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A celebrity chef offers advice for new owners and a look at the future of the restaurant industry

Chef Lorena Garcia has created a career focused on bringing the flavors of Latin cooking — and particularly of her hometown of Caracas, Venezuela — to a wider audience in the US.

Guest Chef and Johnson & Wales University Board of Trustees Member Lorena Garcia (left) and her Sous-chef, Grace Racho (right), prep with students for a dinner at Johnson & Wales University in Providence on Nov. 29, 2022.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

This story first appeared in Globe Rhode Island’s Food & Dining newsletter, a free weekly email about Rhode Island’s restaurant industry that also contains information about local events, Q&As with chefs, dining guides, and more. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail each Thursday, you can sign up here.


One night in late November, I was sitting at a dinner table with the president of a local hospital, a former White House staffer, and an executive for Live Nation. We were about to embark on a culinary journey through a five-course tasting menu as part of the Providence Epicurean Scholarship Society (a members-only club at Johnson & Wales University) put on by chef Lorena Garcia.

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A JWU student herself about 20 years ago, Garcia has created a career focused on bringing the flavors of Latin cooking — and particularly of her hometown of Caracas, Venezuela — to a wider audience in the US. She owns restaurants, including CHICA in Miami, Las Vegas, and Aspen, and is also a television personality, cookbook author, cookware designer, and entrepreneur.

I recently caught up with Garcia to chat the industry now and its future.

Q: Was it an easy transition for you to go from “just being in the kitchen” to becoming an entrepreneur, restauranteur, and TV personality?

Garcia: When I started my career, I was so passionate about cooking that I just cooked. My mentors were mostly chefs already in the kitchen. And then I grew up and realized that being a chef is not only being in the kitchen. I wanted to write books, do more on the business side, be on television — which is a whole different game. But to be honest, I didn’t have a mentor for that. My mentors were mostly chefs already in the kitchen. When I wanted to do more with my career, which meant stepping out of the kitchen, I pretty much had to venture out on my own and learn from my own mistakes.

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Chef Lorena Garcia (left) preps with students for a dinner at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. on Nov. 29, 2022.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Anything you would have done differently early on?

Garcia: Take a few business classes to understand the numbers instead of just being in the kitchen. It would have given me a better understanding about how to open more doors for myself and show my value.

Rhode Island has a flourishing food scene right now, but the hospitality industry is still facing a labor crisis. How are your restaurants holding up?

Garcia: Last year, I had to staff the CHICA in Aspen and it was extremely difficult. I had to use the workforce of my associates in Las Vegas to just open the place. This year, I was able to staff Aspen with no problem. I do think the industry’s labor shortage is improving. But I think restaurants, including mine, have had to become stronger and better than they were before the pandemic.

It’s been nearly three years since the pandemic began. What do you think restaurants should focus on now?

Garcia: Everybody is going to go out and eat. But today it’s all about the experience. So I’m more focused on how I present my dishes. I want everyone to take out their phones and start posting about my plates. I have 200 customers in one seating per restaurant and I think of everyone with a social media account as their own “media outlet.” If each one of them is posting something, I have 200 “media outlets” putting my food out there.

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Do you ever feel you’re compromising quality for social media? Or vice-versa?

Garcia: Everybody can use and leverage the world of social media to project your restaurant and set your brand. That’s why packaging is huge right now because it’s the first thing people see. It’s not just about the product itself, or cooking itself. It’s much more than that right now.

But at the same time, I have to keep that yin and yang of the modern world of social media and instant gratification while also continuing my own traditions and going back to the basics of what I do, which is respecting ingredients, bringing my culture through food in a responsible way, but in the best way possible.

Lorena Garcia is also on the board of trustees for Johnson & Wales University.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

You’re a JWU trustee and was this year’s food entrepreneur in residence. But how involved are you with the university day-to-day?

Garcia: Before JWU closed the Miami campus [in 2020], they had an internship program that constantly brought students our way to work at CHICA. But this year was my first real encounter with students on such a hands-on level.

What advice would you give those who are just starting out in the hospitality business?

Garcia: I’m 50 years old. I look back and know that I put in the time to get to where I am. I don’t think that you can achieve certain goals in your career unless you put in the time. If you think you’re going to spend a year working and then open up a restaurant, you’re in big trouble. You need at least five years of really going out there, working, putting in your dues to really understand this business. That goes for any aspect of the business — as a private or executive chef, as a hotelier, an entrepreneur or restauranteur. Each of those takes time to develop.

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You could even become a social media influencer, have millions of followers where you’re making cooking videos, but that doesn’t mean it will translate to your career. Put in your time, practice your techniques, travel, and understand cultures. Then define who you are as an artist.

What about advice for those opening or who already own a restaurant?

Garcia: I cannot tell you the amount of times I still find myself doing dishes or jumping on the line in my own restaurants. If I walk into my restaurant and see we’re short staffed — whether it’s bussing to service, cooking on the line, cleaning to dishes, I just roll up my sleeves and do it. Understanding and knowing every position is how you’re able to open your own business.

No matter what position, you should be able to do it, train for it, or fill it. If you own a restaurant, it’s your responsibility if something happens -- good or not. Early in my career, I opened a restaurant with $40,000. I was the chef, the cooks, the dishwasher, I did everything. Two of my friends took orders. I was working 18 hour days, but I knew if I was going to put in this kind of effort, I was going to put it on me. That’s when we had six tables. Now I own — with two other owners — three 14,000-square foot restaurants.

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I’ve never depended on any one person specifically to run my business. I think that’s the kind of power and knowledge every person should have to open a restaurant.

Visit Food & Dining in Rhode Island for more. Because everyone’s gotta eat!


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.