From Cooking Secrets to Chopped
Occasionally, and fortuitously, a passion in life is revealed in one’s formative years. For Christina Olivarez ’05, executive chef at Diego in the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, NV, hers was awakened as a young girl watching Saturday morning television. While her peers were tuning into The Smurfs, Christina was spending time with Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Jeff Smith, and Graham Kerr. “One of my favorite shows was Cooking Secrets of the CIA,” says Christina. “I was amazed that you could actually go to school to cook!”
As Christina got older, she continued to pursue her love of cuisine, watching more cooking shows and reading cookbooks. When her plans to get a degree in sociology in preparation for law school fell through, her thoughts kept returning to her passion. “I knew I really wanted to work in the food industry, so I checked out a couple of culinary schools and then looked at the CIA,” she says. “The impact was immediate. I knew I was going to school in Hyde Park.”
Recalling her time at the CIA brings back fond memories. “I remember the first day I moved in to Hudson Hall and the first time I got my uniform. I was so excited and proud.” Some of her coursework stood out as well. “I loved when you actually got to cook and serve for the student body, and I gained an incredible amount of knowledge from the meat and fish fabrication courses,” Christina says. Working in the Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici and Escoffier Restaurant prepared her for the volume, speed, heat, and adrenaline rush of the professional kitchen. “The opportunity to work in the restaurants on campus, not only in the kitchen but in the front of the house, has been a tremendous asset,” says Christina. “While still in school, I was able to have hands-on experience with all aspects of the restaurant industry and that has definitely been beneficial for my career.”
That career began when Christina attended a CIA career fair and met with representatives from the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, landing a job before graduation. That position was a cook’s helper at MGM’s Fiamma Trattoria & Bar, where she worked every station and learned all the aspects of the kitchen. Later, when presented with the opportunity to become a sous chef at the company’s Mexican-themed Diego, Christina jumped at the chance. “I’ve always been intrigued with Mexican cuisine since I was a little girl helping my great-grandmother make tortillas,” she says. “At Diego, I was able to hone my skills and work my way from sous chef to executive sous chef to executive chef.” Her rapid rise within the organization is a significant accomplishment; Christina is the only female executive chef under 30 across all 10 MGM properties. “I’m very fortunate. MGM management recognized my hard work and dedication. They believe in promoting from within and encourage their employees to be the best in the industry.”
Others in the industry were watching as well. In February 2012, Christina was invited by the Food Network to participate in Chopped. “I really never considered television, but I went through with the audition. It was nerve-racking and pretty intense, but in the end I had a blast.” She also came out victorious, winning $10,000 on the episode that aired on June 19, 2012.
Christina’s hard work, persistence, and newfound celebrity have made Diego a popular destination, which is all icing on the cake. “In addition to loving my restaurant, I am extremely passionate about food as a whole,” she says. “You really have to love it because it’s hard work and a lot of long hours. The fact that I have so much passion for what I do has been a big part of getting me where I am today.”
Christina attributes another big part of her professional success to the CIA. “The education you receive from the CIA sets you up to get into the industry and it’s a great thing to have on your résumé,” she says. “The alumni network is unparalleled, and you’ll have those connections for the rest of your life. When I hire CIA graduates, I expect them to come in, work hard, and carry themselves with poise, because they’ve been trained at the best school in the country.” The very same school that inspired Christina on TV so many years ago.