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Desert Companion

The dish: Let them eat cheesecake: Kamel Guechida joins Wolfgang Puck

Chef KamelElite pastry chef Kamel Guechida joins the people-pleasing Wolfgang Puck empire. What the puff is going on?

Kamel Guechida is facing a strange new world — one filled with cookies and cupcakes.

For eight years, the French pastry chef oversaw the desserts and breads for two of Las Vegas’ finest dining rooms: the city’s only Michelin three-star restaurant, Joël Robuchon, and its one-star sister L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. The first restaurant averaged only 55 customers a night, while the latter did about double that.

His customers were among the most sophisticated of diners. They expected exquisite attention to detail in every aspect of each course. Guechida’s ability to satisfy their demands — and the demands of the notoriously demanding Robuchon — earned him a reputation as the town’s finest pastry chef. (In fact, Desert Companion named him Pastry Chef of the Year in our 2010 Restaurant Awards.)

Then he left. Earlier this year, Guechida resigned his exalted position with the “Chef of the Century” to accept a job with another culinary legend: Wolfgang Puck. It’s a huge coup for Puck — stealing a pastry chef away from Robuchon, a man almost universally considered the greatest fine dining chef alive.

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It’s also a new challenge for Kamel, who is moving from an elite dining institution to a people-pleasing culinary empire that embraces every type of customer. While Guechida technically oversees the desserts and breads of 21 Puck restaurants around the world, his first assignment has been re-vamping the menus at Puck’s six local restaurants. They run the gamut in styles, from the casual Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill in The MGM Grand to The Palazzo’s ultra-chic steakhouse, CUT. Puck’s flagship restaurant Spago, alone, serves in excess of 350 people a day, while his celebrity draws diners from every level of culinary experience. Yet even the most sophisticated of them would likely balk at the prices charged at Robuchon’s restaurants.

BreadSweet and simple

Guechida isn’t exactly the kind of guy who makes chocolate lava cakes, so how is he going to satisfy the more mainstream customers? Simplify without sacrificing quality. At Robuchon, he baked 18 different breads daily for the restaurant’s famed bread cart. At Spago (the first Puck restaurant he’s tackled), he limits it to four or five varieties. Nonetheless, his staff still makes each one in house and they’re already drawing high praise from the boss.

“I walked in the back,” Puck says during a recent visit to the Forum Shops restaurant, “and I’d said ‘I don’t want to eat any bread tonight’ because I’m trying to slim down. The summer is coming up, so I have to be in a bathing suit. But the bread is so amazing. It looks so good you say, ‘All I want is a sandwich with that and I will be happy.’”

Of course, Guechida’s main appeal lies in his desserts, and Puck has given him free reign in that category. “I don’t want to go and tell him, ‘OK, Kamel, you have to make a chocolate soufflé or a raspberry soufflé,” he explains. “I said, ‘You know what, you’re a great pastry chef, you make what you think is the best.’ And that way, we’ll always have great things.”

Cheesecake

The first desserts rolled out at Spago still retain the intricacy and attention to detail the chef’s fans have to come to expect. Dishes like a strawberry shortcake panna cotta, raspberry sabayon, frozen piña colada dessert and grasshopper cheesecake are light and beautiful. Yet, amazingly, none is priced over $13.

Guechida explains he’s been able to keep prices down by eliminating the expensive plates and bowls and lavish touches he was once known for. “All the plates are white,” he concedes. “There are no more details like gold (leaf) or whatever we did before in the past. It’s only the dessert, not the presentation of the dish.”

‘A great education’

With Spago’s new menu under his belt, the pastry chef has moved on to Postrio in The Venetian. From there, he’ll be tackling Puck’s other local restaurants: his Pizzeria and Cucina in Crystals, The Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill in The MGM Grand, the Palazzo steakhouse CUT and Trattoria del Lupo in Mandalay Bay. Each presents unique challenges. But the more casual places will be the ones that take him furthest out of his element.

“The Cucina and the Bar & Grill are something simple, American style,” he muses when contemplating how to satisfy their customers’ cravings for sweets. “I think we’re going to do some cupcakes maybe with the desserts. Why not? Because the American style is people want to eat fast.”

In addition to cupcakes, he’s also contemplating simple cookies and perhaps even cheesecake. Ironically, the European chef’s classical training never included those dishes. They’re an art form he picked up in the U.S., cooking for the VIP guests in the MGM Grand’s most exclusive suites.

“When I was at Robuchon, I also took care of The Mansion,” he recalls. “And a couple guests asked me for some crazy requests. And it was, for me, a great education for the future. Chocolate chip cookies I’d never done before I came to America.”

Once the chef re-launches the menus at all six restaurants, it’ll be time for him to start all over again. His goal is to re-design every menu every three months to take advantage of seasonal ingredients.

“I think it’s simple,” he says. “From April 15 until September 15, we have the best strawberries from California — the best berries. I think after that it’s not worth it. The color is there, the form is there, but you don’t have the taste. And I don’t like to add artificial (things like) sugar and say, ‘That’s a strawberry.’ I want to be sure we can use the existing fruits in the winter: lemon, apple, pear in the winter.”

Clearly, Las Vegas alone will be keeping the chef busy for a while, without even considering Puck’s restaurants in other cities. But he insists the variety is what inspires him.

“In the beginning of my career, I was working at a pastry shop,” he recalls. “And one reason why I left was because you do the same job every day. Nothing changed. Your pastries were Danish, croissant, small cakes — and that makes the job uninteresting.

“One thing that’s interesting in a restaurant is you change all the flavors every three months. You change the desserts, you change the form and the presentation. You change the little things. And what makes me happy in my life is not doing the same thing.” 

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Grasshopper cheesecake. Considering that Guechida never made cheesecake before moving to the U.S., he hit a home run with this version currently offered at Spago. The light, delicious individual cheesecake is topped with chocolate — which would be good enough on its own. But the chef takes it further by accompanying it with toasted marshmallows, brownie bits and a scoop of mint chocolate ice cream. The chef is promising more cheesecakes at Puck’s other restaurant, and if they’re half this good, they’re guaranteed to be hits.

Piña colada dessert. Forget about the tropical drinks you had on your last Caribbean vacation, this frozen dessert version puts them all to shame. The chef starts with aloe-coconut shaved ice. Next, he adds pineapple compote. A crisp caramel tuile finishes it off. While capturing the namesake drink’s flavors, it’s much lighter.

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