Q. How long have you been with Olive Garden, and what do you like best about your job?
A. I’ve been with Olive Garden 32 years, first in Indianapolis, IN, then in Tampa, FL, and the last 18 years in Knoxville, TN. I’ve always worked in the kitchen, which I enjoy because I’m fascinated with cooking. I bet I have 400 cookbooks at home. At Olive Garden, I mostly prepare and cook lasagna; at home, my specialty is Mexican food, especially Enchiladas Suizas. My late husband, Gaston Garces, was a well-known Mexican singer, and his mother, who was also named Irene, taught me to cook nearly five decades ago. She spoke no English and I spoke no Spanish, but we communicated through food and I became fluent in Spanish. After 13 years in Mexico, Gaston and I moved to the United States, and I started working for Darden at Olive Garden.
Q. What would people be surprised to learn about you?
A. I was a high-wire performer and trapeze artist in the Atayde Circus. It’s in my blood — I come from seven generations of circus performers in Europe. My mom and dad were from Czechoslovakia, and I was born in Switzerland. I started on the high wire when I was 3: My father rode a unicycle, my mother stood on his shoulders and I stood on her shoulders. When I got older, I walked the high wire blindfolded and learned trapeze. For 18 years, I traveled from town to town with my parents and performed in the circus in the United States, Europe and Mexico.
When I was 21, I met my future husband, who was in the band The Teen Tops, in Mexico, and he traveled from town to town to watch me perform in the circus. We were happily married for 40 years until he died in 2010. We had three sons: Gaston Jr., Giovanni, who died, and Steve. I get lonely without my husband, but I have stayed active, and I still have a very good sense of balance. I live on a mountain with my pony Freddie, five birds and six dogs.
Q. What does Olive Garden and Darden mean to you?
A. I’m proud of my managers, who work so hard to keep everyone organized and have done so much for me. When my husband was very ill, my managers surprised us with a cabin in Pigeon Forge for three days. They gave me my last vacation with my husband. It meant so much to both of us that it makes me cry to think of it. One time my heat broke during the winter, and one of my managers, Chris Owsley, brought me two space heaters. I still have them. I look up to all my managers, especially Chris, who’s my guardian angel. Every day I feel the truth of our slogan ‘We’re all family here.’ Olive Garden is a great place to work.