Lorena Garcia on Being the First Latina Restaurateur on the Las Vegas Strip
She's one of a handful of women with signature restaurants in Sin City
About 4,000 eateries call the Las Vegas Strip home, but only a handful are owned by women — and even fewer by Latinas.
Though there are fast-casual eateries owned by women scattered throughout the four-mile Strip, only a few have marquee restaurants: Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken have a location of Border Grill at the Mandalay Bay, Giada DeLaurentiis’ eponymous eatery can be found at the Cromwell, and Lorena Garcia has Chica at the Venetian that she opened in 2017.
“It was a huge surprise for me when I learned the fact that there are thousands of restaurants on the Strip: Being the only Latina blew my mind,” says Garcia, who co-owns the restaurant with 50 Eggs’ John Kunkel.
Chica now has three locations and it continues to evolve: Chica at the Venetian recently reopened following renovations that took place earlier in the pandemic and Chica Aspen has just opened in time for apres-ski dining.
In keeping with Aspen’s vibe, the Chica there has a rustic elegance to it, and Garcia will add more comforting foods like warm cocktails and casuelas to the menu there. “Each restaurant has to have the same Chica DNA, while still allowing about 20 percent of the seasonality, the climate, and the environment of the city to flow in,” says Garcia.
Garcia says that operating a restaurant in Las Vegas — especially one at the Venetian — had been on her mind since 2012. She was filming Top Chef Masters on Bravo and one of the challenges was at the tony Italian-themed establishment. The hotel featured a wall of culinary titans that included such high-profile toques as Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, David Chang, Tetsuya Wakuda, Buddy Valastro, and Thomas Keller. “I said that I wanted to make it as a chef in Las Vegas and be on that wall. I put it on my vision board.”
Five years later, Garcia and Kunkel were looking for a space for their new project. Kunkel’s Miami-based Yardbird Southern Kitchen & Bar had opened an additional spot at the Venetian’s restaurant row. “When that perfect location opens up, you know. It was a no-brainer,” she says.
Chica opened and Garcia was added to the wall in a ceremony presided over by the resort’s president and COO, George Markantonis. “It was a huge accomplishment for me. We have close to 40 restaurants at the Venetian, and I felt so grateful to celebrate my culture, my language, my music, and my food. The Venetian adopted me with so much love and respect,” she says.
Through dishes on her menu, Garcia’s Chica celebrates her Venezuelan roots; she also showcases dishes from around South America. They run the gamut from refreshing ceviches to churrasco steak.
In 2019, Garcia and Kunkel opened a second Chica in Miami. Garcia calls that city home and says that the diverse Latin-American culture that runs through it changes the tone of the restaurant. “In Miami, we don’t have to explain what an arepa is,” she quips, though she says that Miamians know what authentic South American flavors are and will call the chef on them.
Though Chica is expanding, the throughline is her dedication to women empowerment at her restaurants. “Over 50 percent of our workforce are female chefs. We support education and training for our employees,” says the chef and restaurateur.
Garcia says the key to her success is simply putting her nose to the grindstone. “One of my principles in life is that I never look around. You can get lost in all the noise around you.”
As one of the few Latina chefs who has made it to celebrity status, Garcia admits that she did have to work harder to get ahead. “These are the facts. You might be in a position where you’re paid less than a man. But if you take that job, you’re now in a position where you have a voice to change things…I always take that ‘no’ and turn it into a ‘yes’.”
“If someone gives you an opportunity,” she says, “take that position and transform it into something that will show people what you can do.”