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”

How many times have you used the expression “When in Rome…”  ex post, to explain away behavior that is out of character for you?  Better yet, how many times have you used the expression ex ante in anticipation of behavior that is uncharacteristic for you? Perhaps this expression is most appropriate for Las Vegas, even more apropos than the oft repeated “What Happens in Vegas…Stays in Vegas”, which suffers form its shameful guilt ridden sub-text.

So what  are people availing themselves of, that  they don’t partake in at home, surely it can’t be gambling, since the proliferation of casinos across that country have made this activity ubiquitous. I have my nominee, to use the current vernacular, Vegas is “Foodie Heaven” I’m not talking about the abundance of celebrity chefs, like Old Timer Wolfgang Puck or the newer, Food Channel creations like Emeril “Bam” Lagasse or everything tastes better when it char-grilled— Bobby Flay. I’m not even referring to Joel Robuchon’s eponymously named Three Star Michelin rated restaurant. I am referring to the humble buffet, as reinterpreted by Steve Wynn when he opened the Bellagio.

When you say “Casino Buffet” to most people, they probably think, great, all the fried chicken and instant  mashed potatoes with suspiciously opaque brown gravy that I can eat. Add a salad bar with lots and lots of iceberg lettuce, plus perhaps some canned olives with less taste than the tin can from which they were procured. For desert you could blindly choose any desert, as they all taste that same, as the only identifying taste is sweetness derived most likely from  high fructose corn syrup. Yuck!

Steve Wynn changed the whole buffet scene in Vegas when he opened the upscale buffet at the  Bellagio. More than twenty years later, this is still the buffet against which all other buffets in Vegas are measured. Many of the buffets in Vegas lay claim to being the Number One Buffet, don’t believe them, Bellagio is the one with the title, with the new buffet at Wynn a close second.

Bellagio Buffet is Number One

So what makes the buffet at the Bellagio so great, the short answer is: Everything. Okay, the room is nothing special, but true foodies don’t care about ambiance, they’re there for the food, period. Let’s start with the breakfast buffet, first off, they get the two most neglected breakfast buffet items right, the coffee is full bodied and strong, but not overpowering and burnt, sorry Starbucks Lovers. The orange juice tastes fresh squeezed, but is not, it tastes every bit as good as Natalie’s Orange Juice , for the Natalie’s fans out there, of which I include myself.

If I had to pick one buffet item that distinguishes the Bellagio buffet from the rest, it would be the Eggs Benedict. Eggs Benedict at other buffets more closely resembles an open face egg McMuffin with a bland yellowish sauce, with the egg most assuredly hard boiled. Somehow the chefs, I don’t think chef overstates the case, manage to keep the eggs seemingly freshly poached and the Hollandaise sauce hits all the correct lemony-butter notes. All the other expected breakfast items are here, usually with some special extras, like omelets cooked to order with the option of crabmeat and shrimp. I feel compelled to mention the wonderful  chocolate croissants which have a buttery flaky outside surrounding a strong bitter-sweet chocolate filling.

The two other contenders for best breakfast buffet in Vegas are Paris and Wynn. The Paris buffet, once thought to give the Bellagio some competition, has been on the decline since they were bought out by Harrahs. Additionally, the Paris buffet fails on the two most neglected breakfast items: first the orange juice is clearly from concentrate, and second the coffee is weak, really weak, and I thought the French were known for their strong coffee. What distinguishes the Paris breakfast buffet is the large assortment of sausages, imported cheeses and smoked fish, plus made to order fruit crepes.

Nora Loves Wynn’s Breakfast Buffet

The Wynn breakfast buffet is great too, evidently Nora Ephron agrees, I won’t quibble of her choice of Wynn over Bellagio:

…we like the breakfast buffet at the Wynn, which is the greatest breakfast buffet in Las Vegas and therefore in the world. It’s even better than the breakfast buffet at the Bellagio Hotel, which Steve Wynn used to own. The day you die and go to heaven, there will not be a breakfast buffet as good as the one at the Wynn…

From the Huffington Post (The article is a fascinating account of the Wynn/Picasso accident)

The lunch and dinner buffets, particularly the weekend dinner buffets are what really sets Belllagio apart from the competition. First off, just as they’ve mastered the preparation of Eggs Benedict such that the eggs remained poached and not hard boiled, they are similarly skilled in the preparation of fish, and they usually have three or four choices, beyond the ubiquitous salmon. The Chilean Sea Bass they serve on weekends is among the best I’ve had anywhere. The only two items I have some quibble with are the rack of lamb they serve on weekends is always well-done, if you want great medium-rare rack of lamb, you have to head over to Wynn, and the King Crab Legs are chilled and pre-split, which tends to dry-out the meat. My preferred venue for crab legs in Vegas is the Gold Coast, an under-rated value buffet. The Gold Coast serves steaming hot snow crab legs, which have slightly sweeter meat than king crab legs. The Oysters Rockefeller, at Gold Coast are also exceptional, unfortunately it is only available Friday night, seafood night.

Bellagio is the only buffet in Vegas where it is mandatory to save room for dessert, and this is a real challenge since

Desserts at Bellagio Buffet

Desserts at Bellagio Buffet

everything you try will tempt you to have just a little more. The chocolate cake actually tastes like good quality chocolate, not some tasteless industrial cake served at most of the other buffets. The carrot cake is another favorite. Fortunately, all the servings are small, to encourage the sampling of several desserts.

While on the subject of desserts I should mention the only two other buffets that warrant special attention. First, the fruit crepes at Paris. Even though I’m a bit weary of recommending items at Paris, as Harrahs management seems to be systematically removing all the little extras that made this buffet so special in the past, such as large bowls of fresh raspberries, smoked fish, and grilled asparagus. The made to order blueberry crepe with raspberry sauce, a dollop of whipped cream, sprinkled with sugar-cinnamon and just of touch of ground walnuts is too delicious for words. Suffice it to say, if you offer a taste to others at your table, you’ll be heading back to the crepe station, as your plate will return empty.

Golden Nugget Bread Pudding

The other dessert worthy of special mention is the bread pudding at the Golden Nugget. The recipe is actually Steve Wynn’s mother’s recipe, a  hold-over from when he owned the casino. In addition to the egg-custard and cinnamon flavor, I’m convinced there is a secret special ingredient that acts directly on the “bread-pudding” neural pathway in the brain that makes this desert both delicious and highly addictive. How addictive? Your first thoughts the following morning will be “How soon can I get some more Golden Nugget Bread Pudding”  Warning, don’t try to out-smart this urge by having the bread pudding the night before you leave Las Vegas, it is too embarrassing to explain how you missed a flight because you had to have another taste of the bread pudding at the Golden Nugget. It’s that good!

Sushi Overtakes Prime Rib

While the giant leap in the quality of Vegas Buffets is the single largest change to occur in the last twenty years, other changes are apparent. Prime Rib and Chilled Shrimp which were the markers of an upscale buffet in days of yore have been replaced by sushi as markers of “class”.  Even the downscale Fremont buffet serves sushi at their buffet, even if it is of the industrial pre-made variety. Almost all Vegas buffets have added some form of live cooking stations to their line up, thereby closing the gap between buffet and mid-priced restaurant.

Asian stir fry and made to order pastas are the most common live cooking stations, however made to order salads are

Treasure Island Dishes Buffet: Made to order Salads

Treasure Island Dishes Buffet: Made to order Salads

available at the recently remodeled Mirage and Treasure Island buffets. A  favorite at “Dishes Buffet  at TI”  is the BBQ Cobb

Wynn Buffet: pre-made salads

Wynn Buffet: pre-made salads

salad, which goes well with the buffet’s barbecue specialties.  The Wynn buffet offers pre-made salads with an exotic flair. Such as Currant Tomatoes with Micro Mozzarella and Lemon Oil; White Anchovies and Roasted Peppers; Poached Pear with Walnuts and Gorgonzola; Grilled Red Onion with Orange Segments; Greek Salad with Feta, olives, cucumber and tomatoes. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful Tuna Nicoise salad at the Bellagio buffet, with it’s lightly seared Ahi Tuna. Mirage and Rio have added oriental noodle soup stations, where the soup is prepared to order, with your choice of noodles, meat filled dumplings, BBQ Pork, among other items.

Rio Carnival Buffet Over-Rated

Would it come as a surprise to you, if I told you a few of the buffets in Vegas are over-rated? In a town over-flowing with magazine and newspaper articles written by professional flacks and where the term shill is omnipresent, but never mentioned. The most over-rated buffet in Vegas, has to be the one at the Rio. It probably has the largest selection of items, but clearly it is a triumph of quantity over quality. There are no dishes here that are worthy of any self respecting foodie, but people seemed dazzled by the variety. The only positive note is that they have improved the buffet from the truly dismal quality it was several years ago. The buffet also tends to be expensive, especially in relation to the quality. The recommendation is to skip the Rio and go across the street to the Gold Coast, a buffet well known to locals, but seemingly ignored by visitors. While we’re in the neighborhood, The Palms is another buffet well worth passing-up.

The Spice Market buffet is over-rated in the sense that it claims to be the  #1 Buffet in Vegas, an over reach, but still a good buffet. If you have a hankering for middle eastern food this is the buffet to go to, with very good Hummus and Baba Ghannouj. Unfortunately the Pita Bread ranges from ice cold to room temperature. They tried to copy the Paris Buffet with made to order fruit crepes, a true disaster. The fruit is a sort of canned pie filling that is so gelatinously thick you could easily repair a hole in your roof with this stuff.

Bay Side Buffet Overlooked

There are also a few under-rated buffets that don’t seem to get the attention they deserve. The most under-rated buffet is the relatively new one at Treasure Island or TI, perhaps this is partly due to the fact the Treasure Island used to be home to one of the worst buffets in Vegas, and memories are long. The feature items here are the barbeque, they have a large smoker to slowly smoke the brisket and ribs, the best at any buffet in town. The salads and pastas are made to order at their respective stations, and are quite good. I recommend the gnocchi in a pink sauce and the BBQ Cobb salad. They also have sushi, just like most of the strip buffets, unfortunately it is pre-made off-site, what I call industrial sushi. So, if you like supermarket sushi, you’re in luck.

Bay Side Buffet Mandalay Bay

Bay Side Buffet Mandalay Bay

The other Vegas buffet that is often overlooked is the Bay Side Buffet at Mandalay Bay, perhaps because it is literally at the most southern end of the Strip.  The room is one of the prettiest  in Vegas, only Wynn’s buffet has a nicer room, if these things matter to you. One of the few buffets where fish dishes are worth a second look. The oven roasted wood-plank salmon fillet is a must try.

As a closing comment on Vegas buffets, I feel compelled to mention price, and more importantly, value. The best buffet values are found at the high and lower price points. While the Bellagio may cost a few more dollars than other strip buffets, the quality of the food make it a wise value choice. On the lower price end, I feel the Gold Coast is a real value particularly when compared to the  neighboring over-priced Rio buffet.

When in Vegas—do what the locals do, enjoy a buffet.

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