When celebrity chefs give their executive cooks free rein, delicious things happen
Celebrity chefs are known as a lot of things: culinary innovators, larger-than-life personalities, harsh judges on reality TV cooking shows. But thousands of cooks know them simply as boss. And, like bosses, they come in every stripe. Some celebrity chefs can be true control freaks, demanding the executive chefs they hire to carry out their vision follow their menus to the last letter (making them less like executive chefs and more something like train conductors). Other celeb chefs are distant authority figures who keep tabs on their namesake restaurants from afar through networks of managers (perhaps popping in occasionally to take selfies with tourists). And still others are the kind of bosses we like the most: the kind who lead a team of colleagues rather than herd employees, the kind who nurture rather than micromanage, the kind who inspire rather than demand. These celebrity chefs create the vision, craft the menu — but then hand over the keys, giving their executive chefs the freedom to interpret and experiment. The menu isn’t a straitjacket, but rather a springboard.
This may sound like empty theorizing, but it’s something you can taste for yourself on the Strip, once you know the difference. When you do, it might reboot the way you think of some of our marquee Strip restaurants. You’ll start to think of them less as franchises or outposts of a ruthlessly consistent mothership brand and more like experimental culinary labs where tomorrow’s marquee talent is paying its dues — and having a lot of fun while doing it. Over at Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group’s Carnevino in the Venetian, for instance, Executive Chef Nicole Brisson (our 2015 Chef of the Year) has taken the helm and made the menu her own, giving her own spin to classic Italian and impressively seasonal dishes. The fact that she can indulge in her love of ramps (a seasonal green she and many East-coasters grew up with) is a testament to that. And her creativity is viral: The whole kitchen over at B&B has fun with its annual “Goat-fest,” a week of specials themed around goat meat. In Le Cirque at The Bellagio, Chef Wilfried Bergerhausen is the latest in a long line of chefs who were given total freedom — and a dizzying budget — to bring their culinary vision to life.
If there’s one celebrity chef known and celebrated for handing over restaurants to his executive chefs, it’s culinary superstar Michael Mina. Over at StripSteak in Mandalay Bay for instance, with Mina’s encouragement, Executive Chef Gerald Chin (our 2014 Chef of the Year) has virtually created a new menu. Sure, there are still the classics — butter-poached steaks, duck fat fries — but Chin has baked his own creativity right into the offerings. On his first spring menu, he debuted a dish called “Two-minute bacon,” in which pork belly braised with Chinese five spice is flash-fried to give it a little outside crisp, topped with a tempura oyster, and smoked with applewood under a dome for two minutes, bathing the sweet and savory bite with a big punch of smoke. It’s a transcendent mix of flavors and textures that started out as a special, but Mina himself was so impressed with it, they decided to add it to StripSteak’s permanent offerings.
Over at Bardot Brasserie (our 2015 Restaurant of the Year), Executive Josh Smith is another example of what a chef can do when given the task of obsessively perfecting timeless French cuisine. When he was prepping for Bardot’s opening, Smith hit the books, poring over vintage recipes, from chicken roti to lobster thermidor to other classic Belle Epoque dishes. He was pulling the best of those techniques to apply to Bardot dishes such as its croque-monsieur. This was the fruit of a yearlong period when Smith was allowed to prep, plan and, most importantly, play around.
“The Aria and MGM team helped me on their dime, letting me work in the banquet kitchens as my experimentation space. I had nearly a year to prepare, and the time to do that is what helped us open with great quality,” he says. But make no mistake: It wasn’t all engrossing, immersive research and the joy of discovery, though. It was also work.
“Even with perfect ingredients, it takes a lot of work to make it right. For the French fries, it may be harder for us to cut and process them ourselves, and it would have been easier to get precut fries, but they just wouldn’t be as good as if we could make them.”
And that precious gift of time also allowed him to ignore the latest culinary fads streaking across the Internet and focus, instead, on crafting and mastering classics from the rudiments to the details.
“We developed the menu to be the antithesis of the trendy and constantly changing. Instead, we worked on perfection in execution and product.” And, as Smith says, that trust and respect translates into longevity —which means that, behind the marquee names on our flagship Strip restaurants, shine homegrown talents in the truest sense.