- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

LAS VEGAS — The waiter appears tableside in the cozy dining room of oil paintings, stained glass and hints of cherry and oak. Before reciting the day’s special menu items, he recounts the restaurant’s devotion to farm-fresh produce and tosses out a morsel about its namesake, chef Bradley Ogden.”Unlike other celebrity chefs,” the waiter says, “Bradley Ogden is here. He’s preparing the food as we speak.”

While Las Vegas has tried to put itself on the cooking map, culinary critics have leveled their forks, charging the city with trying to accomplish its gastronomic goal at the expense of the food.

Many of the well-known chefs who landed lucrative deals with major hotel-casinos have abandoned their kitchens to underlings. Some of the most lavish spots are merely cash cows to feed dynasties and savory outposts in more important food cities such as New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco.

“It could be so much better if the chefs were there actually doing the cooking,” said longtime food critic John Mariani of Esquire magazine. “It’s all about the money — the astounding amount of money that can be made.”

Mr. Ogden took a different approach. He moved to Las Vegas and accomplished what no other chef here has done: He won a prestigious James Beard award this year for the nation’s best new restaurant, equivalent to an Oscar or Pulitzer Prize.

“If I wasn’t here every day, that wouldn’t have happened,” Mr. Ogden said. “A lot of the chefs don’t like me being in the kitchen every day. It forces the bar.”

When his namesake restaurant opened in Caesars Palace on St. Patrick’s Day last year, Mr. Ogden didn’t plan to spend most of his time in the kitchen. At most, he thought he would burn one or two days a month there.

His other successful restaurants in San Diego and the San Francisco Bay area, including the renowned Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, Calif., demanded much of his energies.

But that commitment intensified when Caesars wanted to emblazon his name in huge letters.

“If you put your name on something, it has to be great,” said Mr. Ogden, who claims to put in at least 70 hours a week in the sprawling kitchen. “If you are not there, it’s too big of a risk. The risk is getting a bad rep. It will catch up to you.”

The elegant restaurant, across from Celine Dion’s theater, cost about $6 million to build, said the 50-year-old Mr. Ogden, who has full operational control. It specializes in new American cuisine.

When diners spy him inside, Mr. Ogden says, “people are sort of blown away by that.”

For good reason. The list of celebrity chefs who have opened restaurants in Las Vegas and don’t live here is longer than a fillet knife: Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Keller, Stephen Hanson, Emeril Lagasse, Tom Colicchio, Charlie Palmer, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Michael Mina, Nobu Matsuhisa and Hubert Keller.

Others are on the way. Rick Moonen, Guy Savoy, Bobby Flay, Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud all have restaurants set to open by next year. Mario Batali and Paul Bocuse are said to be discussing putting their stamp on Sin City.

But it’s likely they won’t be shopping for homes in Las Vegas.

“The new action that has rolled into town seems to hold to the same ‘who-cares-if-the chef’s-never-here?’ attitude of the past,” Mr. Mariani wrote in his weekly newsletter, Virtual Gourmet.

“Does anyone seriously believe these fellows will be spending a major part of their time there? Can you see the 78-year-old Bocuse shuttling back and forth between Lyons and Las Vegas every two weeks?”

Some might ask — though not the food elite — why it matters whether chefs are present every night inspecting the dishes.

Critics argue it’s like Joe Torre leading the Yankees or Gen. George S. Patton commanding the 3rd Army across Europe. They might not fire a shot or swing a bat, but their presence is the difference between success and failure, brilliance and mediocrity.

“Every single musician in the New York Philharmonic is the best in the world, and they need a conductor,” Mr. Mariani said. “Even the best cooks in Las Vegas need a conductor.”

MGM Grand President Gamal Aziz has led the revival of his hotel-casino by luring Messrs. Colicchio, Mina, Hanson and Puck. The restaurants are a major success, he said. In 2003, food and beverage revenues were $167 million, up from $151 million in 2002. The casino is projected to do $200 million this year and could reach $225 million once all the property’s projects are completed.

“If you have a business segment that does a quarter of a billion dollars, how could you take it lightly?” Mr. Aziz asks. “You’ve got to get people who will never let their food or brand get diluted.”

All the chefs are required to be in the kitchen a minimum number of days a month, Mr. Aziz said, and all react promptly to his concerns. Mr. Aziz said there are only a few celebrity chefs with whom he would deal, ones he trusts to deliver quality food nightly.

“You don’t want to bring in a person who only wants to open another restaurant,” he said. “I’ve dealt with them.”

Those who have made the move to Las Vegas have found success.

Kerry Simon of Simon Kitchen and Bar at the Hard Rock hotel-casino was named one of the best new restaurants in America last year by the influential Mr. Mariani.

“I thought the food was honest,” Mr. Mariani said. “He was there and it showed.”

Mr. Simon’s contract requires him to spend a certain amount of time in the kitchen.

“I just want to cook and for things to taste good,” said Mr. Simon, whose visibility increased after appearing on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef” program. Now Mr. Simon is writing his first cookbook, a must for the celebrity chef’s resume.

In April, the Wine Spectator tapped Picasso at the Bellagio and the Venetian’s Piero Selvaggio Valentino as the two best restaurants in Las Vegas.

Picasso’s chef, Julian Serrano, and Valentino’s Luciano Pellegrini, have won regional James Beard awards while cooking in Las Vegas.

Mr. Pellegrini said Mr. Ogden has fired a clear shot across the bows of his competitors’ stainless- steel ovens.

“He’s definitely making a statement,” Mr. Pellegrini said. “He’s one of the few that has truly made a commitment. I’ve yet to see a mediocre restaurant with a great chef in the kitchen.”

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