Celebrity Chefs AWOL In Vegas

Bradley Ogden, left, works in the kitchen of his Las Vegas restaurant at Caesars Palace with sous chef Jeff Mauro, July 8, 2004. Ogden moved to Las Vegas and did what no other chef here has ever done: He won a prestigious James Beard award this year for the nation's best new restaurant.
AP
The waiter appears tableside in the cozy dining room laden with oil paintings, stained glass and hints of cherry and oak. Before reciting the day's special menu items, he recounts the restaurant's devotion to farm-fresh produce and tosses out a morsel about its namesake, chef Bradley Ogden.

"Unlike other celebrity chefs," the waiter says, "Bradley Ogden is here. He's preparing the food as we speak."

While Las Vegas has tried to put itself on the cooking map, culinary critics have leveled their forks, charging the city with trying to accomplish its gastronomic goal at the expense of the food.

Many of the well-known chefs who landed lucrative deals with major hotel-casinos have abandoned their kitchens to underlings. Some of the most lavish spots are merely cash cows to feed dynasties and savory outposts in more important food cities such as New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco.

"It could be so much better if the chefs were there actually doing the cooking," said longtime food critic John Mariani of Esquire magazine. "It's all about the money - the astounding amount of money that can be made."

Ogden took a different approach. He moved to Las Vegas and accomplished what no other chef here has done: He won a prestigious James Beard award this year for the nation's best new restaurant, equivalent to an Oscar or Pulitzer Prize.

"If I wasn't here every day that wouldn't have happened," Ogden said. "A lot of the chefs don't like me being in the kitchen every day. It forces the bar."

When his namesake restaurant opened last year in Caesars Palace on St. Patrick's Day, Ogden didn't plan to spend most of his time in the kitchen. At most, he thought he would burn one or two days a month there.

His other successful restaurants in San Diego and the San Francisco Bay area, including the renowned Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, Calif., demanded much of his energies.

But that commitment intensified when Caesars wanted to emblazon his name in huge letters.

"If you put your name on something, it has to be great," said Ogden who claims to put in at least 70 hours a week in the sprawling kitchen. "If you are not there, it's too big of a risk. The risk is getting a bad rep. It will catch up to you."

The elegant restaurant, across from Celine Dion's theater, cost about $6 million to build, said the 50-year-old Ogden, who has full operational control. It specializes in new American cuisine.

When diners spy him inside, Ogden says, "people are sort of blown away by that."

For good reason. The list of celebrity chefs who have opened restaurants in Las Vegas and don't live here is longer than a fillet knife: Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Keller, Stephen Hanson, Emeril Lagasse, Tom Colicchio, Charlie Palmer, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Michael Mina, Nobu Matsuhisa and Hubert Keller.

Others are on the way. Rick Moonen, Guy Savoy, Bobby Flay, Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud all have restaurants set to open by 2005. Mario Batali and Paul Bocuse are said to be discussing putting their stamp on Sin City.

But it's likely they won't be shopping for homes in Las Vegas.

"The new action that has rolled into town seems to hold to the same 'Who-cares-if-the chef's-never-here?' attitude of the past," Mariani wrote in "Virtual Gourmet," his weekly newsletter. "Does anyone seriously believe these fellows will be spending a major part of their time there? Can you see the 78-year-old Bocuse shuttling back and forth between Lyons and Las Vegas every two weeks?"

Some might ask - although not the food elite - why it matters if chefs are present every night inspecting the dishes.

Critics argue it's like Joe Torre leading the Yankees or Gen. George S. Patton commanding the 3rd Army across Europe. They might not fire a shot or swing a bat, but their presence is the difference between success and failure, brilliance and mediocrity.

"Every single musician in the New York Philharmonic is the best in the world, and they need a conductor," Mariani said. "Even the best cooks in Las Vegas need a conductor."

MGM Grand President Gamal Aziz has led the revival of his hotel-casino by luring Colicchio, Mina, Hanson and Puck. The restaurants are a major success, he said. In 2003, food and beverage revenues were $167 million, up from $151 million in 2002. The casino is projected to do $200 million this year and could reach $225 million once all the property's projects are completed.

"If you have a business segment that does a quarter of a billion dollars, how could you take it lightly?" Aziz asks. "You've got to get people who will never let their food or brand get diluted."

All the chefs are required to be in the kitchen a minimum number of days a month, Aziz said, and all react promptly to his concerns. Aziz said there are only a handful of celebrity chefs with whom he would deal, ones he trusts to deliver quality food nightly.

"You don't want to bring in a person who only wants to open another restaurant," he said. "I've dealt with them."

Those who have made the move to Las Vegas have found success.

Kerry Simon of Simon Kitchen and Bar at the Hard Rock hotel-casino was named one of the best new restaurants in America last year by the unflinching and influential Mariani.

"I thought the food was honest," Mariani said. "He was there and it showed."

Simon's contract requires him to spend a certain amount of time in the kitchen.

"I just want to cook and for things to taste good," said Simon, whose visibility increased after appearing on the Food Network's "Iron Chef" program. Now Simon is writing his first cookbook, a must for the celebrity chef's resume.

In April, the Wine Spectator tapped Picasso at the Bellagio and The Venetian's Piero Selvaggio Valentino as the two best restaurants in Las Vegas.

Picasso's chef, Julian Serrano, and Valentino's Luciano Pellegrini, have won regional James Beard awards while cooking in Las Vegas.

"Serrano's sublime cuisine reflects intelligence and a delicate touch that balances ingredients with unerring taste," the Wine Spectator wrote in May. "It's the kind of cooking that can succeed so brilliantly only when the chef who created it is there to execute it."

The lesser-known but widely respected Pellegrini said Ogden has fired a clear shot across the bows of his competitors' stainless steel ovens.

"He's definitely making a statement," Pellegrini said. "He's one of the few that has truly made a commitment. I've yet to see a mediocre restaurant with a great chef in the kitchen."

When Steve Wynn's $2.7 billion mega-resort opens in April, the chefs in its signature restaurants will be in-house, said Elizabeth Blau, one the city's most important restaurateurs who also oversees restaurant development and marketing at Wynn Las Vegas.

That's a tall order. In some cases, getting the chef to live in Las Vegas has been a deal killer, Blau said.

"We've been traveling all over the world looking for talented chefs who are going to move here," she said.

Boulud's name will be among those at Wynn Las Vegas, but the New York chef will be connected with a more casual bistro - not one of the big-name restaurants - allowing him to avoid relocating.

Colicchio, one of the chef-stars at the MGM Grand, said he didn't want to uproot his New York family to open the new Craftsteak for Aziz. Four days a month he's at the Vegas steakhouse, which is run by Chris Albrecht, who spent eight years with him at the widely praised Gramercy Tavern.

"If the chef wasn't performing, I'd be spending a lot more time out there," Colicchio said. "I feel confident that the job is getting done. I grow when I have people in my organization who are ready to take the next step."

He disputed Mariani's assertion that the food would be better if he was carving slabs of aged beef in the kitchen every night.

"It's every bit as good as if I was there. That restaurant in my opinion is better than any restaurant in that town and most other towns. That's enough."

By Adam Goldman