Food & Drink

How Miami chef Lorena Garcia dumped a law career to cook — and became famous

Lorena Garcia, celebrity chef and and author, is shown in her culinary loft. Garcia, a native of Venezuela, had pursued a legal career in her country and in Miami before she realized she loved to cook, switched gears, studied culinary arts, and never looked back.
Lorena Garcia, celebrity chef and and author, is shown in her culinary loft. Garcia, a native of Venezuela, had pursued a legal career in her country and in Miami before she realized she loved to cook, switched gears, studied culinary arts, and never looked back. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Long before she became an award-winning chef, cookbook author, TV celebrity and restaurant owner, Lorena Garcia did what many young people do. She followed her family’s expectations and graduated from law school in her native Caracas. Later, in Miami to perfect her English, she landed a job as a paralegal.

“That’s when I saw what my life would be like,” she recalls, “and I realized that’s not really what I wanted.”

See, Garcia loved to cook. She loved bustling around the kitchen, and some of her most cherished childhood memories were of whipping up dishes for family and friends. But she had never considered a career in the field because there were no culinary arts studies in Venezuela. In the United States, however, she jumped at the chance of a degree from Johnson & Wales University.

She hasn’t looked back. In the almost 20 years she has been in the industry, Garcia has done almost everything imaginable, and she shows no sign of slowing down.

Later this summer, she will open another airport-based restaurant in Dallas, adding to her first one, Lorena Garcia Cocina at Miami International’s Concourse D, and her tapas eatery in Atlanta’s Concourse F. Her cookbooks — including her latest, “Lorena Garcia’s New Taco Classics,” (Celebra) co-authored by Liz Balmaseda — promote her love of healthy food with Latin roots.

It’s a good time to be La Chef Lorena — but it’s also exhausting, especially when you have an 8-month-old boy at home. “I take one day at a time and disconnect at home,” she says. But she’s still planning ahead.

“I’m always looking for the best opportunity,” she explains. “I would love to find my next location in Miami.”

Miami is home now, the place she returns to from her far-flung travels. It’s where her family lives, where her nonprofit for children began, and where her Northeast Miami culinary loft offers private and corporate events within walking distance from Biscayne Bay.

“When you’re landing and you see [from the airplane], the water and the bridge, it’s really special,” she says.

Garcia began her career at a time when celebrity chefs, led by Emeril Lagasse, were making their mark on television. Americans’ view of what they ate and how it was prepared was also changing.

“We went from food as fuel without too much worry about where food was coming from to a concern about what we’re eating,” she adds. “Now it’s more about the experience.”

After graduation, she began an apprenticeship at the Ritz-Carlton in Paris and toured the world from Italy to China, perfecting her skills. She calls that time her “fly on the wall” period, when she truly learned how to run a kitchen.

“The real world is completely different from school,” she says. “The real kitchen is not as controlled as in school.”

Back in Miami, she worked for three years at the Grand Bay Hotel under chef Pascal Oudin and then at Jeffrey Chodorow’s China Grill before going out on her own. It was a big move for a young chef and a risky one. She, however, didn’t see it that way.

“I was working 14-15 hours a day, killing myself for someone else,” she recalls. “If I was going to do that, I thought I should do it for myself.”

And work she did, once she opened Food Café, then Elements Tierra in Miami’s Design District in 2002. While two friends pitched in as servers, she was — initially at least — prep, cook and dishwasher. One evening two executives who had come to dinner approached her about opening a restaurant at the airport. They discussed what she might serve, the equipment she would need and the ideal space for such an eatery. As a veteran traveler herself, Garcia knew she wanted comfort food that was also good for you. She closed her Design District commitments in 2008, and by February 2011, inaugurated Lorena Garcia Cocina, a healthier take on traditional Latin cuisine, in the American Airlines terminal, followed by Atlanta’s Lorena Garcia Tapas in 2012.

She also stayed busy making a name for herself elsewhere, impressing judges as a semifinalist on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” and hosting shows on Telemundo, Gems, Utilisima/Fox Life and Mundo TV. She has appeared as both judge and guest chef in various shows, too, including NBC’s “Food Fighters” and “The Biggest Loser” and Nickelodeon Latin America’s “Toni, la Chef” and “Talia in the Kitchen.”

Her command of Spanish and her love of Latin American cooking have made her one of the best-known Hispanic chefs around. But her rise in the culinary world, and the fame that accompanied it, was far from straightforward. She remembers her accent “definitely played against me in the beginning,” but she now considers it an advantage.

Garcia also founded Big Chef Little Chef, an organization that offers cooking workshops for children and their families, and launched a new cookware line with entrepreneur and inventor Joy Mangano. The Lorena Bella Kitchen Collection is available on HSN.

Even as her business empire grows, Garcia’s heart remains in the kitchen, at the stove or by the oven. That’s where she relaxes at home, entertaining friends and family.

She hopes her choices inspire others to follow their heart. In fact, when a nephew was trying to figure out what to study in college, she offered this advice: “Do what you love. If you’re good at something and passionate about it, success will follow.”

Easy Creamy Vanilla Peaches

Recipe from ‘The Biggest Loser’

Yield: 10 servings

9 ripe peaches

3/4 cup agave syrup

1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise, seeds scraped away and reserved or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 envelope granulated unflavored gelatin

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 cup cold, reduced fat cream cheese

10 sprigs of fresh mint, for serving

Whipped cream for serving (optional)

5 fresh peaches, cut in half and grilled

10 sprigs of mint

Place 6 peaches on a cutting board. Using a serrated vegetable peeler or a sharp paring knife, peel, halve, and pit the peaches, then chop them into 1-inch pieces. Place the chopped peaches, 1/2 cup of agave syrup, and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Cook until the peaches are soft, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and set the peaches aside.

Pour gelatin into a quarter-cup of warm water, allow to dissolve and stir. Set aside for blending.

Transfer the peaches and all but 2 tablespoons of the peach juices to a blender (set the peach juices aside for serving). Add the vanilla bean seeds (or the vanilla extract) and the gelatin mixture into a blender and process for 1 minute to combine. Add the lemon juice and the cream cheese blend and blend on high speed until the mixture is silky and smooth, and the texture of the purée is thick like a mousse, 6 to 8 minutes.

Divide the purée into 6 4-ounce ramekins and cover each ramekin flush with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until the mixture is set, at least 2 1/2 hours or up to 24 hours.

Before serving, heat a charcoal or gas grill to medium-low heat. Halve and pit the remaining 3 peaches and then place them on a large plate. Drizzle the peaches with the remaining 1/4 cup of agave nectar and then grill them, cut-side down, until the peaches have grill marks, about 2 minutes.

Remove the peach cups from the refrigerator and top with a dollop of whipped cream (if using). Serve the peach cups on a small plate with a grilled peach on the side. Drizzle the reserved peach/agave liquid over the cups. Finish with a mint sprig and serve.

The peach cups can be made up to 1 day ahead of serving.

Per serving: 140 calories, 4 g fat, 2 g sat fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 115 mg sodium, 24 g carbohydrates, 1 g fiber, 22 g sugar, 4 g protein

Ahi Tuna And Avocado Timbale

Yield: Serves 4

1 pound fresh sushi grade tuna, small dice

2 avocado, small dice

1 cup wakame salad (substitute: microgreens), for plate garnish

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon lime juice

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon soy sauce, low sodium

1 tablespoon lemon zest

Salt and pepper to taste

Sesame seeds and mandarin segments for garnish

In a nonreactive bowl, place the diced tuna, lemon and lime juice, sesame oil, soy, lemon zest, salt and pepper to taste. In another nonreactive bowl, place the avocado and lightly drizzle with lemon juice to stop it from turning brown. Place a 3-inch cylinder in the middle of each plate. Create layers starting with the wakame, tuna and avocado, then more tuna. Top with either more wakame or a few sprigs of cilantro. Garnish with sesame seeds and mandarin segments.

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