This is the second of two posts about dining in Las Vegas and what it says about the future of food in Houston.
2 - The Las Vegas Future: Celebrity Chefs
The restaurant scene in Las Vegas changed dramatically in 1992. In that year Wolfgang Puck opened Spago -- Vegas' first celebrity chef restaurant. Now celebrity chef restaurants dominate. Almost every casino/hotel on the Strip has at least one. Many of the world's most famous chefs have made their name elsewhere, then opened their second, third, or tenth restaurant in Vegas. Some examples include: Bouchon (Thomas Keller); Emeril's New Orleans Fish House at the MGM Grand (Emeril Legasse); Joel Robuchon at the Mansion; At Prime in the Belagio (Jean Georges Vongerichten); Mix (Alain Ducasse); Nobu at the Hard Rock Casino (Nobu Matsuhisa); Mesa Grill at Caesar's Palace (Bobby Flau); and Daniel Boulud Brasserie.
I spent most of a day wandering down the Strip looking at menus. For such allegedly cutting-edge chefs, I was surprised how many menus were dominated by steak. The typical restaurant had about 12 entrees, and about half were steaks or chops.
Apart from steaks, menus were dominated by old trends. I must have seen three different menus offering seared ahi tuna served over wasabi mashed potatoes. That is so five years ago.
Perhaps these famous chefs have learned that, in Vegas, the mainstream customers want the safety of familiarity, not a true adventure.
My favorite menu find was Daniel Boulud's $32 burger. The menu said the ground sirloin burger was stuffed with foie gras, braised short rib, and black truffles -- served with fries. It was a strange mix of luxury ingredients and the most conservative of American foods -- a hamburger. It encapsulates the essence of Las Vegas -- expensive excess for unadventurous tastes.
To see where the celebrity chef trend began in Las Vegas, I tried Spago. To start, I ordered a mediocre crab cake. The tiny cylinder tasted more of bread crumbs than crab. Then, I had a black truffle-crusted organic king salmon, served with mushrooms and brussel sprout leaves. "Organic" is a code word for "farmed." The fish was good quality for farmed fish, but not as good as wild king salmon. (I should know not to order salmon in March). The preparation, however, was more creative than I expected. On the other hand, I tried a friend's braised short ribs. It tasted like a good pot roast. But it was not unusual, and not as good as the braised short ribs I had recently at Backstreet Cafe in Houston.
I had to wonder how much the celebrity chefs were involved at these restaurants. They all have other restaurants. Many of them host TV shows. And almost all write best-selling cook books. I do not see how it is possible for them to spend much time at their third restaurant in Vegas. Perhaps they don't. In fact, the menus at some of these restaurants candidly identify some lesser known person (not the celebrity chef) as the real executive chef.
I used to appreciate the idea of a celebrity chef because chefs deserve that glory. For too long chefs have toiled in the kitchen, outside of the lime light. They have not been recognized in the same way as other artists, like novelists and painters. But now chefs do combat in a stadium on Iron Chef. Some have become cultural icons, or at least household names. And their vocabulary has been adopted by the culture. "Pow!" indeed.
But I fear that chef celebrity is becoming no more than a brand -- a Ralph Lauren pony on the restaurant's shirt pocket. The brand offers familiarity, and a promise of quality. And like fashion, celebrity chef restaurants tend to follow the trends of the season. But the brand does not necessarily mean true creativity or artistry. And certainly not individualized attention.
With the movement of corporations into fine dining, the growth of the celebrity chef trend is inevitable. In Houston, we only have two celebrity restaurants: Jean George's Bank and Wolfgang Puck Express. Fortunately, most of our best restaurants have not been corporatized and branded. They do not all slavishly follow food trends. And they still offer a lot more than steak.
More importantly, in Houston, unlike Las Vegas, there is a decent chance that your fish was bought or seasoned or plated or served to you by a real chef who runs his or her own restaurant and still works in the kitchen -- someone like Monica Pope, John Sheely, or Mark Cox. They don't manufacture food in accordance with a brand. Instead, they create their own individualistic art. They are our real culinary heroes.
Let's hope they do not get edged out by celebrity chef carpetbaggers who inevitably will open their 5th or 10th restaurant in Houston now that they have all conquered Las Vegas.