Last month, Taco Bell revealed a new Cantina Bell menu created by none other than Chef Lorena Garcia. Garcia is the Venezuelan-born chef, author, television personality, and restaurateur, and currently a cheftestant on Bravo TV's Top Chef Masters.
The theme of the new menu is "fresh" and in my conversation with Chef Garcia, she emphasized her passion for simplicity and freshness repeatedly. I had the opportunity to sample the new Cantina Bowl and experienced something I’ve never experienced at a Taco Bell before: a well-rounded meal full of texture and yes, fresh flavors! My personal favorites were the grill marked roasted corn salsa and cilantro dressing that rounded out the Bowl. The best part? In line with Taco Bell’s regular menu’s price point, the 560-calorie Cantina Bowl sells for under $5. A great deal in my opinion.
I had the chance to sit down and chat with Chef Garcia about her collaboration with Taco Bell. Here’s what she had to say:
TLK: How did your partnership with Taco Bell develop?
Lorena Garcia: It began about two years ago, they called my office and they said, "Lorena, we want to talk to you." I was surprised! They said they wanted me to try their food and consult with me on what I would do differently with their menu. It was a trigger that made me realize what a huge opportunity this was to bring freshness, great flavors, a well-balanced meal, for less than $5 to 40% of the U.S. population that eats at Taco Bell.
TLK: Did you eat Taco Bell prior to being approached to create the new menu? If so, what was your favorite original menu item?
LG: I’ve never been to a Taco Bell before. I didn’t know what to expect. I was happy because I started with a clean slate. No expectations whatsoever.
TLK: When you created Taco Bell’s new menu, what was your number one objective?
LG: To create balance, and introduce new flavors and textures that would make the menu delicious without all the cream and cheese that everyone was used to.
TLK: What was your inspiration behind the new menu choices?
LG: My Latin roots, I wanted to bring back those simple flavors I grew up with. The black beans are inspired by my Mother’s recipe. Simplistic family style, a reminiscence of my childhood.
TLK: Which NEW menu item is your favorite?
LG: Definitely the cilantro dressing and black beans. The guacamole is chunky, fresh and delicious—a favorite, as well.
TLK: What are some new ingredients in the new items that Taco Bell wasn’t using before?
LG: I introduced eight new core ingredients at Taco Bell in the new menu. I added rice, black beans, cilantro dressing, corn salsa with pimiento, and Romaine lettuce.
TLK: Was it difficult to stick to Taco Bell’s price point when developing the new menu?
LG: Yes, I was given a price point so I had to make it simple. I created simple seasoning and used few combinations of different herbs and citrus flavors. Some people have asked me why I did not include brown rice in the new menu, but I couldn’t because there is not enough brown rice in the world to supply all the Taco Bells out there!
TLK: Can we expect to see more similar menu items added to the Taco Bell menu? Breakfast maybe?
LG: I hope so. If it means bringing a higher quality meal to the consumer, causing them paying more attention to how the ingredients are cooked and where they come from, I’m all for it. I consider this the first step, a ground braking moment. I would really like to take this menu and transform it; everyone deserves to eat well.
TLK: Did Taco Bell need to adjust their way of cooking fulfilling orders to accommodate your new menu items?
LG: Yes, new recipes meant new cooking methods. They must show the grill marks on the corn. Prepare the guacamole a certain way—no more guacamole gun. It’s all about the details and the freshness. I was able to demonstrate, hands-on, to a few staff members on the new preparation method and made instructional videos for the rest of the staff to review.
TLK: There are some die hard Taco Bell fans out there. What can you tell them about the big menu change and how it fits in with the original menu items and overall Taco Bell brand.
LG: I say it’s a choice: I respect the core customer and nothing has changed for them. Everything is still there. I bring a different choice at a great value for the amount of food.
TLK: Okay, let’s talk about your other project. Top Chef is a hugely popular franchise! Are you a fan?
LG: Yes! I was a judge in the finale for Top Chef All-Stars. The producers, and the Top Chef brand, are amazing.
TLK: How did you wind up as a cheftestant on Masters?
LG: I was invited and I could not say no. It was an honor to be invited to compete and fundraise to create awareness for Alliance for a Healthy Generation.
TLK: Are there any of your fellow chefs that you looked up to as mentors? Who were you most excited to meet?
LG: I didn’t know who was going to be there! I was more intimidated to be competing with the big shots. All of them are very successful award winners.
TLK: Who do you think is your toughest competition on Top Chef Masters?
LG: Everybody! They have amazing skills. It’s a matter of luck, and the nature of the competition. Luck plays a big part in who will do well in the challenges.
TLK: What's been your experience so far? Tell us a little bit about the quickfires!
LG: I cannot tell you much…but one thing that I learned is that you have to have the skills to be in the competition with the best of the best. Because if you don’t, you get eaten alive! I am learning a lot about myself.
TLK: We know you work diligently advocating against childhood obesity with Big Chef, Little Chef? Can you share some of your work on this important issue with us?
LG: I am working with the Miami Dade School Board and training the staff on Latin-based healthy food. I have already developed 30 recipes that will go national with the Alliance for a Healthy Generation. We are working closely to fight obesity and diabetes. My focus is to teach them about ingredients, where they come from and how to cook them. I really want to create awareness for the Alliance.
TLK: Any future projects in the works? Or are you taking some time off?
LG: No break for me. I’m opening my 4th restaurant in Atlanta International Airport called Lorena Garcia Cocina, a high-end tapas bar. I’m also about to publish a new cookbook, Lorena Garcia New Latin Classics, in Spanish.