezuela to pursue her love of food and becoming the success she is today.

How does your background define you?

In every way, shape and form. I am a product of my studies and techniques combined with the food I grew up with. That intrinsically defines my style of cooking. It’s fresh, modern Latin. I always say if I can recreate a feeling, thought or memory you can connect to, that’s my purpose.

How important is the culture and its flavors to what you do?

The food I create represents Latin America [as a whole]. We’re one culture and I want every single Latino represented in my cooking. That’s what I strive for. The United States has been so open to the many different cuisines, flavors and ingredients we represent. I love that it has adopted the Latino culture as part of its own.

What made you come to America and become a chef?

We didn’t have any culinary schools at all in Venezuela. In my family, it was extremely important to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree. That was a foundation my parents always believed in. And that’s how I landed in law school. My parents are lawyers and my mother always told me it would help me in any career I chose to study and dedicate my life to. I came to this country mostly because of the insecurity and political situation in Venezuela. There was no future there. Arriving in the United States, it was my dream to go to culinary school. And Johnson & Wales University, one of the country’s top schools, was in Miami, so I pursued my passion – food!

It must have been a bit scary.

It was the best decision I ever made. I’d finished law school, but it was almost impossible for me to be in an office all day long. It just wasn’t what I wanted. I knew if I was going to be successful, it would be with something I loved. That’s why I decided to forget about law and just give the degree to my family.

Did your family support your career change?

I think I made my mother suffer so much! Her dream was for me to get dressed up and go to an office. When I told her I was going to go to culinary school, she went into shock. She couldn’t comprehend it. You know, 15 years ago there wasn’t the same celebrity chef status you have today. But once my family knew I was thoroughly committed to being the very best, they supported me 100 percent.

What are the skills you learned that advanced your career?

One of my first jobs…you know, I worked at different restaurants for free to see what it took to be a chef, but my first real job was at the Grand Bay Hotel while still in culinary school. I worked with Pascal Oudin, who came to this country from France. He was one of my mentors. I worked at the hotel 14, sometimes 16 hours a day, prepping food ‑ peeling potatoes and cutting mushrooms. I worked everything from garde manger to the line to banquets. You need to expose yourself to all of that to know your style, practice your technique and become unique in what you do.

What did Oudin teach you?

Focus, perfection, and to always try for the best. I remember making 3,000 dishes and if one wasn’t perfect, it would get thrown out into the garbage and I would start again. That’s what I learned from him – consistency. It is something I take to this day.

How can our industry promote the Latin culture and cuisine?

I think Latin cuisine should be part of the curriculum at culinary schools so all students can have a better understanding of it. You’d be amazed at how many flavors from the Latin culture are represented around the world. From Asia to Europe and America, you can see them represented.

What advice would you give to others?

Pay your success forward. That is something I always strive for. I had different mentorships throughout my career. Today I share my knowledge and experience with the new generation so they know what it takes to start a culinary career or business. They need to be prepared. Just going to culinary school or starting a food truck is not going to do it. They need to understand the concept behind it. You never know who is going to ask a question that will test your knowledge.

Photo courtesy Lorena Garcia Group

Visit America Works Here to learn more about Hispanic Heritage Month and all of the opportunities the restaurant industry provides.

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