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Las Vegas has the highest concentration of celebrity chefs per capita on the planet. Many of them headline restaurants in marquee hotels operated by MGM Resorts Las Vegas, including ARIA Resort, Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and MGM Grand, among others. The hotel group has aggressively positioned itself as the vanguard of culinary excellence on the Las Vegas Strip to attract business and convention travelers with healthy appetites and healthier expense accounts.
When I approached MGM with a request to explore the hotels, they had an open spot on a food-themed press junket. I, however, am not a foodie. Not even a little. Embedding me among America’s elite food writers is like inviting an atheist to a Tea Party rally.
But I’ve always wondered what makes a celebrity chef a celebrity. I discovered it doesn’t have a lot to do with food.
“Chefs are the new rock stars of Las Vegas and they are true partners with us,” says Mike Dominguez, senior VP of corporate sales at MGM Resorts. Dominguez has been visionary in leveraging the American consumer’s passion for reality chef television shows to sell hotel room nights up and down the Strip.
“With our food and beverage experience, we’re sharing with our guests the cachet of these amazing chefs,” he says. “The quality of the food is kind of a given. We’re trying to promote the breadth and diversity that we offer, and I don’t think there’s any other company that can match it.”
Chef Julian Serrano owns his namesake restaurant in ARIA’s lobby and he operates Picasso at Bellagio nearby, heralded as the catalyst of Las Vegas fine dining when it opened in 1998.
Serrano is sitting at a table in the back of his restaurant with two PR staffers hovering over him. It’s morning and there’s no one but us.
Unsure where to start, I ask, “What do food journalists typically ask you?”
“People ask all kinds of things,” Serrano shrugs, “like how to run a restaurant, how to make great paella and my philosophy of food.”
“What is your philosophy of food?” I ask. I was going to get serious mileage out of that question this trip.
“You need to smell, think and feel about food as much as you taste it,” he says while rubbing his fingers together under his nose. “Food is like wine. A sommelier tastes fine wine and tells you about the new or old grapes and all of the different things in the earth. You have to build these things into the wine to create something great…. With food, I think about places and how they affect the animals or plants. For example, you have venison. The small Fallow Deer in New Zealand eats a lot of apples, so I include apples in that dish.”
“So what is it that makes a celebrity chef a celebrity, exactly?”
Serrano thinks for a second. He says, “You have to learn how to trust people. You have to learn how to find and see people who are smart enough and have the ability to work well when you’re not in the kitchen. The food is only part of the equation.”
“So it boils down to human resources?”
“There are many qualities that go into being a good chef,” Serrano smiles. Then he suddenly sits up straight and stiff with a deadpan face. “You know, you go to some restaurants and you’re like this, very serious. No one is talking. It’s like, ‘Oh look, there’s a fly on the wall.’ No way. I don’t want to run a restaurant like that.”
Serrano’s enthusiasm is contagious. He’s not a young gun anymore but he acts like he is, filled with the emotion and passion of someone who loves what he does.
I ask Serrano about his tapas, for which he is most famous.
“Ah, tapas are the best,” he exclaims, his eyes lighting up. “Everyone can share them, and the moment everyone gets into that rhythm, it’s fantastic. Because you’re not just sharing the food, you’re sharing the conversation. What you’re doing is creating an energy…. That is an example of how food becomes more than food.”
The A-List: Vongerichten, Mina, Keller & Masa
One floor up from Serrano’s restaurant, our MGM handlers had originally scheduled just a quick tour with Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten in his kitchen at Jean-Georges Steakhouse. But Vongerichten, a darling of the food media and one of America’s most celebrated chefs, insists we must be hungry.
He brings out a cast iron cooking sheet covered with Japanese wagyu from Kagoshima, “Angus 300” hybrid Japanese/Australian wagyu from Rangers Valley near Brisbane, and some marbly U.S. prime beef wet aged for two weeks and dry for three.
I notice on the specials board the six-ounce wagyu is selling for $180. So that’s over $3,000 of world-class beef in front of us.
The Japanese wagyu feels too tender for my taste, almost like sashimi. The firmer Aussie hybrid is by far the best steak I’ve ever tasted. Vongerichten serves it with simple miso mustard and scotch bonnet sauces.
“At ARIA we have a little more fun with food, kind of a ‘Best of’ experience, serving the freshest ingredients and best meats in the world with an Asian influence,” explains Vongerichten.
“So that’s all there is to it?” I ask. “You just find the best beef possible and then stay out of its way?”
Vongerichten smiles and winks at me, “Yeah, but don’t tell anyone.”
One of the top seafood chefs in the world, Chef Michael Mina operates AMERICAN FISH right next door. The grill line behind the glass partition separating the kitchen and tables is jumping with flames and it’s as hot as hell back there. Mina invented a type of griddle that cooks fish in sea salt over a wood fire.
Apparently, you don’t tour these chefs’ restaurants without test driving half of the menu, even if you just ate $400 worth of steak 20 minutes ago.
Mina serves his Mediterranean branzino, a kind of Chinese seabass, along with mustard-marinated black cod poached in seawater, and diver scallops atop Hudson Valley fois gras.
I, now a seasoned food writer, ask Chef Mina about his philosophy of food.
“I believe in bold, balanced food,” he says. “I want to taste all of the ingredients. You need to be careful, too much or too little ruins everything, so I believe in balance in everything.”
That’s when it dawns on me that what makes these chefs successful applies to any discipline. Serrano talked about trusting people and connecting with them. Vongerichten works with only the very best partners. Mina is innovative, with a conscious approach to balancing resources.
It’s like Business Management 101 with these guys.
After a quick stop at Joël Robuchon at MGM Grand for tea and pastries, we head across the street to meet with Chef Hubert Keller at Fleur in Mandalay Bay. Born in Alsace but a fixture in California for years, Keller won James Beard’s “Best Chef in California,” cooked for the Clintons, and opened the best steakhouse in St. Louis, which is saying something.
“There’s a lot of great chefs and a lot more restaurants in Las Vegas today,” Keller tells me. “So we’re competing in a nice way, and that keeps us going, keeps us on our toes. It’s getting like a San Francisco or New York now.”
The highlight meal of this trip was a private lunch with Chef Masa Takayama at barMASA inside ARIA. Masa also helms the ovens at his Michelin 3-star MASA in New York.
We’re sitting around one of the teppanyaki tables. Masa prepares the entire meal starting with a caviar/toro appetizer and a cup of artisanal sake. That’s followed by sliced wagyu ribeye from Kyoto served with chili soy sauce.
Masa is as serious as a samurai when he’s cooking, and his staff leaps at everything he commands. So after lunch while we’re together for my allotted 10 minutes, I get right to the point.
“Chef Masa, can you tell me about your philosophy of food please?”
“I love the simple stuff,” he says. “Simple grill, simple sauce and the best ingredients.”
Masa is not really the chatty type. I whip out my second stock question: “What is it that makes a celebrity chef a celebrity?”
“Sensibility,” he says without missing a beat. “People have to have a sensibility about how to make connections. I can teach someone how to make 10 dishes but if they don’t have the right sensibility, they’re only going to know how to make 10 dishes.”
“Can you provide an example?”
“I see the earth and a beautiful river, and there’s a flower bud just breaking the surface of the snow. So that gives me an idea about a radish and a piece of triggerfish.”
Then silence. After a few seconds I tell Masa, “I feel like I’ve just been given a lesson in Zen.”
Masa smiles patiently. Waving his hand around the room he says, “This is about more than chopping steak and chopping vegetables.”