Q+A: Carmen Taitague Tenorio:

Restaurateur dove in, then learned to swim (figuratively, at least)

Carmen Taitague Tenorio displays her restaurant’s Fiesta Plate and Chamorro beignets.

Carmen Taitague Tenorio owns Red Rice and last year was selected to participate as a Diaspora Delegate in Guam as part of the Festival of Pacific Arts, which brings together the cultures of 27 Pacific islands every four years. “I experienced how other islands prepared and cooked certain dishes, with great chefs,” she said. Her restaurant, which features the flavors of her native Guam, celebrated its second year in business Jan. 3.

What is the best business advice you’ve received?

“Do it because you love it!”

Cooking was what we loved to do. We really didn’t have any restaurant experience before we opened Red Rice. We catered out of our kitchen, so owning a restaurant was new to us. Usually, people have some kind of knowledge or experience — you know, test the waters. Not us! We saw the opportunity to share our culture through food, and jumped right into the deepest part of the ocean — without a life vest.

If you could change one thing about Southern Nevada, what would it be?

Education. I know all the politicians always say that, and when I lived in California, part of the lottery winnings were supposed to go toward education. But education is the first thing that gets cut. Teachers should get paid more. After all, they are the ones who structure our kids’ future. We need to put the funds back in for sports, arts and extracurricular activities — things that keep our kids busy and out of trouble.

My sister is a teacher in Guam. When we lived there in the ’90s, she stayed up until 1 a.m. grading papers and went to work at 6 a.m. She would go to her classroom on weekends to get things ready for the week. She bought pencils, papers, crayons, Kleenex and other supplies for her students. I told her one day that I figured out how much she made. She got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and makes 25 cents an hour. We laughed about it for a few minutes but in reality, it’s true. I know many of our teachers do the same and more.

What’s your favorite place to have fun in Las Vegas?

There are many fun places here in the city that never sleeps, but we are homebodies; we love entertaining at home. We really enjoy spending time with our families and friends, so on our days off (Red Rice is closed on Wednesdays), we cook at home and have family and friends over.

Describe your management style.

I don’t know that I have a management style since I’m still pretty new to this and learning as I go. I try to show and tell my staff how much I appreciate them and the work they do. Little gestures go a long way— “thank you,” “great job,” smoothies, breakfast, staff outings. Never ask your staff to do anything that you would not do yourself.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

That’s a long way away. I hope my husband, Frank, and I are back in Guam by then. As for Red Rice, I hope the staff and my sons, Christopher and Christian, can continue serving Las Vegans and visitors. We are looking to expand into other areas, but that’s in the future. We’re just trying to introduce Chamorro food one city at a time.

What is your dream job outside of your current field?

Growing up, I wanted to be a nurse. I was a candy-striper in high school. But I was at my father’s bedside when he passed away in 1979, and I decided nursing was not for me. I went to college for two years in Hawaii, majoring in early childhood and pre-school. It was during my internship that I thought, “You could not pay me enough money to watch someone else’s kid.” I then took a job as a dental assistant. I’ve been a dental assistant for over 30 years and really enjoy it. But cooking is my passion. So, this is my dream job.

If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would it be?

Guam or Hawaii. Even though I don’t swim, I love being near the ocean. Family. Culture. It’s where I grew up.

Whom do you admire?

Mother Teresa and my mother. I know everyone always says that but my mother was a strong, kind, smart and brave woman. Everyone in our city in Guam knew her and looked up to her. I learned most of my recipes and cooking style from her. She taught me how to survive.

What is your biggest pet peeve?

Crazy drivers — people who don’t pay attention to where they are going or are busy texting or talking on the phone and then cut right in front of me. And drivers who aren’t courteous. When there is a lane closed, please allow cars to merge. I hate when I have to squeeze myself into a lane.

What is your funniest or most embarrassing work story?

At Red Rice, one of our employees bent down and ripped his pants front to back. He had to put two aprons on to cover up. He looked like he was walking backward his whole shift.

As for embarrassing, when I worked at a dental office in California, I called to see if our patient was still coming for his appointment, because he was 15 minutes late. I asked to speak to Martin, and the lady who answered said, “Martin passed away yesterday.” I offered our condolences and right away, our office manager had the florist send flowers and a sympathy card to his address.

Ten minutes later, a guy walked up to our desk and apologized for being late due to traffic. He said his name was Martin. You could have heard a pin drop. I explained what happened. I had called a wrong number, and there was a Martin who lived there. I had to apologize to Martin and explain that, when he got home, there would be flowers and a sympathy card waiting for him.

What is something that people might not know about you?

I don’t eat sushi, sashimi or rare steak. My parents ran a Japanese business and we had to make 50, 100, 200 nigiri, so that seaweed wrapper smell — oosh — and I can’t stand the raw texture.

Also, I am a Eucharistic minister at my church and on-call minister for two hospitals. Once a month I serve Mass and give Communion to about 15 residents at a senior home-care facility.