Fame on a plate: Las Vegas is the celebrity chef capital of the universe

“It didn’t used to be doctor, lawyer or chef, but now that there’s some glamour to it, it’s something kids say they want to do,” Bobby Flay said at this month’s Vegas Uncork’d festival.
Photo: Matt Sayles/Invision

Emeril Lagasse isn’t completely sure how all this happened.

He is, of course, a household name. A chef, a restaurateur, a multimedia star. He’s Emeril. We all know him. He kicks it up a notch—always. We know his face and flavor from TV shows and supermarket aisles and bookstores, or whatever the virtual equivalent of the bookstore has become. He’s so famous it seems destined.

Emeril Lagasse

Emeril Lagasse

“I’m a businessman,” he tells me. I’m in Las Vegas, and he’s in New York or New Orleans or somewhere else entirely. Most of the time, he’s on a plane. “I went to school for business, too. I like to think I’m a pretty good cook. Right now, I’m just trying to get caught up on things. I get up every day trying to do a better job than I did the day before.”

Lagasse is a celebrity chef. But this is not the job he trained for or planned on, nor did many of the cooks and businessmen of his generation. He grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, worked in a Portuguese bakery as a teenager, and turned down a full scholarship as a percussionist to the New England Conservatory of Music so he could be a chef. He went to school at Johnson & Wales, traveled and worked in France, got restaurant gigs around the East Coast and landed at the renowned Commander’s Palace in New Orleans in 1982, replacing the legendary Paul Prudhomme as executive chef. Then … somehow ... Bam! He’s our Emeril.

“I had no idea I would ever get into television, but somewhere in there I really found my Zen, which is cooking and teaching,” he says. He currently hosts two shows on the Cooking Channel and pops up regularly on Good Morning America and Top Chef. His earliest TV stuff—Great Chefs on PBS, but more than anything, The Essence of Emeril in the early days of the Food Network—introduced a jovial, sincere and passionate personality to the world, a chef who drained the stuffy, French formality out of cuisine and made food more fun than it already was.

“The reason I did Essence of Emeril was: If I could teach people a little more about cooking, shopping, wine, spirits, about entertaining, then maybe the industry would evolve. To do 10 seasons and 1,200 shows then was unheard of,” he says. “Now food TV has changed, and that’s great, but it’s come full circle for me, because I’m running into people, young married couples, who say, ‘You really taught me how to cook back then and taught my family how to eat.’ It’s a pretty cool feeling.”

There have always been famous food figures, from Marie-Antoine Carême—he cooked for Napoleon—to James Beard, Auguste Escoffier to Julia Child. But in the documentary Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, out next month, Lagasse attributes the invention of the celebrity chef to a man who didn’t ply his trade in the kitchen: Shep Gordon.

Mario Batali

Mario Batali

The Hollywood talent manager and agent helped engineer the current celebrity chef climate in the early ’90s by promoting successful chefs and restaurateurs the same way he did his movie and rock star clients. In 1993—the same year Food Network appeared—a story in The New York Times featured Gordon’s new ideas: “Not everyone listens to music, but they all consume food. Food is like software for the body. And these days, all software, like CDs, athletic equipment and cosmetics, is celebrity-driven. Why not food?”

Gordon knew what he was talking about, but even a visionary could not have predicted that Las Vegas, of all places—with its culinary reputation of all-you-can-eat buffets and charisma-free coffee shops—would become the celebrity chef capital of the universe. Not New York. Not LA. The Strip is without question one of the great fine-dining destinations in the world. If you’re a famous restaurateur and you want to grow—get more famous, get more money, get more access to the global public—then you need to be on the Strip. And if you aren’t in Vegas, you’re either thinking about it, or you already have been.

Wolfgang Puck, who opened Spago in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace in 1992, is considered the first celebrity chef to land in Las Vegas. Looking back on more than 20 years here is amazing, “especially for a young man like me,” he jokes, in his thick, unmistakable Austrian accent. “Vegas has always been a big deal for me, because really, it was the first time we went out of Los Angeles. And somehow we were one of the first ones here.” Puck says he’s proud to be a pioneer, but more so to have lasted so long in Las Vegas and expanded to include six restaurants at various casino properties.

Puck started the first wave of celebrity chefs, which included restaurants from Charlie Trotter, Mark Miller and Lagasse at MGM Grand in 1993 and ’94. Five years later, Bellagio pushed Strip dining to new heights and crafted the blueprint for almost every casino food-and-beverage strategy since, opening with a legion of renowned restaurant names: Sirio Maccioni, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Julian Serrano and Todd English. Other rising stars now among the A-list ranks made their names there, including Michael Mina, Kerry Simon and Jean-Philippe Maury.

Iconic chef Wolfgang Puck is still big on Vegas.

Iconic chef Wolfgang Puck is still big on Vegas.

Now, fancy fine-dining rooms with famous names above the door are the Strip standard. Mandalay Bay brought New York chef, restaurateur and James Beard Award-winner Charlie Palmer; the TV-fueled Too Hot Tamales team of Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken; Alsatian chef and culinary conqueror of San Francisco Hubert Keller; and later, sustainable seafood champion Rick Moonen. The Venetian added multimedia star and Italian food expert Mario Batali and game-changing American restaurateur Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame. MGM Grand added Tom Colicchio (pre-Top Chef) and legendary French “Chef of the Century” Joël Robuchon. Caesars Palace updated its lineup with the ultra-famous Bobby Flay, farm-to-table pioneer Bradley Ogden, French masters Guy Savoy and Francois Payard, and, most recently, globe-trotting empire builder and Hell’s Kitchen flamethrower Gordon Ramsay and genre-defining Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa. (Nobu even got his own branded hotel tower). The Cosmopolitan sparked the party with Spanish innovator José Andrés and pasta-slinging Chopped judge Scott Conant.

Daniel Boulud, chef and owner of award-winning restaurants in New York and one of the most respected figures in the American dining landscape, wanted to come back to the Strip as soon as his first project here wrapped its five-year contract at Wynn in 2010. He connected with Las Vegas Sands for a restaurant at the company’s Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore, a partnership that led to the recent opening of DB Brasserie at the Venetian.

Daniel Boulud

Daniel Boulud

“Here, I feel I’m one of an amazing group of chefs, the best in America and most successful, and it’s good to be strong together,” Boulud tells me during his grand-opening reception. “There’s no city in the world that can gather so much talent, and with this level of sophistication. To be in Vegas with Thomas [Keller] and Wolfgang [Puck] is like presenting the legacy of American cooking all under one roof.”

In Puck’s words: “Now you have to ask who’s not here.”

When I first meet Guy Fieri, he’s caught up in a whirlwind of his own creation. To kick off the opening of his first Las Vegas restaurant, Guy Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen & Bar at the Quad, the spiky-haired host of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives—Food Network’s all-time most popular show—arrived in a classic hot rod flanked by the UNLV cheerleaders and marching band blasting “Viva Las Vegas.” He then proceeded to cook and give away his signature Bacon Mac ’n’ Cheese Burgers to unsuspecting passersby on the Strip before retiring to his shiny new kitchen for photo shoots and media presentations.

After a few hours of nonstop activity, he sits down in a booth to chat with me. I’m exhausted. He’s fired up.

“The people at Caesars are crazy,” Fieri says. “When we were talking about what we should do for the opening, I was joking about getting a hot rod and the marching band down here, and they were taking notes.”

“Don’t you know Caesars doesn’t f*ck around with these openings?” I ask. “They shut the Strip down so Shania Twain could ride a horse down Las Vegas Boulevard.”

Fieri leans in, his eyes narrow. “They were shutting the goddamn Strip down. It was happening!” he says in disbelief. “I said, ‘No, we can’t do that. You’re gonna embarrass me.’”

Guy Fieri

Guy Fieri

The world of a celebrity chef is larger than life. Whether you’re talking about a hyper-focused culinarian like Thomas Keller or a food-obsessed, empire-building TV persona like Fieri, the demands of the job are varied and intense. Time in the kitchen is crucial, but so are promotional appearances, TV and film shoots and constant brand-management and strategic-development sessions.

“For me, the restaurant is really the foundation,” Lagasse says. “You have to be completely grounded in that for anything else to work, whether it’s publishing or anything else in the brand. The restaurants have to be solid. That’s the breath of air going through my body.”

Puck has an office about a block from Spago in Beverly Hills. “I go once or twice a week for an hour. I don’t do business in the office. That’s not how we make a living,” he says. “If I’m in town, I am in the kitchen or I am with guests. I still go to farmers’ markets and the fish market, because I love it.” He never envisioned traveling the world or selling cookware and cans of organic chicken and wild rice soup with his name on it, but he harnesses the momentum of whatever comes his way. “I like doing different things, as long as it’s involved somehow with food. I’m very curious. In life, if you lose the curiosity, you get old. If you have a good idea and I can apply it to cooking, I’ll do it.”

Travel is a constant. Fieri came to town in April for that burger blitzkrieg and tacked on an appearance at the Academy of Country Music Awards, then hurried back to California to film Diners and hit the Pebble Beach Food & Wine event. Days later, he was back in Vegas for his restaurant’s opening night, but only for a few hours. He was committed to an equally important event the next day—cooking at his best buddy’s 50th birthday party.

“My Kryptonite is my schedule,” Fieri says. “It’s the toughest thing because it takes me away from my family, my kids. When I have to go and I get really sad, my wife always reminds me to look at what I’m going to do, and how much fun it will be. But it would be the most fun if I could bring them with me, and sometimes I do.”

Most celeb chefs visit the Strip several times a year, and even the French masters coming from overseas make it a point to do Vegas on a regular basis. Batali is here every two or three months, golfing up a storm when he’s not making his restaurant rounds. Savoy comes for a week or 10 days, three or four times a year. “On my first visit here, I had dinner at Bradley Ogden and I went to Picasso, and it changed my opinion on Vegas,” Savoy tells me during his annual November visit, when he works on special menus for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. “In 10 years, the transformation of this city is amazing. Now Vegas is not only known for the shows and the gambling but for gastronomy.”

Nobu Matsuhisa

Nobu Matsuhisa

No one doubts the quality of Strip dining, but Andrés’ comments from the recent Las Vegas-based episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown directly addressed the absentee chef stereotype and the cliché complaint that celebrity chefs never come to Vegas and never cook in their own kitchens, so you never really get to taste their food. “Food critics, they come and they say the chef was not there ... it’s almost like a lack of respect,” Andrés told Bourdain over an innovative meal at é, the tiny, 20-course experience within the restaurant Jaleo. “Who do you think these people are? Where do you think they come from? What do you think their careers are? Every one of those amazing thousands of sous chefs we have across the world, they are as good, if not better, than the guys that have the big name in neon letters.”

In Las Vegas, those neon letters are all-encompassing. The term “celebrity chef” applies to a Top Chef contestant lending his name to an upstart neighborhood restaurant just the same as it fits an enigmatic culinary innovator stamping his brand on a chic dining room in a gleaming luxury hotel tower. You don’t even have to be a chef to be a celebrity chef in Vegas, as evidenced by wildly popular TV stars and new Strip restaurateurs Buddy Valastro and Giada De Laurentiis.

The most basic definition of chef is a cook, specifically the principal or chief cook of a restaurant. But today, the word means something different to most people, something more alluring and prestigious than merely toiling away in the kitchen six nights a week. “It didn’t used to be doctor, lawyer or chef, but now that there’s some glamour to it, it’s something kids say they want to do, something they think about becoming,” Flay told a hungry audience at this month’s Vegas Uncork’d food and wine festival.

Chefs like Flay, Batali, Colicchio and Lagasse didn’t get into the business to be TV stars. They wanted to cook, and initially, they used the added exposure to gain access to a wider customer base. At first, Colicchio wasn’t keen on his Top Chef judge gig that began in 2006, but he was expanding his restaurant business beyond New York City and knew it was important to get his name out there. Years ago, I asked him his thoughts on the label of celebrity chef, and he said he hated it. “I really don’t know what the qualifications are for that title … I said at a commencement speech I gave well before Top Chef: If you are getting into this because you want to be the next Emeril, then apologize to your parents right now for wasting their money, because it’s not going to happen. It has to be for the love of food.”

Gordon Ramsay and Guy Savoy

Gordon Ramsay and Guy Savoy

Passion might be the main ingredient if you want to be a chef, but you’ll need generous amounts of talent, experience, charisma, business intelligence, undying ambition and plenty of luck to complete the celebrity chef recipe.

In a way, celebrity chefdom is similar to being a professional athlete—lots of people competing for a few positions, sometimes training from a young age with eyes fixed on an almost unattainable objective. Only a very privileged, gifted group of basketball players will ever see the NBA, and maybe even fewer cooks have the tools to become what we consider a successful celebrity chef.

“I don’t have that on my chef coat. It just says Emeril Lagasse. Nothing else,” Lagasse says. “I run into a lot of people who think they’re going to go to culinary school, finish with a degree and be able to go on the Food Network. My word for those young folks, or someone who’s making a career change at 50, is to focus on being a cook. If you’re a great cook, you’re going to be recognized. Know your craft, understand your craft. I’ve been doing it more than 30 years, and I’ve realized there’s just too much to know when it comes to cuisine.”

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Brock is an award-winning writer who has been documenting life in Las Vegas for 20 years. He currently leads entertainment ...

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