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.

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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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