7/13/2012 01:11:00 PM

Chef Lorena Garcia Talks Taco Bell, Keeps Mum on Top Chef Masters, and More

Chef/restaurateur Lorena Garcia is having a big month. On July 5, her Cantina Bell menu debuted at Taco Bell, bringing all-natural ingredients and gourmet flavors to the fast-food game, and in just a few weeks, Top Chef Masters season four will bring Garcia to the national food-TV stage as she competes against other heavy-hitting chefs like Chris Cosentino and Patricia Yeo. We recently caught up with this ex-law student turned world-class chef to discuss all things Taco Bell, her take on Latin cuisine, her upcoming projects and more. Check out our chat below.

Zagat: How did you become involved in the Cantina Bell project?
Well...they called my office. [Laughs]. That's pretty much how I became involved. I was coming back from shooting a show with Curtis Stone - The Biggest Loser - I was in the middle of writing my book. It's been a long relationship that I thought long and hard about - this has been in the works for two years.

Zagat: So I read that you went to law school. What made you decide to ditch law and become a chef?
I come from Venezuela and I loved cooking since I was little, but it wasn't an option for me to have a degree in Venezuela. We didn't have culinary schools. I graduated when I was 16, very young - and my mother said: "Lorena, go to law school." I come from a family of attorneys, so my mother said: "whatever you decide to do in your career, it will help you to think logically in your business." So I went to law school, and after I graduated I came to the United States and I had the wonderful opportunity to go to Johnson and Wales University, one of the most prestigious culinary schools in the country. I didn't even have to think about it when I had the chance to have a bachelor's in culinary arts - I jumped right in.

Zagat: Top Chef Masters will debut in a few weeks - can you tell us anything? 
I sadly cannot tell you anything about that experience! [Laughs.] I received a letter with big words saying that I cannot say a thing about it. But I can tell you it premieres July 25 and I'm super excited to see what's coming out.

Zagat: Did you form any friendships from doing the show?
I can't even tell you about that, can you imagine? You're going to have to see it. I love each and every one of them. I know their careers, they're the best chefs in the country, and it's an honor, of course, to be competing with all of them.

Zagat: Do you think Latina chefs are underrepresented on food TV?
You know, that's a hard question because at the end of the day, it's a male-dominated industry, right? Then you add "woman" and then a "Latina," and we go to the end of the spectrum. What I do know is that we do have a huge representation of the Latin community in the United States. I know that Latin cuisine is being approached from many different angles not only from, you know, Mexican or Cuban, but also we have tons of people from Columbia, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil. And now Latin cuisine is really being represented as a melting pot of cultures, and I think I'm being positioned in perfect timing because that's who I am and that's what I represent.

Zagat: Tell us about your new project in the Atlanta International Airport.
Yes, my first one is here in Miami - Lorena Garcia Cocina - it's a high-end Latin cuisine restaurant with a healthy twist for the traveler in the American Airlines terminal. And now, yes, my next venture will be opening at the Atlanta International Airport, which will be Lorena Garcia Tapas. The idea is to bring good, fresh ingredients prepared to order in the airport. Because you know the perception of airport food is that it's so low-quality and everything is fried. I wanted to bring a fresh approach to Latin cuisine - that's why I call it 'fresh Latin modern,' because it's definitely straightforward, bold ingredients, but with tons of flavor.

Zagat: How would you describe Miami's food scene right now?
It's growing so much. I live in Miami Beach, and my headquarters/office is in Midtown, by the Design District, and I actually cross the bridge every day in the morning. Seeing the growth in the last 10 years - it is fantastic, both culturally and in the culinary scene. You have fantastic restaurants, you have great chefs that are in the area like Michelle Bernstein, a great friend of mine. You have Michael Schwartz, etc. The food is as great as you find in New York and LA and Chicago, so I'm very excited for what's happening in the city.

Zagat: Tell me about your involvement in combating childhood obesity and why it's such an important issue to you. Is your work with Taco Bell part of this?
Absolutely. I started my program The Executive Chef here six years ago. When I first arrived to this country I gained 40 or 50 pounds that year, and I realized my eating habits were completely different in Latin America. We eat organic as if, but when you come to this country, you enter into a fast-paced environment, and sometimes it's difficult to adapt to that new lifestyle. I think a lot of the Latin community has gone through that. One out of five children is suffering from obesity and diabetes, which was right in my face at food festivals when I was presenting. It would break my heart that these kids were overweight and having health issues.

I wanted it to be my cause, and I wanted to be the translator of good, healthy Latin cuisine for our culture, and I think that's actually why Taco Bell called me. At the end of the day I think it's totally relatable to my cuisine,  I don't make diet food, but I have a very health-conscious take. I took this as a challenge but also as an opportunity to change a little bit the perception of what a fast-food environment could be. They have the power to buy great ingredients because of the amount that they need, so why not steer them in the right direction in terms of recipes, focus on flavors and contrast and the right ingredients to make good food? And at the end of the day, that's what I was able to bring to Taco Bell. 

Zagat: Who are the chefs that you most admire?
There are so many - I have great admiration for Bobby Flay, he's a good friend of mine and I admire the love he brings to the table. He's a New Yorker who brings Latin flavors to the maximum expression and I love him for that. You have Martha Stewart - she has a very high class style and a cuisine that is completely different. You have so many chefs in Latin America, like Gaston Acurio, who I absolutely love who has brought Peruvian cuisine to the world, and also Michelle Bernstein, my god I love her.  

Zagat: Why do you think Peruvian cuisine is so hot now?
I think that for the first time you really have an accurate representation of Latin cuisine. It used to be only Mexican, and that's how people perceive it, but we are a melting pot of cultures, we have Peruvian, Brazilian, Venezuelan - there is so much that we bring to the table, and I think having a true representation of Latin culture in the United States.

The Latin community is one of the biggest in the U.S., and we're united through our language and we're united through the ingredients of our cuisine and speak to each other universally through those things. Even though we have different cultures, our cuisine is very similar, we just present it in different ways. For me, I feel like I'm in the best position ever because I'm truly what a Latin chef represents in the United States.

Zagat: What's next for you?
Well my next move is coming up in the end of the year. I'm opening my third restaurant in Dallas-Fort Worth, I'm in the process of opening a concept of Latin cuisine with healthy-inspired recipes and I'm working on a show that is coming up soon in English and in Spanish. I'm very excited with the momentum that's coming up right now - July is my month, I think I should play the lotto or something!

1 comment :

  1. Bravo Lorena! Muchas felicidades y que sigan los exitos! Saludos desde Valencia

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