Westgate’s Chef Stephen Sullivan “Takes The Cake” at 29th Annual Pastry Competition…
Admit it, Vegas fans…you love sweets. Chocolate, ice cream, pastries and desserts…the city is absolutely teeming with places to satisfy your cravings. We’ve got M & M’s World, Hershey’s Chocolate World, Ethel M. Candy Factory, Sugar Factory, The Chocolate Lounge and the World’s Biggest Chocolate Fountain at Bellagio.
With all of those superlatives, it should come as no surprise that the nation’s top pastry chef calls Las Vegas his home. And since he acquired that title just a few weeks ago, you can be assured that the opportunity to savor the country’s best pastries and desserts will be available on your next trip. Just head over to Westgate Las Vegas and ask to sample the world-class creations of Chef Stephen Sullivan.
Before delving into how he achieved the title of U.S. 2018 Pastry Chef of the Year, let’s take a look at how things began. Just like all legendary journeys, Chef Stephen’s story plays larger than life. His path to the pastry shop began in the United States Marine Corps while serving during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Chef Sullivan was assigned to the kitchens and learned to bake for the overseas troops. With no previous background in baking or culinary training, his career seemed like destiny…and was about to become stellar.
Marine training gave me discipline. To make things at this level, you have to have training and discipline. God gave me artistic talent and the ability to care for quality and craftsmanship. Lots of what I learned ended up being self-taught.
To that end, Chef Sullivan opened up his way of thinking beyond the kitchen. He began by reading numerous books on pastry creation. That expanded to visiting museums and studying the shapes of sculptures, ceramics, pottery and glass artworks…something that he continues to do in his leisure time.
Sullivan’s formal education also became expansive, earning him certificates from Notter School of Pastry Arts, Jean Marie Auboine Chocolates and Pastry School, Barry Callebaut Chocolate Academy the World Pastry Forum and many more.
The Long Beach California’s mentor in Iowa was Master Chef Richard Schneider, a member of the American Culinary Federation and a faculty member for Le Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts in Las Vegas.
Chef Schneider has decades of experience in the hotel and casino industries, so it’s no surprise that his protege began a professional career in those types of kitchens as well. Chef Sullivan actually ended up as Executive Pastry Chef for his mentor’s son Chef Justin Schneider to open the new MGM Grand Casino Hotel in Detroit in 1999.
Hotel environments are great to spur creativity because I’ve been able to get better at different things…like coming up with great flavors and textures. Experimenting with various ingredients…sugars versus chocolates. Demands are unique at hotels than at regular restaurants or pastry shops. You get unpredictable requests. I can make something small that touches people or roll out something massive.
Massive, epic creations are indeed what had landed Chef Stephen his biggest accolades to date. While serving as Executive Pastry Chef for the renowned Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, he designed and constructed a detailed, scale model of Golden Gate Bridge entirely out of chocolate. The giant “dessert” was commissioned in honor of the actual bridge’s 75th anniversary and was unveiled at the nearby Ghirardelli Square.
Chef Sullivan’s chocolate recreation of the Golden Gate Bridge on display…
Work on the project involved about forty hours of making the various sections and another three to assemble them. But researching the actual structure (he visited the bridge itself to accurately depict sections that were partly obscured by the surrounding landscape) and coming up with the designs took much, much longer.
“I enjoy making 360-degree desserts” he told me. “Things that can be examined so they’ll look great from all angles. I want you to be able to see as many different details in the back and sides as from just looking straight on”.
Using that same philosophy, Chef Stephen must have reasoned “Why stop at things you can walk around when you can bake something that can be physically walked through?” By that I mean a life-sized gingerbread house, made from thousands of molasses and ginger “bricks”. Those rectangular cakes were mortared together with frosting and capped by a nineteen-foot roof covered in chocolate shingles.
Chef Sullivan and his Fairmont Hotel colleague, Executive Chef jW Foster, constructed the gorgeous gingerbread house in 2010, an annual holiday tradition at the luxurious hotel. Guests and visitors were invited to walk freely through it. As you might imagine, the gingerbread house was another media sensation, even receiving coverage in Martha Stewart Living magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle.
After making significant impact in Michigan and California, the future star of Westgate‘s already-stellar culinary team relocated to Sin City. This was to accept a position as Assistant Executive Pastry Chef at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas.
As much as he loved Las Vegas, the Californian’s home state was soon calling with an offer he couldn’t refuse…a position as Executive Pastry Chef for the iconic Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. One of the largest and most luxurious in the Four Seasons portfolio, the Beverly Wilshire gave Chef Stephen the opportunity to present his creations for some of the most discerning and famous clientele in the nation.
No matter what he came up with, Chef Sullivan made sure his desserts were rich in visual appeal to add to their fantastic taste. I asked him if he felt any type of emotional loss when his spectacular cakes and creations were cut into and consumed. “Not at all” he replied. “That’s their purpose. And I’ll always have the pictures”.
One picture that will forever grace Chef Sullivan’s portfolio is above. It depicts his winning entries for the 29th Annual Pastry Chef Competition at the 2018 International Restaurant & Foodservice Show in New York City last month. This was an achievement eight years in the making…and Sullivan gives a great deal of credit to Westgate Las Vegas for helping to make it happen.
The reason I came to Westgate to improve their offerings and operations. Developing a team that works together is the key. Yes, it’s a creative job, but everyone needs to be productive, too. It helps to have people who care.
Chef Sullivan and Chef Steve Young at Edge Steakhouse…
That mutual support was very apparent when Chef Stephen was ready to throw his chef hat back into the competition world. After the super-successful presentation he and Westgate colleagues like Edge Steakhouse Chef Steve Young pulled off for the prestigious James Beard Foundation on Valentine’s Day 2017 (read about that event here), it was time for him and the resort to focus on the U.S. Pastry Competition in New York City.
Sullivan had first experienced this competition in 2010 and was eager to try his hand again. The timing needed to be right, though, as he wanted to be sure that everything at Westgate was running smoothly first. That required a self-sufficient support staff.
It helps to have people who care and are productive. I’m able to be successful because my team takes ownership of the business aspects. It wouldn’t be possible to advance my skills if this position required me to be stuck in an office, not working with the product.
Once he decided that 2018 would be the year to enter again, nearly two years of cumulative preparation were required:
I wanted to take things to New York represented the spirit and quality of Westgate. After all, they were sponsoring my participation and fully supportive. That was reassuring for me. There was never a time when I was nervous. It all came down to planning…lots of planning.
He also wanted to honor those who had dedicated their efforts with Chef Sullivan in the past. As he told So Good pastry magazine, his desire to win would “show respect to all the chefs who took their time to mentor and train me and show them that I did not waste their time”.
Being awarded Pastry Chef of 2016 at Las Vegas Food and Wine Festival
Each year’s U.S. Pastry Competition, hosted by Paris Gourmet, is built around a particular theme. The requirements are for one plated dessert, six signature pastries and a highly technical sculpture utilizing chocolate products by show sponsor Cacao Noel. In January 2018 it was announced that all entries would interpret “The Great Race” using any recognized form of racing…boating, cycling, swimming, etc.
Chef Sullivan quickly decided to design his showpiece around the horse racing he regularly sees on the world’s largest LED screen at Westgate Superbook. Once again, he committed plenty of personal time for research, studying the physical aspects and movements of horses and jockeys. And he wanted to make sure that the smallest details like flower petals and stems were convincing and lifelike.
After sketching the structure, he consulted another mentor who would become his coach for the project…World Chocolate Master and Executive Pastry Chef Vincent Pilon (of Cosmopolitan Hotel Casino). Together, they had less than two months to plan and design the entry in physical terms.
Chef Sullivan’s fascination with three-dimensional detailing depicted a horse and rider that seemingly leap out of the chocolate sculpture. To make it a reality, they had to fabricate various sections (horse, rider, trophy, flowers, etc) by selecting ingredients for color/shape/texture/flavor and a feasible means of bringing them all together. As you might imagine, the hours involved were intensive.
Once Chefs Sullivan and Pilon had everything created to their satisfaction, there was the matter of safely transporting all of it from Las Vegas to New York City. The delicate materials would require proper care to ensure that temperature and movement wouldn’t cause damage. Spare pieces were made as back-ups and everything was packed into custom-made wooden cases for the long flight.
Also traveling for the Westgate team were Chef Aaron Losch, head of the resort’s culinary operations (learn about him soon in an upcoming profile) and baker Alfonso Menendez.
Alfonso Menendez (left) and Chef Stephen at the U.S. Pastry Competion…
Mr. Menendez is Sullivan’s right-hand man and has twenty-five years of experience in the field. He came to Westgate with Chef Sullivan from the Beverly Wilshire to continue working together in the resort’s pastry shop. “The pastry family is small”, Sullivan told me. “We take care of those who have helped us”. Obviously it’s a partnership that Las Vegas pastry fans can be excited about.
All of that planning, effort, sponsorship, mentorship and collaboration came together when Chef Sullivan’s showpiece crossed the finish line in first place. He and the team brought home the title, trophy and the sculpture itself, which was displayed inside the Westgate Resort’s lobby.
It’s pretty remarkable to take top honors in an event of this scale after only the second attempt, but Chef Sullivan knew he had come there to win. Reflecting on the experience with me in a quiet section of the resort’s Restaurant Row last month, I was struck by how humble and truly genuine this gentleman is.
Wife Eva Sullivan joined Chef Stephen in New York City…
More than anything else, he seemed grateful to the people who believed in and sponsored him. And the mentors and colleagues who gave him their time. Most especially, he cherished the limitless support of wife Eva, who was by his side when the big moment came.
I got the impression that the happy couple enjoys the quieter side of Las Vegas. Despite living in a city of glitz and glamour, some of the best times they have are right at home. Sullivan told me they appreciate sharing their lives with parrot Puff and cats Zorrita (rescued in Atlanta) and Maya, whom they brought from Los Angeles.
Now that he’s crossed another major accomplishment off his list, Chef Sullivan envisions taking his skills to the international level. But first he wants to continue improving his contributions at Westgate Las Vegas. He feels that recent experiences at the competition will assist with that.
I always want to be a better manager and chef than the year before. Competing gives you the opportunity to advance your skills…not just in pastry-making, but in management and team-building. This experience allowed me to carry my team upward.
Those who own and run Westgate are a class-act. If your company doesn’t invest in you, then you can’t properly train your team and the guests won’t benefit. We do the same things here that I did in Beverly Hills. Westgate runs a smart business. They make the guest feel appreciated and still gives them value.
Anybody who comes here should feel good about spending their money.
Having spent three years at Westgate and being a part of the group that has reinvented this classic resort is something Chef Steven Sullivan will continue to treasure. It’s the little things, though, that he doesn’t want to overlook.
On a personal level, I want everything I make to continue being top level…and to still touch people. Hand-crafting a nice plated dessert or a good cookie are just as exciting as creating something on an epic scale.
With all the political crap going on in this world, the one thing that brings people together is food. Being a part of it is something special. That’s very exciting.
Chef Stephen Sullivan’s pastries, desserts and cakes are served throughout Westgate Las Vegas at banquets, special events, and daily at restaurants like Edge Steakhouse, Fresco Italiano, Sid’s Cafe and Fortuna.
Photos: Sammasseur. artandentertainme.blogspot.com, Chef Stephen Sullivan, Alfonso Menendez, Westgate Las Vegas, Beverly Wilshire via Facebook, U.S. Pastry Competition via Facebook, San Francisco Chronicle