Desert Companion

Profile: Executive chef Susan Wolfla mixes it up

Consider some of the marquee names of Strip dining: Todd English, Bobby Flay, Gordon Ramsay, Rick Moonen … You’d think the Las Vegas Strip dining scene is strictly a man’s world. But look behind that marquee — and meet Susan Wolfla. She’s the first female to hold an executive chef position on the Strip. Since last July, Wolfla has been managing the culinary operations at Mandalay Bay hotel-casino. That includes everything from overseeing the menus of Raffles Café, The Noodle Shop, The Café and The Buffet to crafting room-service menus to creating the grub in the employee canteen. Such breadth requires an almost scientific mind for detail — and fortunately, Wolfla studied cell and developmental biology in college before pursuing a culinary career. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, she later worked in a number of cities — Bahamas, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Las Vegas — that instilled in her a versatility that has become her hallmark. How’d she go from the lab to the kitchen? “I wanted a profession that challenged me on all levels — intellectually, physically and emotionally,” she says. She faced those challenges and more at the recent JCK (Jewelers’ Circular Keystone) convention, during which she and her staff worked from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. for four days, cooking Indian cuisine for a ravenous convention clientele. Reading collective food moods and gauging the public palate is essential to her work. What does she taste in upcoming food trends? An appetite for performance-enhancing “functional foods,” and a continued love affair with tapas. One thing she’d like to see a more generous serving of: Women in high-powered chef positions. But she understands the unique demands on women at home and in the workplace. “It’s hard to balance both family aspirations and a career,” she says. “Once you leave, it’s harder to get back in.” But for women who want to pursue a culinary career, Wolfla doesn’t mince words: It’s tough — but not impossible. She advises: Get a cooking job before packing off to culinary school. “It’s lots of hours, it’s dirty and, overall, not glamorous,” she says. “Be realistic. Otherwise, you will be miserable and in debt. Don’t think you’ll be a chef out of school.” But a committed simmer may just set your cooking career on fire. Then? “The experience is irreplaceable.”

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