[Vegas on My Mind]

Former Okada chef Takashi Yagahashi is much happier in Michigan

Takashi Yagahashi, who opened Okada for Steve Wynn in 2005, is now building his own restaurant empire in Michigan.
Photo: Steve Friess

“One time, this Japanese businessman, he lost $5 million in the casino, and they call us and they say, ‘Uh, it’s going to be a comp,’” the chef recalls with a big laugh. “Another time, Steven Spielberg celebrates his son’s 21st birthday in one of the private rooms and he asks me to come in. I go to the door and Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg were right there. Right there! I never met these people!”

Takashi Yagahashi has plenty of tales to tell of his two years as chef at Wynn’s fine-dining Japanese restaurant, Okada, which he opened in 2005. He tells them like they were part of a wacky, still unbelievable and unbelievably weird dream.

I meet Yagahashi just before the lunch rush at his new ramen restaurant, the Slurping Turtle, which opened last month in a piece of a former Border’s bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. It’s the latest expansion of a budding restaurant empire that includes four Chicago eateries: the Japanese-French fusion spot Takashi, a sushi takeout joint, another Slurping Turtle and a lunch counter at a Macy’s. The second Slurping Turtle comes, not coincidentally, as Yagahashi’s daughter rolls into her sophomore year at University of Michigan.

The Japan native, 56, was plucked by the Wynn operation in 2005 from his perch as the acclaimed executive chef of a suburban Detroit restaurant called Tribute, where he won a James Beard honor as Best Chef in the Midwest in 2003. His Vegas adventure began, fittingly, by being sniffed over by Steve Wynn’s ever-present pair of German shepherds.

“Oh, you’re the Takashi,” he recalls Wynn booming in that smoky-gravelly baritone. “Welcome to Las Vegas. It’s going to be lots of fun. … You’re a very important position for me, because Mr. Okada is investing the money for the Wynn Resorts. That’s why his name is on the restaurant.”

Kazuo Okada, who kicked in $260 million of the start-up cost for Wynn Resorts, was forced out of the company in 2012 after a bitter, complex feud with Wynn. Wynn had told interviewers they were tight pals, but Yagahashi says he never saw Wynn and Okada dine together at his restaurant. (The Japanese restaurants bearing the Okada name in Las Vegas and Macau were renamed Mizumi in 2012.)

Yagahashi did see plenty of other folks, of course. “My restaurant was like Hollywood. Peter Fonda from Easy Rider, he showed up eating sushi right there. Sting, he comes a few times. Two days in a row. I am a big tennis player, so there was Andre Agassi. I talked to him.” Wynn himself was a weekly diner, Yagahashi recalls. It awed him that the place could sell more than $50,000 of Wagyu beef every night.

As much fun as the chef was having, his wife and kids disliked being uprooted from suburban Detroit and struggled to make friends. Three months after the opening, Yagahashi floated the idea of moving back to the Midwest and managing Okada from afar, but Wynn wouldn’t allow it. One of the much-touted distinctions of the Wynn when it opened was that all the top chefs (with the exception of Daniel Boulud) were on-site.

The thrill of his star-studded clientele and high-profile gig wore off for Yagahashi. His James Beard came for creative interplay of Japanese, American and French flavors, something he couldn’t really do at a restaurant that catered to demanding casino customers—many coming direct from Japan and expecting authentic cuisine. Okada fed more than 700 people per night, a sprawling operation that made it impossible for Yagahashi, a hands-on chef, to check each plate before serving. Some things that Vegas chefs put up with—the high-roller, for instance, who ordered in from Wynn’s Red 8 via cell phone from his table at Okada—can demoralize or offend even the most gracious among them.

So after two years, Yagahashi was done. He moved to Chicago, opened his namesake restaurant and, seven years later, is now serving incredibly fresh and tasty ramen in my own town.

“Hey Takashi,” he recalls Steve Wynn growling when he turned in his resignation, “I just want to let you know, you cannot make a better deal anywhere else over what I can offer you.” That’s true, he replied. Then he left anyway.

Yagahashi doesn’t wish to disparage Vegas or the Wynn. But as we sit at the Slurping Turtle, it strikes me that this is precisely the sort of fare the Strip needs more of—authentic, ethnic and relatively inexpensive. Wouldn’t a Slurping Turtle at, say, Studio Walk at MGM Grand or somewhere in Planet Hollywood be an obvious winner?

“Oh, definitely,” he agrees. “But I’m not willing to do that. That’s not where my satisfaction comes.”

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