‘That’s when I started to develop my own style’
Melissa Coppel, chocolatier
Atelier Melissa Coppel
One woman tells me, “I am from Nigeria.” She’s here to learn how to make bonbons from chocolatier Melissa Coppel. Another student is from Houston. “It’s the only class in the world like it,” he says. Others at Coppel’s workshop are from Argentina, Georgia and Wisconsin.
Why do aspiring chocolate artists from around the world come to learn from Coppel? “I am like a specialist doctor,” Coppel explains. “I take a very specific area of chocolate and focus my efforts on that.” She teaches a suite of advanced techniques that turn bonbons into works of art: enrobing, spraying, coloring and combining flavors.
Just as her students span the globe, so does her background. Coppel was born in Colombia but first studied French pastry in Argentina under acclaimed chef Olivier Hanocq before continuing her studies at The French Pastry School in Chicago. She came to Las Vegas in 2006 for a position with Joël Robuchon at the Mansion, and through her work with Robuchon discovered a passion for chocolate. Last summer, after working as a chocolatier for Caesars Palace and Bellagio, she was ready to launch Atelier Melissa Coppel.
“When you go beyond merely emulating the people you admire, that’s when you truly start,” she says. “The moment I realized anything I created had to be a part of me, that’s when I started to develop my own style.”
Today she conducts chocolate workshops around the world. Recounting a recent visit to Ukraine, she talked about the challenges of teaching without standard equipment or even, sometimes, air conditioning.
“Now that I travel a lot, I really see how those experiences can make you a better professional by pushing you out of your comfort zone,” she says. With her cosmopolitan résume, she’s challenging the conception of chocolate-making as a predominantly European culinary craft. Misti Yang
‘Nothing but chiles’
Raquel Flores, tamale chef
Garduño’s of Mexico
When Raquel Flores began cooking full-time, she didn’t entertain visions of herself, 50 years on, as the best-known tamale-maker in one of America’s biggest foodie towns, which is what she’s become at Garduño’s of Mexico in Fiesta Rancho casino. She’d left school after completing the fourth grade to stay home and help raise her 10 younger siblings while the adults worked the family farm in Zacatecas, Mexico.
“We bought no food,” she says through a translator. “Everything came from our property.”
By the age of 10, Flores and her sisters had learned to make tamales from their mother and grandmother for special meals during the May and December holidays. Their family kitchen may seem a world away today, but Flores has kept the spirit of it alive in Garduño’s modern commercial cooking space, through her devotion to traditional tamales. When she got a job as a kitchen helper there 18 years ago, she quickly noticed that the tamales were not as good as those back home.
“They were putting all kinds of extra things in them … cheese, garbanzo beans, potatoes,” she says. “I told them that, other than masa (corn-flour dough) and pork, there should be nothing but chiles.”
The head chef got wind of Flores’ critique and gave her the chance to win him over with her family recipe. She’s been making the restaurant’s tamales — some half a million to date, by company estimates — ever since. They’re so popular that the restaurant now sells them by the dozen, cash-and-carry, and the Fiesta Rancho location is the only one in the Garduño’s chain that uses its own tamale recipe — that is to say, Flores’ family recipe. Heidi Kyser
(In the Fiesta Rancho casino, 702-638-5602)
‘I’m in the U.S. now!’
Girma Abebe, partner and chef
Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant
Girma Abebe knows how to wire a house, and he knows the fastest way to McCarran during rush hour. But long before he studied the electrical trade, long before he drove a cab in Las Vegas, he learned to cook.
“Every Ethiopian has to learn to cook. It’s part of growing up,” says Abebe, chef, partner and manager at Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant. “In most families we are cooking at 8 years old. I had to help my mother. We have a big family — I have nine sisters and two brothers.” Cooking for his family in Addis Ababa allowed the young Abebe to develop culinary skills that would serve him well in Las Vegas.
He and his wife immigrated to the U.S. in 2005 as part of a visa lottery program, originally settling in Nashville, Tennessee, near one of his sisters. Abebe was lured to Las Vegas by friends who were making a good living driving cabs. “Nashville is all like the countryside. There are cows in the roads. When I was finally coming to Las Vegas, I said, ‘This is America! I’m in the U.S. now!’” He drove a cab for eight years, saving money and planning with his partners to start a restaurant.
On the Lucy menu, he’s particularly proud of his doro wat, a stew of slow-cooked chicken. The secret is berbere, a spice blend. “The hard part is you have to know how to make the combinations of spices,” he says. “And a lot of onions. We do like onions!” Andrew Kiraly
(4850 W. Flamingo Road, 702-473-5999, lucyethiopianrestaurant.com)
‘I don’t want to lose my authenticity’
Maggie Reb, chef and owner
La Maison de Maggie
In a prior life, Maggie Reb was a flight attendant — but even then she was an avid cook who frequently made meals for fellow crew members on transatlantic flights.
“There was a rule the pilots shouldn’t eat the same food (as each other), in case of food poisoning. But when I was on board, believe me, they were eating the same food. My food!”
She later pursued a degree in hotel and restaurant management with the intent to open her own place. But she jettisoned a pasta concept in France for a stateside crêperie when, after a trip to Vegas, she noticed the dearth of “real” crêperies. Surely she could romance American palates with this French classic?
There were a few bumps. It took two years for Reb to get a lease because, in a Catch-22, landlords wouldn’t lease to her without a visa — but she couldn’t get a visa without a lease. She finally found a landlord who “just decided it was worth taking the risk,” and she began reviving recipes and importing flours from France.
“I knew I was doing something good, but I didn’t expect people would love it so much,” Reb says. Because of her success, she hasn’t felt pressure to compromise her recipes; however, there is the occasional customer who wants something more trendy, like crêpe burritos and fried crêpes, but Reb remains loyal to true French cuisine over faddish fusion. “I don’t want to lose my authenticity,” she says. Sticking to your guns — that’s as American as it gets. Jim Begley
(3455 S. Durango Drive #112, 702-823-4466, lamaisondemaggie.com)
Khai Vu, Owner District One Kitchen & Bar and Le Pho Vietnamese Kitchen
Khai Vu, owner of District One Kitchen & Bar on South Jones Boulevard and the Le Pho Vietnamese Kitchen in Downtown, hails from one of the most contested pins on the past century’s geopolitical map: Ho Chi Minh City. And while he left Vietnam with his parents as a youth in 1993, nearly 25 years after the Fall of Saigon, venturing to the U.S. at that time was nevertheless a leap of faith. “We moved to Orange County for one year, and my dad learned about the restaurant business,” says Vu.
An uncle had already immigrated to California and opened an eatery. Once his father had learned to run his own venture, burgeoning Las Vegas beckoned. “We decided to move here before Chinatown was built,” he says.
Today, pho, Vietnam’s savory national noodle soup, is about as popular as tacos al pastor, but in the mid ’90s it was still obscure. It was a gamble to open a Vietnamese restaurant. “My mom and my dad went all-in.” The result was the pioneering Pho So 1 on West Spring Mountain Road.
Vu worked with his parents on evenings and weekends through high school, and then while he studied finance and business at College of Southern Nevada. They had hoped he would find a new career track outside the service sector. But the 2008 crash took the shine off the corporate life for Khai, and the restaurant industry kept whispering in the back of his mind. So, four years ago, he secured a location and financing for District One, without telling his parents until he had the key to the front door in his hand — uncommon in traditional, family-focused Vietnamese culture.
Today, Vu’s innovative dishes (like whole Maine lobster pho) and his beautifully designed establishments are garnering worldwide press as well as locals’ loyalty. It was another all-in gamble that paid off. Greg Thilmont
(District One, 3400 S. Jones Blvd. #8, 702-413-6868, districtonelv.com; Le Pho, 353 E. Bonneville Ave. #115, 702-382-0209, lephodtlv.com)