Before she became the culinary powerhouse behind the award-winning menu at Chica inside The Venetian Resort, Chef Lorena Garcia was once a contestant on the cooking competition show, “Top Chef Masters.” Garcia was tasked with creating a pastry-type dish on a $50 budget for a 350-person poolside brunch hosted by Holly Madison. And oh yeah, she only had 45 minutes to do it. Facing a daunting challenge, Garcia turned to her Venezuelan roots to snatch the winning recipe. Her creation, of course, were buñuelos topped with fresh berry compote, white chocolate and condensed vanilla sauce. So, when it came time to create the dessert menu for Chica, chef’s victory made adding the buñuelos an obvious choice. Literally award-winning, these buñuelos (called “Lemon Donuts” on the menu) are as simple as they are delicious. Offering a crispy, firm shell with a warm, fluffy lemon ricotta interior, these donuts are then plated with a wild berry compote and white chocolate dulce de leche sauce. Remarkable in its simplicity, if not solely its taste, the importance of this dish stretches far beyond Chef Lorena individually and reaches into the Latin American community from which she comes. Mention buñuelos in Belize, El Salvador or even Panama and you will quickly learn how much of a staple this treat is amongst holiday and celebratory gatherings in their local neighborhoods. And when you stop to think about it, this is a theme among all of Lorena Garcia’s creations at Chica: honoring the ingredients of her country, while creating dishes that are approachable and enjoyable by all. So it makes sense when tasked with a seemingly impossible challenge on “Top Chef Masters,” Chef Lorena’s instinct was to lean into the traditions of her Latin American upbringing.
The desserts at Chica, in Chef Lorena’s eyes, are quite literally an elevated introduction to the flavors and experiences of her Venezuelan heritage and travels throughout Latin America. Each
bite revealing a story from her past. Using her desserts as a vehicle to introduce you to the people and places she loves is an opportunity Chef Lorena will not pass up. Take the Tres Leches Dulce de Leche, which is, by tradition, a very humble dessert. As with many other Latin American families, Chef Lorena vividly recalls awaiting the Tres Leches cake at family functions with earnest. More specifically, as an impatient 5 year-old tagging along with her mother at the market, chef reminisces about the tiny cans of sweetened condensed milk that were given to her as a treat for behaving. This is just one example of the undeniable reverence to the Tres Leches cake. Chef Lorena, as always, is going back to what she knows. Starting with a soft, spongy cake soaked in white chocolate dulce du leche, condensed milk and regular milk, the dish reaches its fullest potential once topped with a torched meringue and dotted by a bright, pineapple fruit pico. Again, the traditional has become sensational, all without losing its approachability.
Whether you have an encyclopedia’s worth of experience with the fares of Latin America or if you’re just using your Las Vegas vacation as an opportunity to dip your toes into this culinary culture for the first time, it’s important to reiterate the significance of community and continuity. Chef Lorena has brought that with her to Chica -cultivating an environment where, like family, trust and teamwork take precedence. Because of this, her team is emboldened to experiment and take risks. Inspired by a discussion with her team, Chef Lorena believed in their passion and excitement. The result? A whimsical yet decadent dish that is trademark Chica: Churro Fried Ice Cream Pops. Three mouthwatering scoops of caramel ice cream delicately coated in cinnamon churro crumbs. Elsewhere, this would be enough. At Chica however, each scoop of caramel ice cream gets pierced with a miniature churro stick and served with equal scoops whipped cream and a sweet vanilla bean anglaise sauce.
Another dish in which Chef Lorena defers credit to her staff is the Arroz Con Leche. This creamy rice pudding features a caramelized crust that holds the dessert together like a gentle hug. One look at the elaborate fuchsia colored garnish and you begin to realize this isn’t your standard Arroz Con Leche. But alas, there’s more. One taste of the dried apricot, candied pineapple and pomegranate rum sauce will transport you to the fresh fruit markets Chef Lorena frequented as a kid.
None of these ties to heritage and nostalgia would be complete without the most illustrious of Chica desserts: Marquesa de Chocolate. Chef Lorena’s favorite dessert on the menu, it’s everything she loves about her heritage and offers a gateway, of sorts, to Latin America through its robust flavors. Made with rich, 100% Venezuelan chocolate mousse, espresso-soaked graham crackers piled layers-upon-layers-upon-layers high and served with silky crema ice cream. This is the closest thing chef has to a time machine, as preparing the dish affords her an opportunity to reflect upon the modest Marquesa de Chocolate she enjoyed throughout her youth. Cramped inside a kitchen, surrounded by friends and family eagerly awaiting the chocolate-filled confection, although that Marquesa wasn’t quite as grand as its current form. Back then, graham crackers were soaked in milk, not espresso. And one layer was the finale, not the beginning.
As you can tell, the dessert menu at Chica Las Vegas is more labor of love, a passing nod to heritage and culture, than it is a hastily, thrown-together afterthought. Press releases will revel in the use of imported ingredients, the innovative culinary techniques used and the grand spectacle of celebrity, sure. But for Chef Lorena, what this dessert menu is -no, what this restaurant is about, is inviting guests to experience a piece of who she is and where she comes from. So, lean into the unknown and the unfamiliar. After all, this is Las Vegas. And at Chica Las Vegas, a little dessert is an adventure all its own.