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Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, April 5, 2000

Executive Chef Grant MacPherson administers what
amounts to a small city -- the restaurants of the
Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

Eating Las Vegas

It's not just cheap casino
cuisine anymore

By Betty Shimabukuro


USED to be that eating in Las Vegas meant cheap, endless buffets whose main quality was that they were, well, cheap and endless.

It was the land of the $1.99 shrimp cocktail. A desert. And it tasted that way.

But one thing Las Vegas has in bucket loads is money, and money applied in sophisticated ways has launched a culinary renaissance right there on the Strip.

Now, powerhouse chefs who thought they had better things to do are finding they can't do better than Vegas.

"When they approached me two years ago in Singapore I said, 'Why would I want to go to Las Vegas?' " This is Grant MacPherson talking, the former executive chef at Singapore's Raffles -- "the best job in Asia" -- why leave?

He did some research. Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse had been in Vegas for several years. Chefs of that caliber had "changed the way food was thought about in Las Vegas."

His would-be employer, the Bellagio Hotel, was offering him an empire of 13 restaurants, 21 kitchens, 750 cooks and 9,000 employees. And anything he needed to run the place.

MacPherson decided that in terms of resources and potential, the desert was the place to be. "I think it's a culinary destination ... You can basically get anything you want."

MacPherson and his executive pastry chef, Jean-Philippe Maury, were in Honolulu last week to cook with Philippe Padovani at the first anniversary of Padovani's Bistro and Wine Bar. MacPherson worked as Padovani's dining room chef when the two opened the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on the Big Island. Padovani now presides over an exclusive dining room at the edge of Waikiki. MacPherson, it seems, presides over a small city.

His restaurants serve 18,000 to 25,000 meals every day. OK, there is a buffet, but there's also the signature Picasso restaurant, with its original paintings on the walls, plus restaurants run by all-stars Michael Mina (Aqua) and Todd English (Olives).

Just a few years ago, MacPherson says, Vegas restaurants were subsidized by the casinos. Forty percent of the meals were complementary, a perk for gamblers. "A restaurant couldn't profit."

Now, less than 15 percent of meals are "comps," and his food and beverage operation runs at 14 percent profit; earning $200 million last year. Of course, the casino earned $2 billion.

How do you maintain freshness of ingredients in the middle of a desert? Well, think about it. Planes fly into Vegas from all over the world, all day long. And with the resources MacPherson has at hand, he can get his 20 cases of blackberries everyday, or whatever produce he needs from California or South America. Fresh swordfish, ahi and opakapaka come from Hawaii.

At Bellagio they make their own sausages and pasta, squeeze their own carrot juice, bake everything fresh. It's a level of effort the new Vegas visitors are willing to pay for, MacPherson says.

They'll spend money outside the casinos, he says, for example on an $11 burger at the Bellagio pool. "We've never had any resistance because they know what we're putting on the plate."

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