Who says famous chefs don’t spend any actual time tending to their Las Vegas restaurants? Two culinary legends were in town this week: Mario Batali visited the Venetian to participate in the Culinary Clash and check in with his team at Carnevino, B&B Ristorante and Otto Enoteca Pizzeria. And Wolfgang Puck hit the Strip to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the landmark Spago in the Forum Shops. Puck also maintains Cut, Postrio, Trattoria del Lupo, Pizzeria & Cucina at Crystals and Bar & Grill at MGM Grand. We caught up with the chefs separately to ask each the same series of questions.
So, just how often do you come to Las Vegas?
Batali: I’m here every two to three months. Joe [Bastianich] and I come out, taste the restaurants, talk to the people, walk through the kitchens, hang in the dining rooms. This is one of my more sophisticated groups of people, so there’s never a surprise. It’s also a time to kind of meld minds with the chefs, talk about what they’re doing and help them figure out where they should be moving, if they want to develop their own personal brand.
Puck: I don’t have a fixed schedule for any of our restaurants, but here I have such a great team with Tom [Kaplan], David [Robins], Eric [Klein] and the other chefs. They are like grown children—they live on their own pretty well. But I would do a very bad job if I would not have hired the right people. It’s really good to see how well they’re established here.
How has your personal perception of Vegas changed from the time you opened your first restaurant here up to now?
Batali: They used to talk about it being really gastronomical, but now it’s really gastronomical. There are great restaurants, and every six months somebody like José Andrés comes in and changes the game. I’m only going to one Robuchon meal this year and it’s in Las Vegas. This is not a tourist Robuchon, it’s a three-star Michelin Robuchon. The one here is the legend, it’s the real sh*t. These are not just outposts; these are category winners.
Puck: When we opened Spago, we were really the only restaurant here. We used to go to the fights right behind Caesars Palace, outside, and saw [Thomas] Hearns and [Marvin] Hagler and all these guys, then everybody came here for dinner, because we were the only restaurant. Now the whole thing is just all over the place. It’s really amazing what has happened. Now you have to ask who’s not here. Being a pioneer would be one thing and being the first is a good thing, but being still here is much more important. I think I’m more proud that we are still here, you know?
Is there more for you to do here?
Batali: Hell yeah! Some kind of Eataly or Little Italy hybrid, that might be interesting and fun. We have no pizza component here besides Otto. I’d love to build another pizzeria that we love. It’s all about finding the right spot in the right location with the right amount of people walking by.
Puck: I would really have to think to come up with something really good. I always said maybe the next restaurant in Las Vegas would be more of a show, with the kitchen right in the center and all the tables around it. Would it work practically? I don’t know. But I think it could be an interesting experience.
Which of your many projects are you most excited about right now?
Batali: Eataly is my most juicy story right now. We just signed a deal in Chicago, and we’re talking to Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Los Angeles. When you can give people a kind of super-joy, not just a restaurant but an entirely curated Italian gastronomic thing, it’s really fun, and most significantly because I didn’t invent it. The world of pasta, or olive oil, or dry goods, or crazy chocolates from Piedmonte … it’s mind-boggling. To be able to share that with people and have them smile, taste and enjoy on a level they never have or never would have, it is a remarkable opportunity. I’ll take it.
Puck: We just opened in Detroit at the MGM, a steakhouse like Cut and an Italian restaurant like Lupo, just this month. I’m really excited to go back in January for the auto show. The next step would be probably in Asia or the Middle East, Dubai, Bahrain, and also Shanghai. What I have learned, from when I went to Japan, all you want to do is sashimi and sushi, because everything is just the best quality. So I put all these Japanese dishes on the menu, which we don’t have in LA. But a customer came and basically told me, if we want Japanese food, we can get it. We don’t need you to do it. Do what you do. When people buy into our concept, they want what we do. If you want Hermès, you’re not going to go to Yves Saint Laurent.
Where will you be spending the holidays?
Batali: Our house on Lake Michigan. We’ve been going there for 10 years. I have a seven-mile stretch of beach in front of the house and there ain’t no one there. It’s one of the greatest things that ever happened.
Puck: For the first time, I’m spending Christmas at home. Christmas Eve, we’ll have a big celebration at Spago [in LA], then the next day hang out at home, then we go to ski. And on the second of January we go for five days to Maui, where we have a Spago. So it’s half-vacation and half-work.
What do you cook at home for your family?
Batali: I cook Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and the babysitter cooks Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. And let me tell you, people dream about having dinner when Chef Leo makes supper. She’s from Acapulco, and she makes the most delicious mole and turkey tacos. When I cook at home it’s generally a one-pot meal, whether it’s a braise or osso bucco, or this week I made elk chili. It’s not about the presentation, it’s about a pot of deliciousness that can sit there an extra hour. My kids are 14 and 16 and coming home later and later, because they’ve got basketball practice and all these things. It’s changed our world. So food is no longer coming out of a sauté pan, ever. It’s just there waiting, and hopefully they come home with a smile on their faces.
Puck: We have vegetables always, and I make them very simple: steam carrots or broccoli or asparagus or beets, whatever is available, and put some good sea salt and olive oil. We have pasta fairly often, because the kids love pasta and risotto. The little one will eat plain risotto and the older one gets lobster risotto. My wife makes a great lasagna and pasta Bolognese. We had a birthday party for the little guy and she made him lasagna, and he took one bite and said, “Mama this is the best lasagna ever!” and got up and kissed her. It almost made her cry. I told her if she continued like that, I’m getting jealous! I can never make lasagna again.