To foodies, the Strip is a culinary destination. To chefs, it’s a school like no other. These five local culinary pioneers schooled on the Strip reflect on what they learned in the kitchen and beyond
Chef and owner, Fat Choy and Flock & Fowl
After arriving in 2005, Sheridan Su started as a cook on the opening team of Joel Robuchon in the MGM. From there, he worked at Social House (Treasure Island), Wazuzu (Encore) and Comme Ça (Cosmopolitan) before striking out on his own with a food truck, Great Bao. He opened Fat Choy in the Eureka casino in 2012 and Flock & Fowl downtown earlier this year, both built on his signature mashup of diner classics and Asian comfort food.
What did the Strip teach you?
At Social House, I learned how to handle a high-volume kitchen and the importance of every position in the operation working simultaneously to deliver a great experience to 1,000 guests a night. Chef Joe Elevado (Andrea’s, Encore) gave me so many opportunities to learn and grow. Chef Jet Tila showed me how to be a chef. Under Chef David Myers (Comme Ça), I grew from a newish line cook to an executive chef.
Sticking around Vegas?
When I first came to this great city, there was never a long-term plan to stay. However, Las Vegas has become my city.
Any stories from striking out on your own?
In 2012, President Obama came to town for a rally. Our food truck, Great Bao, was invited to cook at his event. My son was just several weeks old and asleep in the front of the truck. Secret Service came by to do their inspections. Since they didn’t want to wake my son, they started waving a wand around his tiny body to check for weapons.
Chef and owner, Eat and Chow
A hard-working (and once hard-partying) chef who opened restaurants at iconic properties such as the MGM Grand (Coyote Cafe) and the Hard Rock Hotel (Mortoni’s) in the ’90s, Young shifted her career into high gear after 2000, determined to learn as much as she could about the restaurant business. She opened breakfast spot Eat downtown in 2012, known for its high-fi comfort food, and Chow, a chicken and Chinese food joint, earlier this year.
What did you learn on the Strip?
The Eiffel Tower Restaurant (in Paris Las Vegas) is where I got my discipline. It was a classic French kitchen — no chit chat, hair above the collar, with a relentless focus on the food. It’s also where I learned the importance of systems and organizations. At Eiffel Tower, we had 16 clipboards for every facet of the restaurant.
Working for 15 years without a holiday. I made a point at Eat that we’re closed every holiday because I want my team to be able to enjoy time with their families. The almighty dollar isn’t as important as that.
What was it like launching your own restaurant?
It wasn’t any fairy tale! In the process, I almost got evicted from my place, because I was three months behind on rent. I didn’t have car insurance. There were people who paid my rent, brought me food and helped me out with my personal finances. Eat is as much of a success because of friends and the community as it is because of me.
Executive chef, Artisanal Foods Catering & Café
A native of Flint, Michigan, Church fast became a rising star in Vegas, working at P.J. Clarke’s and Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood. He also opened Rx Boiler Room (Desert Companion’s Best New Restaurant of 2013). He now heads up Artisanal Foods Cafe, a high-concept arm of the specialty food store. He’s also working on another, as-yet-unnamed project.
What’s an insight you’ve developed during your career?
Respecting the ingredients. I try to teach cooks that: Think about this piece of fish. It literally died for you to have a job. If you mess it up, you’ve made its life worth nothing! I think you’ll be a lot more successful if you think about it like that.
How did growing up in Michigan influence your approach to cooking?
I grew up with seasons. This time of the year was like my favorite time of year, coming into harvest — apples, orchards, cider mills, hot cider and donuts, in the summertime, corn and tomatoes. Seasonality was embedded in my head. And work. My mom owned five businesses — a skating rink, a commercial cleaning business, other stuff. I’d get off school, and I’d be like the guy in there dumping all the trash at night, vacuuming everything. Never a dull moment!
Advice for aspiring chefs?
Cooking is the easy part. The rest — quality, food cost and labor — that’s the hard part of this business. You operate on margins on 10 to 20 percent to the bottom line — 30 percent if you’re really good — so every single detail counts.
Chef and owner, Gelatology
A native of Venezuela, Desyreé Alberganti moved to Las Vegas in 1997, and soon put her training as a pastry chef to work at Valentino in the Venetian and at Harrah’s hotel-casino. She ran Art of Flavors with a partner from 2013 to 2015, and opened her new shop, Gelatology, in August. Fun fact: Desyreé writes backwards, a telling creative quirk of a culinary brain that dreams up gelato flavors like peanut butter, jelly and pickles.
What did you learn on the Strip?
When I was doing pastries, I loved to combine sweet with savory and make new flavors, and so now I have the foie gras gelato that is made with rosemary and thyme — people go crazy for that flavor! — and I have fried chicken and waffle with maple syrup. When you do everything from scratch, you’re able to balance every ingredient, and you can play around with your flavors. And when I’m eating, I’m always thinking how I can turn this product into a gelato. So, when I did the smoked salmon, I was having a bagel with cream cheese and salmon, and the onion and the capers, and I said, “Oh, I can mix this cream cheese with the salmon and make it as a gelato!”
Any flavors that didn’t take off?
Dill pickle. A lot of people love pickles, others are, “I don’t know!” The awesome part is people who come to Gelatology are willing to try new things, to open up and say, “Why not?”
What flavor are you working on now?
It’s a secret!
Chef and founder, Grazing Pig Food Group
Brian Howard made his most significant mark as executive chef of Comme Ça at the Cosmopolitan from 2011-2015, but he’s been a figure in Strip kitchens, from Lutece to Bouchon to Alize, for the last 15 years. This summer, he expects to open a restaurant on Main Street, a project in which he’s overseeing the construction, design, menu — everything. He says of the chef life: “I love the chaos, the intensity.”
Any notable mentors from your Strip tenure?
Mark Hopper (former chef de cuisine at Bouchon). He broke me. When I came to Las Vegas from Detroit, I had a huge chip on my shoulder, I didn’t like to take direction too well, and I liked to have a little too much fun. He taught me about finesse, a sense of urgency, how to be an animal in the kitchen, and how to carry yourself if you want to be respected.
How does the local restaurant scene compare to the Strip?
On the Strip, you’re given these crazy budgets to build these $10 million restaurants with a team of 10 in the kitchen. Some of these restaurants aren’t even reality. They’re just complete losses — more of an amenity to the hotel. You can lose money all year round and still have a job. But with those high budgets come the demands of the tourist and, let’s face it, we’re still a Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail and steak kind of town. That’s why I’m excited about getting off the Strip and getting into the local dining scene, cooking stuff that’s original and soulful.