The name Brett Ottolenghi should be familiar to Vegas Mavens readers from the essay “White Truffles, Beluga Caviar , Bellota Pigs” . Brett is the proprietor of Artisanal Foods in Las Vegas and the subject of the New Yorker article: “The Truffle Kid: Supplying fine food in a town where money is no object”

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I recently had the opportunity to spend a day with Brett, as he whisked around the Vegas Strip. The day started with a seemingly full itinerary of visits, to which Brett tried to squeeze in, “Just One More Restaurant”, throughout the day.  Part of the impetus for over-stuffing the itinerary was that Manuata Martin, Brett’s Tahitian Vanilla supplier, was in town and joining us on the restaurant rounds. The whole itinerary has to fit into a relatively short time frame, since Chefs work late into the evening, not many arrive at their kitchens before noon and by late afternoon they’re too busy preparing for diners to meet with Brett.

One of our first visits was with Chef Gary FX LaMorte the Chef de Cuisine at Andre’s at the Monte Carlo, and since Gary lives on Vegas Chef  Time, an afternoon visit coincides with his morning coffee time. Gary used Manuata’s Tahitian Vanilla to prepared hands down the best latte I’ve ever tasted. The Vanilla, besides adding great flavor to the latte, also serves to amplify the sweetness of the sugar. I don’t usually wax poetic about beverages, but this is one of those times you could pull out all the cliches and still fall short of the mark. If you dine at Andres be sure to ask for a Vanilla Latte, make that a Tahitian Vanilla Latte.

Brett Ottolenghi, Manuata Martin and Chef Gary FX LaMorte of Andre's Restaurant at Monte Carlo

Brett views these visits more as educational opportunities for the Chefs rather than mere sales calls. The Chefs are so busy, they really don’t have time for sales pitches, they need to learn something about the ingredient to make it worth their time.

Manuata describes to Gary the two species of Vanilla Beans that he sells, Planifolia and the highly sought Tahitensis, which as the name suggests is native to Tahiti and has a more floral and fruity flavor profile. Manuata sells the familiar alcohol based Vanilla extracts, but the form that garnered the most attention was his Vanilla Bean Paste.

Jar of Vanilla Bean Paste

Jar of Vanilla Bean Paste

Manuata has developed a  12-day proprietary method to capture and retain fresh whole bean flavor, which are not only has a more concentrated flavor than non-prepared Vanilla beans, the paste can be stored for a longer period of time without a reduction in quality.

Manuata's Vanilla Samples

Manuata's Vanilla Samples

The Chefs that we met with were all at the pinnacle of the Vegas restaurant scene, and were accustomed to starting with the most basic ingredients, and doing all preparations in-house, such as grinding Vanilla Beans on-site to create their own Vanilla paste. So, while Manuata sells his own Tahitian Vanilla Sugar and Vanilla Fleur de Sel, which combines the highly prized sea salt from Guerande France with Tahitian Vanilla, the Paste was the focus for all the Chefs we met. One surprising use of the Vanilla, which both Gary at Andre’s and Chef Drew Terp at Shaboo and Bar Masa discussed was in high-end cocktails. Andre’s makes a Foie Gras Martini that has become famous among internet foodies. Now you have two beverages to sample at your next meal at Andre’s, The Foie Gras Martini and the Vanilla Latte.

Manuata describes his Vanilla Products

Manuata describes his Vanilla Bean Paste as Gary examines a sample.

Brett Ottolenghi and Bill Clinton

Brett Ottolenghi and Bill Clinton may seem like an unusual juxtaposition, but in Las Vegas the unusual is usual. Brett met Bill Clinton in a very Vegas way. Bill Clinton was in town to help Harry Reid, the Nevada Senator that was in a very tight reelection campaign. Brett has a friend that is a VIP host at Tao Nightclub, a high-end Nightclub at the Venetian. VIP Hosts in Vegas seem to have  access everywhere and when you’re hosting a team of Professional athletes, nothing is out of bounds, even the former President of the United States.

As Brett was retelling his meeting President Bill Clinton, he said how he regretted not mentioning to the President his concern that children are not taught about food and proper nutrition in school. Obviously, Brett takes his role as Food Educator seriously, whether you’re a top Vegas Chef, The President of the United States, or a person that writes essays about Las Vegas, Brett wants you to be more interested and informed about the food you consume.

Brett enters a Vegas Kitchen the way a masterful politician enters a room, perhaps even Clintonian’esque, he greets everyone, as if he were asking for their vote. He’s careful to include the Chef’s key assistants on his product discussions, todays Sous-Chef could be tomorrows Celebrity Chef.   That is not to say that Brett comes off as Slick or Disingenuous, Earnest would be more accurate.

The New Yorker Profile of Brett

I asked Brett for his reaction to the New Yorker profile of him, and he mentioned two aspects of the article that he thought were misleading. First, he thought the article made light of his relationships with Las Vegas Chefs. I think the part of the article that best demonstrates this is the following:

He often says that he is on a first-name basis with three hundred and seventy  chefs in Vegas-the executive chefs and sous-chefs and chefs de cuisine at Jean Georges Steakhouse, Daniel Boulud,  BarMasa and dozens more- by which he means he has forgotten their last names, or is not sure of the pronunciation. (Many are French)

I think Brett feels this passage belittles the true relationship even friendship he has with many of the Chefs in Las Vegas. The other aspect of the article that Brett was less than pleased with was the whole discussion of the clothes he wears when making restaurant calls: The unfashionable brown suits and brown shoes with fake eyeglasses, of which he is quoted in the article as having twenty pairs. As a side note: The New Yorker which  is notorious for their fastidious fact checking, actually fact checked this with Brett, and wrongly quoted him, he’s never had twenty pair of fake glasses. The whole point of his outfit, was to appear a few years older, and perhaps more mature, a rarity these days. Brett is only twenty five years old, and is often dealing with customers decades older.

Brett Ottolenghi Television Star

The readership of the New Yorker may be small in Las Vegas, but some important people there have taken note. The executives at CityCenter have sent a copy of the article to every restaurant in the complex, inviting them to source products through Brett.

Reality Television producers have also taken note, over thirty production companies have contacted Brett about doing a Reality Television Show. Brett has chosen to work with the producers of  the Travel Channel show “Man versus Food”  It sounds like the show may be similar to Gordon Elliot’s show “Follow That Food” on the Food Network. Brett is insistent that he doesn’t want a hyped-up phony reality show.

While the title of the New Yorker article is “The Truffle Kid”, Brett has shifted his focus away from truffles, its a difficult item to sell profitably without undue risk. When he takes a basket of truffles around the Strip, he finds that the chefs want to hand select each individual truffle they buy, hence by the end of his rounds he is left with the least desirable ones, which may not be salable at a profitable price.

Brett is always looking for new Artisanal Food products to add to his inventory. He told me about a small farm in Pennsylvania that raises free-range chickens akin to the way the Japanese raise their Kobe Beef  Cattle. He is known in Vegas as the go to person for exotic hard to find unique food items. When Phil Ruffin’s wife wanted special honey to serve with tea in her high-end spa at TI she reached out to Brett. Bellagio restaurants and bars often contact Brett with special requests, such as recently a high-end Bellagio bar, aren’t they all high-end at Bellagio, asked him to source gourmet large green pitted olives with which they could hand stuff with blue cheese. While most of the items Brett sells are pricey compared to their lower grade alternatives, the profit margins are small in relation to the effort involved. Bellagio compensates Brett for all his hard work in sourcing small order specialty items by giving him the contract to supply Duck Breasts to their buffet. Even on the Duck Breasts, Brett is able to offer the Bellagio Buffet a good price, since as he notes, these are Foie Gras Ducks, and hence to the supplier “the real money” has already been made on the foie gras, the Duck Breasts are just extra cash.

If you’ve eaten at one of the Michelin Star restaurants in Vegas, or the Bellagio Buffet you have a had a chance to sample some of Brett’s products. However, if you wish to purchase items directly from Brett you have tow options.

One: You purchase items from his website: Artisanal Foods

Two: You can visit his store, which is located adjacent to McCarran Airport at 2275 E. Sunset Rd.

I’ll close by posting the message I sent to Brett after spending a day with him:

Brett thanks again for letting me tag along on your visits on Wednesday, it was interesting, educational, enjoyable, and exhausting!

Related Posts:

White Truffles, Beluga Caviar, Bellota Pigs…

The Michelin Stars of Las Vegas

How To Buy Vanilla and Vanilla FAQs

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Wolfgang Puck, the First Vegas Celebrity Chef

The first Celebrity Chef to open a restaurant in Las Vegas was Wolfgang Puck, he opened Spago in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace in 1992. At first the restaurant’s Open Kitchen design was confusing to guests, they’d see the pile of plates and would queue up  like a buffet. Soon the Vegas location was outperforming the LA location. Steve Wynn was a frequent guest and took note of Spago’s success, and determined that Bellagio should have similar dining options. Bellagio opened with world class restaurants by Sirio Macioni, Michael Mina, Julian Serrano, Todd English, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Soon all the top casinos had their own roster of  World-Class Chefs, operating a growing list of Michelin Starred restaurants, including Joel Robuchon’s three star at MGM Grand. Supplying, even your run of the mill restaurant in Las Vegas is no small feat, nothing is local, sorry Alice Waters. Wolfgang Puck describes his first foray into Vegas food sourcing:

I went to visit a fish guy, who took me into a thirty-thousand- square-foot freezer. I said, No, no, That’s not who we are. We want fresh tuna and salmon.

Vegas is Not Alice Water’s kind of Town

Puck’s initial solution was to have his chefs drive a van to the  Santa Monica Farmers Market. As the density of high-end restaurants grew, a culture of “Fed-Ex Cuisine” developed. No ingredient is too inconsequential  to get the Jet-Set treatment, Joel Robuchon has his butter overnighted from France. Julian Serrano says it is easier to get good ingredients in Las Vegas than in San Francisco, because the airport never gets fogged-in, as it does in San Francisco.

Chef Paul Bartolotta at Wynn has seafood flown  in from the Mediterranean in coolers equipped with microchips that monitor the temperature of the crustaceans throughout their flight. He’s been known to receive emails from fisherman in the middle of the Adriatic Sea, with pictures holding large exotic fish, and which can be delivered, cooked, and plated for a high-roller within 48-hours.

The Truffle Kid

Brett Ottolenghi, proprietor of Artisanal Foods, is the go to guy for the exotic and expensive ingredients prized by the top Chefs in Las Vegas. Known to Vegas Chefs as “The Truffle Kid”, Brett, while a mere twenty five years old, has been in the truffle import  business since 1998. In addition to importing truffles, Ottolenghi prides himself on being able to source the most exotic ingredient, even on short notice. It could be purple mustard for Michael Mina, piment d’Espelette, a rare chili pepper, for Chef Ludo Lefebvre at  Lavo, or supplying the Bellagio Buffet with four hundred pounds of fatted duck breast for Chinese New Year on a mere twenty-four hours notice. Ottolenghi sells large amounts of caviar, and has been know to cart around sturgeon in a fish tank as a prop in his sales calls. Ottolenghi assures his customers of authevticity, if you order Beluga Caviar he won’t substitute Paddlefish caviar instead.

There is only one producer of Spanish Iberico Ham approved by  the U.S.D.A. for sale in the United States, Fermin, and Ottolenghi is the exclusive source for Fermin products in Las Vegas. Iberico Hams are labeled according to the pigs diet, with jamón ibérico de bellota being the most highly prized. Bellota means acorn, hence acorns  makes up the bulk of the diet of Bellota Pigs. Retail stores sell Bellota Ham for around $130 per pound. Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, is a Bellota Ham fan, every Christmas  buys three Bellota Legs from Robuchon’s L’Atelier. Note, it is the custom for Bellota Hams to be delivered complete with the hoof intact.

Bellota Ham has a unique nutty flavor, with a high fat content, upwards of thirty-five percent, which is highly prized gourmands. While the fat content is high, the fat profile is different from other hams, with a much higher percentage of mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, more similar to that of olive oil than to that of a regular meat product. For more insight on Bellota Ham read The Gastronomer: For bellota ham, nuts aren’t the half of it

Vegas Food Purveyors Each Have Their Own “Look”

Ottolenghi, along with other high end food purveyors, each have developed their own dress style or “look” to aid in sales. Clint Arthur, known as “The Butter Man”, he sells eighty-five percent  butterfat butter to  Payard, Jean Georges  and Guy Savoy, among others, dresses in  a “butter-yellow” shirt with matching yellow crocs. Lee Jones the man responsible for most of the vegetable  exotica in Vegas, wears dark-blue overalls, white shirt and red bow tie, as if to say “I’m Farm Fresh you can trust me to deliver the best and most unique produce, period.” Ottolenghi dresses in conspicuously unfashionable brown suits and brown leather shoes.

It’s a very specific look, almost professorial being well, if humbly, dressed prevents him from being stopped by security while sneaking around the back corridors of casinos. Besides light suits in Las Vegas say VIP Hosts which doesn’t inspire the trust of chefs.

Caveat emptor

Ottolenghi, through his unfashionable dress conveys the persona of professorial integrity rather than of slick salesman, which is important when you’re selling Truffles and other expensive ingredients. The high dollar value of the Truffles invites a certain amount of fraudulent activity among purveyors. Truffles are expensive, White Truffles can cost upwards of $5,000 per pound, Black Truffles $800+ per pound. There are also Chinese Truffles that look like Black Truffles but have much less flavor, and hence are not desirable. As detailed in this New York Times article “The Invasion of the Chinese Truffle” unscrupulous dealers have been known to mix the less expensive Chinese Truffle with Black Truffles. The color of Chinese Truffles is indistinguishable from Black Truffles, and the Chinese Truffle takes on the aroma of the Black Truffles in transit. To detect this fraud, chefs must segregate the truffles and place them in their own bell jar, and then reexamine them at least fifteen minutes later, when the Black truffle aroma has dissipated from the Chinese ones.

Saffron is another product with rampant fraud, saffron goes for eighty-five dollars per ounce. Ottolenghi claims that a large percentage of of Saffron sold is really a hash of crocus parts dyed with red food coloring. To entice new clients he offers chefs to have their saffron tested for authenticity, free of charge.

Like so many aspects of Vegas, a great deal of effort and tumult goes on behind the scenes to give visitors a great memorable experience. Even a “simple” ingredient shaved over a pasta dish can involve much more effort than the diner could ever imagine.

Related Essays:

This essay is based on the New Yorker article “The Truffle Kid: Supplying fine food in a town where money is no object”

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