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French Chefs in Las Vegas

French Chefs in Las Vegas

Gautier Battistella - 2010-11-22

Two French chefs have just received prestigious awards in the United States. Pascal Sanchez was voted "Best Chef of the Year", whilst Kamel Guechida was named "Best Pastry Chef." These two gentlemen of sophisticated tastes have taken up residence in Las Vegas, a town rarely cited for its gastronomic arts!

On 6th May 2010 Alain Ducasse, Joël Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire and Guy Savoy appeared in the same photo and it wasn’t even photoshopped! The scene took place in Las Vegas at theVegas Uncork'd show hosted by Bon Appetit magazine. It was a spicy union of French gastronomists managing to overcome their differences. “The American Gastronomic press is very genuine. In France we have clans,” remarked Robuchon. Las Vegas is indeed a place for last minute marriages!
As well as the improbability of these four musketeers meeting at the same time on the other side of the Atlantic, an amazing coincidence considering their busy schedules, such reconciliations demonstrate the extent to which French gastronomy has gained the upper hand in this city.
Despite the presence of other prestigious internationals such as Wolfgang Puck and Julian Serrano, no other nation can boast the same level of representation. But what are they doing out here in the desert?
Reinventing themselves without losing their identity
Their stories are similar: the coming together of personalities and opportunities. “I was never attracted by the United States” admits Robuchon. “Everything seemed disproportionate – too big, too coarse. . . Then, in 2001, I was invited over by the president of MGM. The next day he brought in all the suppliers; the meat, vegetables and fish were all of a remarkable quality. I was amazed.” The only problem was the MGM boss wanted a 200 seat gastronomic restaurant. Robuchon, however, proposed two restaurants, a gastronomic establishment and another called l’Atelier (The Workshop). The adventure had begun.
It’s December 2009 and Pierre Gagnaire is feeling nervous. His new restaurant situated on the 23rd floor of Las Vegas’ elegant Mandarin Oriental (noteworthy for not having a casino), decorated by Adam D. Tihany, is scheduled to open in three weeks time and he’s still trying to find a concept for it. . . “I wanted to invent something that wasn’t just a steak house or purely gastronomic. I wanted simple cooking made with quality produce. A place where I could be myself... so I thought of Twist!But why Twist? “Because Pierre Gagnaire knows how to twist the flavours!” replies his Las Vegas chef Pascal Sanchez, with a twinkle in his eye. . .
If you listen to them now you may think that the relocation of their gastronomic dispositions was an easy task. “When you leave you always run the risk of becoming worse” admits Gagnaire.However, the risks turned out to be mild. Robuchon’s restaurant was only serving around twenty customers a day for over a year. Yet the casino management never showed even the slightest concern. Similarly, Guy Savoy, appointed by Caesar’s Palace in July 2005, made his own demands: “We’ll be open five nights a week and closed throughout July and December.”The restaurant’s cuisine is sumptuous and arranged exactly as he wishes. A small patio overlooks the Bellagio fountains and Vegas’ Eiffel Tower. “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse” he concludes enigmatically with a Nino Rota tune lilting in the background. . .
Kitchens delivered by Helicopter
One of the most striking examples is perhaps Alain Ducasse’s Mix restaurant, a design masterpiece and a kingdom of superlatives. The exterior glass elevator that ascends to the sixtieth floor of THEhotel (actually on the fortieth floor, but then everything in Vegas is an illusion) has a breathtaking view over the Strip - the city’s main avenue aglow with neon lights, the desert and, in the distance, the mountains, draped in red, backed by the Nevada sun. Inside the restaurant is the “Library cellar” tended by Christophe Tassan, one of France’s finest artisans) and the only ‘MOF’ sommelier outside of France. Mix consists of 250 places, 1750 square metres and a chandelier of 15,000 hand-blown glass spheres from Murano that gives diners the illusion of dining in a glass of champagne. Furthermore, when the restaurant was built, the roof was removed to install the kitchens... which were delivered by helicopter! Nothing is too beautiful or too extravagant for Las Vegas.
We meet up with Pascal Sanchez at the intersection of Dean Martin Street and West Warm Springs Road. . . He leaps out of his jeep and enters his favourite organic market (for good reason, it’s the only one in Vegas!), with its half a dozen stalls and jazzy music emanating from a rusty old stereo. Pascal’s head disappears into a crate of raspberries ("this reminds me of the jam my mother made on Sundays, these flavours, that's real happiness, come and have a look!"),  second later we follow, our noses extended, eager to share his joy. "The US customers like to see American products on their plates,” confirms Jason Arbusto, head of Mix. “It’s a form of respect."However, a few products remain inextricably French such as the Normandy butter, French cheeses, Dijon mustard, olive oil and some fish too. The Sea Bass, Turbot and Red Mullet all come from Brest market. As far as the timing is concerned, Guy Savoy’s whole grilled sea bass with sweet spices requires 24 hours to reach Las Vegas.
Americans want hits
For Robuchon, the inventor of small hamburgers with foie gras, the cautiousness of American cooking is a myth. “I love Americans because they don’t have any preconceived ideas. They approach a dish with a certain naivety. For them either it’s tasty or it isn’t.” Hugo Coudurier, one of Guy Savoy’s chefs clarifies, “Americans love colours, everything that’s visual. We play more on the eye than on the flavours. It has to make an impression, but without shocking!”Americans will never eat rabbit, offal or fish served with the head intact. . . The culture of American tastes is revealed in small details. "An American will ask for a vanilla ice cream with a chocolate soufflé, whilst the French are more likely to order a sorbet with bitter chocolate,” says Kamel Guechida, Robuchon’s pastry chef. Pascal Sanchez then dismisses the whole debate by stating,“We have to educate their palettes! The clients come to our restaurants for French cuisine!”
Claude Le Tohic, the chef for Joël Robuchon (the only 3 starred one in Las Vegas) isn’t under any pretences: “We’ve turned down the classics such as caviar jelly with cauliflower cream or langoustine ravioli. If you go to a Stones concert you want to hear the hits!” So instead you’ll find Artichoke soup with Savoy black truffles, cookpots (vegetable casseroles) and Ducasse’s rum baba. Gagnaire is the only one who manages to free himself from the diktat of original creations, with examples such as his surprisingTerre et mer: Quenelles in Saint-Jacques mousseline sauce cooked in a broth of brown duck infused with tarragon and Espelette pepper, cubes of roasted and poached foie gras and aubergine biscuit with a fine slice of Jabugo ham. But even he has become a victim of the success of his very own Zézette, invented to mark the opening of his restaurant.
Just one important question remains. Can a Gagnaire dish be made without Gagnaire himself? Can the improviser be improvised? Robuchon has increased his activity and his presence is felt through his five associates. But not all of them possess his powers of ubiquity . . . Ducasse, Gagnaire and Savoy visit their restaurants three to four times a year at every change of season in order to develop new menus. The rest of the time, the conductors hand their batons to men they rely on and trust, because the orchestra must never stop playing. . . “The casting is crucial,” insists Ducasse. . . “Individuals are worth a great deal more than lobsters or truffles.”
The cast is luxurious and the results are undeniable. Vegas is a mirage of a city, born of light and rock, an electrical abstraction and a Disneyland of vice that lives under a starry sky. Seventeen stars, that is, and one 3 stars (2009 Michelin Guide). What could be better?
Pierre Gagnaire
Mandarin Oriental
3752 Las Vegas Boulevard South, 89109 Nevada, Las Vegas
Tel : +1 702 590 3230
Joël Robuchon
MGM Grand
3799 Las Vegas Bd South, 89109Nevada, Las Vegas
Tel: + 1 702 891 7358
The Mansion
MGM Grand
3799 Las Vegas Bd South, 89109 Nevada, Las Vegas
Tel: +1 702 891 7925
Alain Ducasse
THEhotel at Mandalay Bay
3950 Las Vegas Boulevard, South, Nevada 89119, Las Vegas
Tel : +1 702 632 95 00
Guy Savoy
Guy Savoy Las Vegas
Caesars Palace
3570 Las Vegas Boulevard South, 89109 Nevada, Las Vegas
Tel : +1 877 346 4642

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