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Christina Olivarez of Diego: ‘Food is my career, my passion and my life’


MGM Resorts International

Chef Christina Olivarez, winner of the Food Network’s “Chopped,” at her restaurant Diego with MGM Grand executive pastry chef Jean Jacques Granet and MGM Grand executive chef Christian Rassinoux, in MGM Grand on Tuesday, June 19, 2012.

'Chopped' Winner Christina Olivarez of Diego

Chef Christina Olivarez, winner of the Food Network's Launch slideshow »

Bobby Flay at Uncork'd

Celebrity chef Bobby Flay talks with diners about the menu before a Vegas Uncork'd Master Series Dinner at the Mesa Grill in Caesars Palace Thursday May 20, 2012. STEVE MARCUS Launch slideshow »

Eating Las Vegas at L'Atelier

pictured at Eating Las Vegas Book Release event at Joel Robuchon at MGM Grand in Las Vegas, NV on November 17, 2010.  RD/ Erik Kabik/ Retna Digital Launch slideshow »

While Robin Leach takes his traditional summer vacation under the Tuscan sun in Italy, many of our Strip and Las Vegas personalities have stepped forward in his absence to pen their own words of wisdom. Our thanks to them all. We continue today with Christina Olivarez, executive chef of Diego at MGM Grand who recently became the first Las Vegas chef and female to win the Food Network’s “Chopped.”

In addition to loving my restaurant, I am extremely passionate about food as a whole. Food is my career, my passion and my life.

I’m very proud and honored to be able to say that I am the only female executive chef of a restaurant here at MGM Grand and one of only a few here in Las Vegas. People often ask how I feel about being a woman in “a man’s world,” and, honestly, I try not to think about it.

We all have this fantastic job to do, to be part of someone’s vacation, evening, week, and to help make that memorable experience, so when it comes down to it, gender shouldn’t matter. Being a woman is one of those things that make me different in this field, and I like being able to be a little different; it makes me stand out and be noticed.

Food has always been a large part of my life. Growing up, most kids were watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, but I was watching the local PBS station that ran cooking shows. Other kids were watching “She-Ra,” “He-Man” and “The Smurfs,” but I spent my mornings with the likes of Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Jeff Smith and Graham Kerr.

I had my own little kitchen for cooking plastic food. I would take anything and turn it into some sort of food. I remember my mom sighing when she realized that I went through half a bottle of dish soap making “egg whites” and “whipped cream” while playing cooking show at the kitchen sink.

When my plan to go to school for sociology to become a lawyer didn’t pan out, I took the time to rethink what I really wanted to do. I knew food was something I was passionate about -- Palmolive souffle, anyone? -- and decided to go for my real dream and head to school at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Culinary school was one of the first times that the woman in a man’s world idea was evident. In choosing to go the culinary route, we girls were outnumbered in our group 5 to 1. Honestly, I always enjoyed being “one of the guys,” and being able to go through school in that environment helped set me up for what it would ultimately be like in the field.

In writing this, I took a look at the food world as a whole. We hear a lot about Thomas Keller, Bobby Flay, Joel Robuchon and Tom Colicchio, and they are ever-present on television and in magazines and not just in cooking shows. I get excited when the American Express ad with Thomas Keller comes on! With the exception of Julia Child, all those chefs I watched as a kid were men.

The great thing is now we are starting to see a lot more of the female chefs. Anyone who’s watched the Food Network in recent memory should be familiar with Giada De Laurentiis and Alex Guarnaschelli. Barbara Lynch was an integral part of the final of the last season of “Top Chef” and one of my favorites. Nancy Oaks and her restaurant Boulevard in San Francisco just won Best Restaurant 2012 at the James Beard Awards.

I have been fortunate in my career to have been hired at MGM Grand and being able to work for bosses who recognize that I am truly a passionate and determined individual. I have been able to move up through the ranks from cook’s helper, and here I am, executive chef at Diego in MGM Grand, a huge Las Vegas property.

This is definitely indicative of the culture here in Las Vegas. There are so many great restaurants here in such a close span resulting in a unique and tightly knit culinary community. It’s great to know that you can come into a job with a positive attitude, open mind and great work ethic, and people notice you and not your gender.

I really do believe that there is a bright future for female chefs in this city, and I hope I am a little brick in the pathway for others. I would love for women who are just getting their feet wet in the industry to look at me and say, “Christina did it; I can, too!”

Our thanks to Christina for her view from behind the grill at Diego in MGM Grand. Be sure to check out our other guest columns today from Flamingo headliner comedian George Wallace and hospitality hero Jonathan Fine. Join us again Tuesday for singer Jeff Timmons at his new show “Wired”; chef and DJ Hubert Keller; and two ladies from Cirque du Soleil’s “Ka” who keep the MGM Grand spectacular running in tip-top shape.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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