Culinary Superstars – Dora Pane: Careers, Fine Dining and “La Famiglia”


In the concluding segment of my series, Fresco Italiano’s General Manager brings the invaluable warmth of family gatherings to her restaurant guests…

Last month I introduced you to a pair of genuine Italians who have brought true authenticity to dining at Westgate Las Vegas. And while I focused on dynamic Chef Paola Bugli in that previous piece, it was with the promise that next time we’d get to know Fresco Italiano‘s general manager Dora Festa Pane.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

It seems fitting that “Festa” is part of this lovely lady’s name. After all, the Italian derivation of “festival” is the sensation you’ll have when dining at this authentic eatery. Each meal is meant to be an experience, something that Ms. Dora (as I like to call her) promises to every guest.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

In order to deliver on that commitment, the native of Naples dined at Fresco Italiano to see what it was like…and determine if she could put her own personal imprint onto the already-successful restaurant.

I came at the end of last year to eat, check things out and see what it was like. I didn’t introduce myself to the server or tell anyone that I was considering a position here. It’s better to just observe, analyze and think about what could be improved.

Honestly, I wasn’t completely happy. When this is your career, you find yourself analyzing so many things. Fresco Italiano is a beautiful place and there were many things to love. But their way of serving the guests could have been carried out much better.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

It’s easy to be a restaurant critic in today’s world of online user reviews, but Ms. Dora was honing her craft (and what makes a restaurant successful) long before Yelp! came along. Years of experience in high-profile establishments throughout the Vegas valley established her as an expert at her profession. So when that evening at Fresco Italiano didn’t quite meet her exacting standards, she accepted an invitation to make it her own.

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It may surprise you that a manager would be so candid about their own place of employment, but Ms. Dora is no-nonsense and outspoken. Fluent in several languages, she’s a colorful conversationalist who speaks from the heart. Her exposure to a myriad of cultures and atmospheres warrants your trust in her abilities.

As soon as I came in, I needed to learn about my crew…as a group and as individuals. It’s tough to do that when a place is already established. You need to be sweet AND sour. There were things to fix, but I didn’t come here to change people. Only to make them better.

When operating a restaurant, Ms. Dora does so with a mixture of passion and skill from the perspective of an actual owner. You might say that operating restaurants is in Dora’s blood. Her father had his own passion for great dining service and was a longtime maître d’ in her hometown of Naples before becoming a food critic. Although he passed away at a relatively young age, Dora credits him with much of her professionalism and knowledge. 

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

After high school, she earned degrees in both Education and Psychology from Italy’s Cristo Re Magistral Institute. That unique combination might not be the norm for a career in restaurant management, but she feels it’s given her distinct advantages in this field.

I’m a teacher here at the restaurant…and psychology helps me with my work, too. It’s much easier to teach children because adults tend to resist. Everyone has something that holds them back. It could be their pride, birth sign, background life…whatever. My job is to overcome that.

When I came here in secret, my server clearly had something holding him back. Now that we’ve worked together, he’s the best server in the entire restaurant.

As we spoke in the darkened lounge a little before opening time, Ms. Dora happened to notice a few people standing at the entrance. Excusing herself, she greeted the group and invited them to have some wine at the bar until actual service began.

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“My bartender will probably get angry with me for doing his job” she winked as we resumed our conversation. That small moment of courtesy spoke mountains about Ms. Dora’s character. A lesser host would have simply asked them to return at the proper time. But this professional knows that a good impression lasts a lifetime.

It’s no wonder that Dora Pane has been involved with many wonderful Las Vegas restaurants in the valley. She’s been in the Vegas area for twenty-one years and dove headfirst into the big leagues by starting at MGM Grand.

Ms. Dora eyes lit up as she excitedly shared her history throughout Sin City. While moonlighting at dance clubs, she quickly rose from working as a food server to managing family-owned food shops. That was followed by a position as assistant manager at Terrazza at Caesars Palace. Overlooking the glorious Garden of the Gods, Terrazza was a fine-casual Italian restaurant located in the spot now occupied by Rao’s Las Vegas.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

Remaining within the Caesars family, Ms. Dora opened Voga, a modern Italian venue at nearby Flamingo Casino Resort. Seen above with her epicurean team, she proudly described ten years with Caesars corporation, which also included a stint at Steakhouse 46 (inside Flamingo). Sadly, it all came to a close when the company began doing huge cuts.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

What followed was a vast array of life experiences – running Robert De Niro’s Tuscan-themed AGO at Hard Rock Hotel (“that place was too classy for Hard Rock”), collaborating with Todd Moreau at both Hard Rock and Sunset Station (“we tend to follow each other”) and achieving new career standards at ALLEGRO of Wynn/Encore.

Things didn’t go as well as I would have liked at ALLEGRO. The hours were very bad. I had a young child at the time and no extended family here. Money isn’t everything when your children need you. So I left ALLEGRO after exactly one year.

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Yearning more of an atmosphere and schedule suited for a working mother, Ms. Dora settled in wonderfully at Venetian‘s Trattoria Reggiano (locals flock to the Downtown Summerlin’s flagship location). Spearheaded by Fifth Avenue Restaurant Group, Trattoria Reggiano brought her into a powerhouse that operates over forty establishments….and full circle with their involvement at Flamingo, Venetian and MGM Grand.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

After high school, eldest daughter Daniela graduated from University of Nevada, Las Vegas and moved to Naples. Son Gio has followed in the footsteps of his mother and grandfather by joining the staff at legendary Vegas Italian eatery Battista’s Hole in the Wall.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

And with youngest daughter Alessandra now grown into a lovely young lady, mother Dora has seized another opportunity to make an impact on the ever-changing Sin City dining scene.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

Perhaps the importance of family is why Ms. Pane agreed to spearhead the staff at Fresco Italiano. As I’ve said many times in this column, Westgate exemplifies the principles of dedication, service and commitment to guests that Las Vegas was founded on.

It’s a philosophy that hearkens back to the days of Mob-run Vegas, when the guests were all that mattered (well, maybe a few other things, too…). With the recent downturn in stock values and profits for Caesars and MGM Resorts properties, the current business model for Las Vegas has been put under intense scrutiny. Westgate was already ahead of the curve on a customer-based ideology that’s sorely in need of a city-wide renaissance.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

                     Sharing the Fresco Italiano family experience with my own…

It’s true that attractions, restaurants and even entire resorts come and go in this city. But the priceless importance of its people will remain. What makes any organization work, at its core, is the dedication and camaraderie of its team.

Ms. Dora Pane understands this. With her in the driver’s seat and Chef Paola Bugli in charge of the kitchen, a journey through the Tuscan landscape via Fresco Italiano is one you’ll want to repeat over and over again. Finisci di mangiare!

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

Fresco Italiano is open for dinner 365 days a year at 5 pm – lunch hours vary by date. For more information or to place reservations call 702.732.5276.

Photos: Sammasseur, Dora Festa Pane, Westgate Las Vegas, Cyber-reef.com

 

 

 

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Westgate’s Culinary Superstars – Chef Paola Bugli


Profiling a Chef who brings true Italian authenticity to Westgate’s “Fresco Italiano”…

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

Outside the entrance to Fresco Italiano, two adorable Vespa scooters are amusingly parked. Almost symbolically, it seems as though they’ve been waiting for the right pair of riders to hop aboard and take control.

Inside, that very thing has taken place for two Italian immigrants who recently arrived to helm Fresco’s kitchen and operations. Despite the restaurant already being an established hit, this pair has elevated the Tuscan eatery to new heights.

Regular readers might recognize Fresco Italiano as my very first column when I launched this site last summer. Since then, I’ve dined here repeatedly, savoring every wonderful morsel. Not only is the food to die for, but the atmosphere and service scream “Italian authenticity”.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

                            General Manager Dora Pana and Chef Bugli…

As you enjoy the dining experience, your party might be greeted by a lovely blonde with a distinctive Naples accent. General Manager Dora Pane loves to chat with her guests, lending a family-like ambiance to every visit. She’ll remind you of that favorite aunt who invites you to sit down at her kitchen table and “mangiare“. (I’ll be spending time with Ms. Pane for a profile article very soon.)

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

But of course, the big draw for this type of meal is the magic that happens inside the kitchen. That’s where Chef Paola Brugli comes in. This elegant native of Florence is the Executive Chef for Fresco Italiano and an absolute treat to meet. As busy as she is in the kitchen, Ms. Bugli also finds time to engage her guests and share a mutual enthusiasm for great dishes.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

Kitchen time was ingrained in Chef Paola’s family traditions. She learned from her mother and grandmother how to make pasta, polenta and sauces. They worked together as a team, each doing something different to prepare a complete meal. Lessons from those collaborative efforts would be invaluable once Bugli decided to pursue a career in the culinary arts.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

                                                           Florence, Italy…

Chef Paola enrolled in the Istituto Professionale Alberghiero Aurelio Saffi of Firenze Italy in 1977. There she achieved degrees in Culinary Arts and Hotel Management, then spent the next several decades honing techniques in fabulous restaurants and destinations throughout Italy.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

The shores of the Unites States eventually welcomed Chef Bugli to a new chapter and more career adventures. First came Atlanta, where she spent a decade in the kitchens of several noteworthy restaurants, holding positions as Sous Chef, Pastry Chef, Chef de Cuisine and Executive Chef.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

                                          Lumiere Place Casino Hotel…

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

                                      House of Savoy Italian Eatery…

Eight years ago Bugli settled into the St. Louis area after capturing the attention of a recruiter for Pinnacle Entertainment. There she spent a year and a half as Executive Chef for the now-shuttered House of Savoy, an authentic riverfront Italian eatery in the gorgeous Lumière Place Casino Hotel. This turned out to be her first position in a gaming resort, but fortunately would not be her last.

As luck would have it, Chef Paola worked under the mentorship of Jeffrey DeVito, current Vice President of Food and Beverage at Westgate Las Vegas. As she told me “It was my first job in a casino and I was a little concerned about that, but Mr. DiVito was always extremely supportive”.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

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During her time in St. Louis, Chef Paolo proudly achieved United States citizenship in a wonderful ceremony held at the new National Archives, which was inaugurated for the occasion. The variety of cultures, climates and opportunities of this nation were now hers to explore without limit.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

                                                     Sea Island Resort…

Next up was the lush Sea Island Resort, south of Savannah on the sunny coast of Georgia. There Bugli served as Chef de Cuisine for Tavola, a formal yet rustic Italian dining experience. Tavola‘s philosophy is “the soul of Italy isn’t just found on the menu. It’s around the table” which might explain why the Florence native was drawn there.

After dabbling in some consulting work in Savannah, it was off to Biloxi, Mississippi for a new position with Beau Rivage Casino Resort. As Room Chef for Stalla Italian Restaurant, Chef Bugli was once again able to bring her authentic style to another part of the United States. ”

Her philosophy of simple, fresh ingredients (“super-simple is the key” she likes to say) made her very popular with the resort’s guests. So much so that she remained there for over four years, creating an indelible mark on the MGM Resorts property.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

     Chef Bugli was featured in “Women in Business” at Beau Rivage Resort…

Alas, a change in corporate management began to crush this independent artist’s creativity, so it was once again time to move on. When asked if it was difficult to make so many changes in her life, her response was candid. “Maybe I’m a masochist but I like the challenges. Sometimes you have to find the right way to part. I don’t believe in creating failures…I like to give opportunities”.

As has been the case of so many gifted culinary artists I’ve profiled, Chef Bugli found new creative horizons via the food and beverage team at Westgate Las Vegas. In January she took over as Executive Chef for Fresco Italiano, one of my favorite restaurants in the city. And she was once again on a team overseen by Jeffrey DiVito.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

Coming aboard an established and successful venture would indeed offer Chef Paola some trials and tribulations but she was up to the task.

Everything in a restaurant is a connected process. A kitchen is like a pirate crew…we’re weird. There needs to be creative cohesiveness from front to back.

Working with General Manager Dora Pane, the two have taken the operation and streamlined it to reflect their own styles.

Food is so much about energies…your whole self. Shake people up a bit and you get good results. So we’re improving things like the service steps and our wine offerings. I’m also adjusting the flavor profile and retraining the staff with my cooking methods.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

When asked what procedures she referred to, Chef Bugli explained:

It’s not enough just to follow a recipe’s ingredients. It’s the steps that matter. You see, a sauce isn’t just throwing everything into a pot and letting it boil. Certain ingredients have to be sauteed together first to let their flavors develop. Then others like tomatoes are added afterwards. You can taste the difference by doing things in the proper order.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

Attention to detail is also reflected on the ingredients she purchases for her dishes.

The culture at our restaurant is respectful of the environment. In Italy it’s a concept called Zero-Kilometer Cooking. We can’t get all locally-produced foods being in the desert, but we can come pretty close. It’s also necessary to change our offerings depending on the season. A winter tomato won’t taste the same as one in July. People will know the difference!

Making a difference is what Chef Paola’s cooking is all about:

Guests are more educated now. Everyone is a connoisseur, so we approach Fresco Italiano with a friends-and-family atmosphere. This may be casual fine dining, but we want people to leave feeling like they’ve had an experience.

When asked about her new life in Las Vegas, Chef Paola gave a bit of a shrug. “I haven’t had time to get to know Vegas yet, really, except through the people I’ve met at Westgate. When I settle in, maybe I’ll start up a local women’s chef group”.

As for Sin City sights, the Florence native had plenty to say about the Strip. “Las Vegas replicates so many famous landmarks and they’ve done it beautifully. You’ve got Paris, Venice, Rome, Egypt. It’s amazing”.

She did have a word of warning for any future resort planners, though. “Vegas can do anything else they want, but they’d better leave Florence alone. We’re already perfect!” she chuckled wildly.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

Fresco Italiano is open for dinner 365 days a year at 5 pm – lunch hours vary by date. For more information or to place reservations call 702.732.5276.

Photos: Sammasseur, Chef Paola Bugli, TripAdvisor, Yelp!, Beau Rivage Casino Resort, Seas Island Resort, Westgate Las Vegas

 

 

 

 

 

 

Westgate’s Culinary Superstars: Chef Aaron Losch


Getting to know the big man behind the resort’s food and beverage services…

Last fall I met with one of Westgate Resort‘s executive team to discuss this series on their culinary team. During our luncheon we were unexpectedly joined by a third person. Big, burly, and with a serious expression on his face, this mountain of a man made an imposing first impression. Then he broke into an enormous smile…and everything changed.

Chef Aaron Losch is a fascinating person to watch in action. Omnipresent, he seems to be everywhere at once. Being Director of Culinary Operations over the vast array of Westgate’s food and beverages, that perception surely works to his advantage. His presence is felt even when he’s not around.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                Westgate’s Fresco Italiano’s lounge and bar area…

Now that I’ve covered most of the Westgate dining outlets at this point, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with Chef Losch. He’s introduced me to other members of his team, invited me to sample new offerings at The Court and greeted me in passing while going about his day. But we never got to sit down and actually converse in depth until recently.

We started off our interview by getting a little dirty, so to speak. I’d checked out Chef Losch’s Facebook page and was fascinated by posts about him participating in Tough Mudder competitions. The images were a far cry from his usual pristine white attire, so I had to find out how someone gets involved in those extremely dirty endurance events.

“Why not do something insanely stupid?” was his remarkably direct response.  The trendy gauntlet-like courses are usually over ten miles long and test mental as well as physical strengths. “Your first one is a rite of passage. Every first-timer gets an electric shock” he said.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

These courses are made up of several kinds of obstacles, like plunges into ice water, monkey bars slicked with butter…and live wires hanging over a field of mud. “It’s really extreme” he laughed. “People go down from the electric shocks and they don’t get up. It’s really funny to watch”.

My face must have conveyed its own kind of shock, as Chef Aaron continued to laugh. He told me that his nine-year-old daughter participates in Tough Mudder, too. Losch doesn’t worry about coddling her, though. A natural prankster, he has a unique angle on parenting. “I’m the kind of dad who wraps grapes to make them look like chocolate Easter eggs”.

The Losch family lifestyle is all about adventure. Chef Aaron, wife Jamie and children Abbie (9) and Ethan (7) love to travel. Whether it’s zip-lining in Mexico, swimming with dolphins, visiting the Statue of Liberty or dabbling in Harry Potter’s magic at Universal Studios California, the quartet of thrill-seekers always has a blast.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

Before marrying Jamie eleven years ago, Losch had already covered a lot of ground in the culinary world. Born in Santa Monica, he grew up in Port Angeles Washington. At nineteen he moved to my area of Portland Oregon to enroll in Western Culinary Institute. The school later became Le Cordon Bleu of Portland before permanently closing its doors in 2017.

Like many of his Westgate colleagues, Chef Aaron got his first taste of kitchen experience at an early age. “My parents told me to get a job while I was in high school. I applied for a dishwashing spot at the family restaurant of a friend. It was one of only two fine-dining restaurants in Port Angeles”.

It wasn’t long before Losch moved from scrubbing plates to working on the line. “After awhile I got to do prep in the kitchen and ended up being at the restaurant for three years. I enjoyed the adrenaline rush!”. That thrill motivated the budding chef to change his career plans from accounting to culinary school.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                             The Mansion at MGM Grand…

Moving to Vegas, Chef Aaron gained experience in several high profile locations. “Michael Mina’s Nobhill Tavern was my intro to fine dining in Las Vegas”. That famed spot, which was home to the legendary Cable Car Cocktail, shuttered in 2013. His tenure at MGM Grand also included The Mansion, one of the most opulent and revered destinations in the city. Despite the prestige of working in that exclusive location, the pace just wasn’t for him. “I wanted to shoot myself. It was so up-and-down there. I wanted volume!”.

Within those pre-Westgate years were a collection of valuable opportunities and beneficial experiences. One of them was the chance to open a restaurant from the ground up for Piero Selvaggio. “Caffe Giorgio Ristorante at Mandalay Place was the first one that I got to build out. It wasn’t the fit I was looking for either, so I only lasted eight months”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

BOA Steakhouse at Forum Shops of Caesars was more to Losch’s liking. “I walked in, got recognized and was hired on the spot. I went from Sous Chef to Executive Sous Chef and remained there for another year and a half”.

Throughout the ensuing years, quality and prestige went hand-in-hand in the varied establishments that added to Chef Aaron’s portfolio. Renaissance Hotel (home to ENVY Steakhouse), Wynn/Encore, T-Bones Chophouse at Red Rock Resort…all fabulous restaurants recognized for their top-quality dining. While at T-Bones, he received an award for his contributions to the Vegas Food and Wine Festival.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

Chef Losch was wooed away from Red Rock by an opportunity to work with famed hotelier/restaurateur Chef Alex Stratta. Stratta is best known to Las Vegans as the name behind Alex and Stratta at Wynn Las Vegas. Hired as Corporate Executive Chef for the Stratta Restaurant group, his time there was a mixed blessing.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                With Chef Alex Stratta (center) at TAPAS…

“The level that Chef Stratta was doing things was at one I’d never seen before”, he told me. Despite those high ambitions, Stratta’s desire to bring Strip-quality fare to outlying areas didn’t quite work out. Efforts such as Tapas at Tivoli Village and an Italian steakhouse at The Gramercy either closed quickly or didn’t happen at all. A partnership with Vegas-based Preferred Restaurant Brands also collapsed.

But such is life in a profession where concepts soar, tastes change and new opportunities lie in wait. For Chef Losch, that next adventure would take place at a legendary destination, itself in the midst of reinvention and elevation.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                          Westgate’s Silk Road Asian Bistro…

Now the new Executive Chef of Sid’s Cafe, Losch worked alongside noteworthy names like Grant MacPherson and Charles Wilson. Last August he accepted a promotion to his current position. “As Director of Culinary Operations, my job is to help the chefs in the room to be creative”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                         With award-winning Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan…

“I’ve worked with a lot of really good chefs” he continued “but some are not always the best people. I’ve been very lucky with my team here”. That collection includes the chefs that I’ve previously profiled on this site as well as his four assistants. Together they’re the driving force behind the restaurants, events, catering and banquet menus.

Being in charge of so many aspects of a department can be daunting, but out of it comes results. “I want to earn my position…I’m my own worst critic. The pressure comes from wanting to succeed”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                                          Fresco Italiano…

As the resort continues to evolve alongside ever-changing preferences, so do the concepts that Westgate’s culinary team rolls out. “Falling back on ‘What we always do’ never works. If you’re continuously doing the same thing, time after time, but expecting a different result…well, that’s the definition of insanity. You have to change and re-evaluate your approach. Of course, ‘corporate’ has their own ideas, too. You’ve got to integrate that all together. Ultimately, I want my bosses to succeed”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                Entrance to Westgate’s “Restaurant Row”…

During our conversation, Chef Losch and I were joined by Gabrielle PerezGeneral Manager of Casual Dining. She and Chef Aaron had previously worked together at Wynn Las Vegas. It was clear from their camaraderie that being at Westgate was a positive and beneficial change of pace. Especially from the corporate mentality at other Vegas resorts.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

“I enjoy building strong and dynamic teams that are passionate, committed and engaged to making hospitality fun, beautiful and profitable”, she told me. “I love the atmosphere at Westgate. There’s lots of professionalism here. So much of it that I’m continually amazed. But it’s mixed with fun and plenty of creativity”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

Such positive words coming from a member of his own team must make Chef Aaron feel very proud. Despite the challenges of his field, he wouldn’t be able to enjoy his personal time as much if the culinary team wasn’t a smooth-running machine.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

After our interview, Chef Aaron showed me his office in the depths of the resort’s inner workings. Covering the walls and shelves were memorabilia and mementos. Crests from Game of Thrones. Disney character statues. Bottles of Las Vegas Knights wine. “I LOVE the Knights”, he exclaimed.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

When I mentioned how serene things seemed in his personal space, Chef Aaron chuckled. “It’s not always this way. Sometimes I have a line of people out the door. Situations need to be addressed, emergencies come up, decisions need to be made. But that’s why I’m here”.

With things going so well at Westgate, it’s safe to say that everyone is glad that Chef Aaron is the big man in charge. And that’s why dining at the re-invigorated off-Strip resort is such a satisfying and mouth-watering experience.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

For a list of Westgate’s casual and fine dining options, menus and operating hours, click here.

Photos: Sammasseur, Chef Aaron Losch, Jamie Losch, Vegas.com, Vegas Food and Wine Festival, Tough Mudder

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Westgate’s Culinary Superstars: Executive Chef Steve Young


Meet the charismatic star of the incomparable Edge Steakhouse

In preparation for my ongoing series on the talent behind Westgate Las Vegas‘ Food and Beverage operations, I interviewed five amazing individuals. Each of them are standouts in their field, but only one had impressed me long before we actually met. That person is Executive Chef Steve Young.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

My first dinner at Edge Steakhouse two years ago was part of a whirlwind series of experiences arranged by Westgate‘s management and PR teams so I could witness the stunning improvements they’d made since aquiring the property. To say that my dinner was the turning point of my opinions of Westgate would be putting things mildly. After that incredible meal (which ranks as one of my best ever), I developed what could best be described as a Pavlovian response.

From that evening forward, it has been impossible to walk through the off-Strip resort without encountering an Edge Steakhouse advertisement…and my mouth beginning to water. It is such that I often want to break from my path and head right for their reservation podium on Restaurant Row.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

I arrived for my interview with Chef Steve as the Edge staff was in preparation to open for the evening’s business. Servers, bartenders and other staffers were efficiently going about their responsibilities. Young came over to greet me and we settled into an alcove near the entrance….far enough for some privacy but within reach if the Warren, New Jersey native was needed. As you’ll see, he’s a consumate professional.

The first personal detail I learned was that Young had been working since he was fourteen years old. Much of it was helping in the kitchen of a country club, developing cooking skills he’d learned from his family. That struck a chord, as working hard from a very young age was a common thread among others I’d interviewed…and a lesson on the virtues of ambition.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

            James Beard guest chefs receive a photo book of their experience…

At only 34, Chef Young has already achieved what many in his profession can only dream of…to prepare a dinner at the prestigious James Beard Foundation. This not-for-profit culinary arts organization, created with the involvement of Julia Child, honors chefs who make America’s food culture more diverse, sustainable and delicious for everyone.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

The theme last February 14th for the presentation was “Valentine’s Day with a Vegas Kiss”. Chef Young and six other members of Westgate Resort‘s culinary team traveled to New York City, along with 40 crates of food, dishes, utensils and equipment. They created an epic six-course dinner for over eighty guests, complimented by 132 bottles of wine that also traveled with the Westgate team.

In order to appreciate that honor, one needs to look backward to where it all began. Chef Young credits much of his success to a mentor – Chef Andrew Lattanzio of NYC’s Culinary Institute of America. He laughed that Lattanzio didn’t play games when the lessons kicked in:

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

“Chef Lattanzio was really tough and let us know it. He used to say things like ‘I’m tired of half-assed cooks!’. I didn’t want that directed at me” Young recalled. “He taught us the how’s and why’s of technique. That’s what he drilled. Technique. Technique is everything. No dish will turn out right without the proper technique”.

“Chef Lattanzio always encouraged us to seek out the best working environments, too. “You HAVE to work for good people’, he’d say”. And so Chef Steve did. After achieving his degree, Young received a position as Sous Chef for New Jersey’s Due Mari and Due Terre restaurants at the age of 22. Overseen by Chef Michael White, these seafood/authentic Italian restos were favorites of the area (Due Terri has since closed).

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

In 2009, Young relocated to Las Vegas and started the year as Master Cook for MGM Grand‘s Joel Robuchon. This flagship location of the Robuchon collection of French restaurants sets the standard for a dozen locations spanning the world from Paris and London to Shanghai and Singapore.

Young absorbed the influences of his famous mentors, merged them with his own style (and that all-important flair….er, “technique”) and forged a plan to take on something big and bold. This time that “new” was a pair of gleaming towers looking to make a name for themselves on the crowded Las Vegas skyline…the Cosmopolitan.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

Opening up restaurants in a new resort would be a daunting task for anyone, but especially for someone relatively new to the Vegas scene. For Chef Young, that challenge was heightened by becoming part of the team that set out to redefine the Vegas buffet experience.

Edge Steakhouse Chef Steve Young

                        Wicked Spoon redefined the Vegas buffet experience…

The  Wicked Spoon Buffet was an immediate hit. Long lines and four-star reviews lauded the distinctive presentation of small plates, seasonal creations and cleverly-crafted original dishes. For nearly a year and a half, Young was Sous Chef for both Wicked Spoon and the resort’s massive in-room dining operations…until it was time to move upwards.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

                                       “Technique technique technique”…

Next up was a promotion to Chef de Cuisine for Cosmo‘s massive “Pool District”, a collection of three different daytime experiences which includes Boulevard Pool‘s Overlook Grill and the mega-popular Marquee Dayclub.

During his pre-Westgate tenure, Young estimates he was involved in the opening of 9-10 restaurants, most notably spending two and a half years as Chef de Cuisine at The Henry, Cosmo’s 24-hour casual eatery.

Edge Steakhouse Chef Steve Young

“I started to get a little bit cocky while at the Cosmo“, he laughed. His handsome face flushed a little bit while recounting this. “It was time for the people around me to offer a little bit of attitude correction“.  He didn’t go into details on the matter, but seemed thankful that things course-corrected to everyone’s satisfaction. As a result, Young spent five successful years at the fledgling property.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

                      Chef Steve and wife Sara enjoy the active life in Las Vegas…

This phase of his career was filled with two very special personal events – marrying sweetheart Sara (a teacher for the Clark County school district), and the birth of their daughter, who just turned six years old.

Even though the youthful Young was taking on the toughest responsibilities of his life, he still managed to revel in the thrills of Vegas. That included racing go karts, target-shooting in the desert…and having a blast in nightclubs around the city. I can’t provide proof, but rumor has it that the master of steak is a closeted fan of Vegas favorite In-N-Out Burger.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

In 2015, the newly-reborn Westgate Las Vegas was attracting some the Strip’s best and brightest culinary wizards to become a part of their new team. Noteworthy food/beverage stars like Chef Bruno Morabito and master mixologist Eddie Perales came aboard, and Young left Cosmo to launch the Sin City incarnation of Edge Steakhouse.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

                 Westgate Park City is home to the original Edge Steakhouse…

You might recognize the name of Edge Steakhouse if you’ve visited Park City, Utah. The award-winning original location at Westgate Park City is considered to be one of the best steak restaurants in the United States. Having just dined there, I can testify that Edge Park City is a superlative experience with impeccable service and some of the absolute best dining in the region.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

Stepping up from Chef de Cuisine to Executive Chef for Edge presented an entirely new set of challenges for Chef Young…from redesigning the existing space to laying out the extensive kitchen. Then of course came the hiring/training of his staff and creating his own Vegas-style version of Park City’s menu.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

One eye-catching example of his contributions is the dry-age room. Installed in full view of the restaurant’s exterior, visitors can check out the various meats, which are labeled and displayed in a beautiful tasteful presentation. The effect is impressive, much like the bottles of wine that line the walls of the dining room.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

Now that Edge Steakhouse of Las Vegas has become a runaway success (matching or perhaps even exceeding the standards set by its Park City parent), the recognition and awards have been flowing in.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

Chef Steve was chosen as “Best Rising Chef/Rising Star” for 2017 in the culinary categories of Silver State Awards, which recognizes excellence and achievements in Nevada’s exemplary individuals and companies.

He has since become a somewhat regular face on local talk shows, where he shares his newest dishes, often created around seasonal favorites.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

Once our conversation was over, Chef Steve escorted me to my table, where he shared some of his favorite dishes. Instead of describing my impressions, I’ll just let the photos do the talking.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

                Baby Beets Salad with burrata cheese and pistachio ($14)

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

      Silk Road Spicy Shrimp appetizer with sweet chili reduction ($16)

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

     Sunchoke Ravioli with parmesan foam is one of Chef Young’s favorites…

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

       Sea Scallops with butternut squash, pomegranite and pine nuts ($37)

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

Edge Steakhouse Chef Steve Young

                                                      Wagyu ribeye cap ($75)

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

From what I’ve seen, Chef Young and Westgate are an impeccable pairing. Building a new restaurant “from the ground up” is a difficult achievement on its own. But together, this team has taken a recognizable brand, given it their own unique stamp and made it into one of the most fabulous and award-winning dining spots in the city.

After our interview, one of Westgate’s other chefs jokingly shared with me his admiration for Chef Young:

Steve Young is a very, very methodical man. He plans out everything, writes it all down…as if it’s his own “Bible”. He has very strict way of operating a restaurant. Some of us chefs are wild cards, but not Chef Steve. He’s totally by the books and everything has to be perfect. It drives me crazy, but it clearly works. That’s just the way he is…and I love him.

Chef Steve Young Edge Steakhouse

Edge Steakhouse Las Vegas is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 pm. Call 702-732-5277 for reservations or more information.

Photos: Sammasseur, James Beard Foundation, Westgate Las Vegas, Steve Young via Facebook, KTNV via YouTube, lasvegasnow.com, Yelp!

 

 

 

 

 

Westgate’s Culinary Superstars: Master Mixologist Eddie Perales

Record-holding flair bartender wrote the book on creating fantastic cocktails….

Some people look back on their lives and careers to find themselves saying “Oh, I should have written a book”. Eddie Perales, General Manager of Beverages at Westgate Las Vegas, won’t wait for that moment to come. He’s been creating a photo-journal of professional adventures from the beginning. And he is proud to share it.

Eddie Perales Westgate

Eddie has every reason to be proud. A man of ambition, he has been on his own since fifteen years old. While others at that age might have stumbled into various types of trouble, Perales actively went looking for it….by becoming a member of a hot dog firefighter crew.

It’s interesting that exposure to extreme heat in his early job would give way to a career built largely around ice. While living in the San Francisco Bay area, Perales took a part-time position behind the bar. His mentors inspired him to develop an interest in that field, which grew as he learned the intricacies and art of making the perfect cocktail.

When he moved to the central portion of California, Eddie decided to open up his own business…Bakersfield Bartending Academy. Fueled by the love he developed for beverage creation, Perales instructed his students to train in their field as opposed to practicing for it. He also got plenty of opportunities to use his signature line “Shake it HARD and shake it with a SMILE!”.

Eddie Perales Westgate

Eddie’s passion for mixology instruction came from a personal philosophy. “There is a world of life to give back by educating” he said to me with a big grin. “I believe you can teach while remaining grateful and humble”. That approach proved very successful, as Bakersfield Bartending Academy was awarded “Most Outstanding Small Business in California” for 1998.

At the same time, this dynamic man of boundless energy was simultaneously running a catering business. Those two careers, sharing the same space in Eddie’s mind, seemed to bounce off one another. He found himself experimenting with fruits, herbs, cooking pans, ice and flames to create unique beverages…from his own kitchen.

Eddie Perales Westgate

Delving into that world of molecular mixology meant using science to alter the intensity and balance of flavors, suspending liquids of various viscosity and playing with the chemical interaction of ingredients. “It’s trial and error….doing things you’ve never done before. How do you know what will happen unless you try it?”.

Eddie’s dazzle behind the bar took on an entirely new dimension when he entered the world of flair bartending. That entertaining style of making cocktails (for those of you who’ve never seen the film COCKTAIL) involves juggling and theatrical use of liquor bottles, shakers and bar tools.

One of the pioneers in “flairtending”, Eddie racked up numerous awards and accolades via competitions throughout the world. He also held a record in Guinness Book of World Records for “Most Cocktails Mixed In One Hour”, an honor he maintained until 8 years ago.

Eventually Eddie’s various talents caught the attention of the regime at Rio Las Vegas. The team there recruited him to come to Las Vegas and become their Beverage Trainer and a newly-created title of “Flair Manager”.

Eddie Perales Westgate

During his time at the Rio, “flairtending” became extremely popular there. You could find it on the casino floor, iBar Ultra Lounge, the nightclubs and even poolside. Rio often held Flair Bartending Championships on the property, too.

You can still see Eddie’s influence at both Voodoo Nightclub and the floor-level Masquerade Village casino bar. While telling me about his stint at the Rio, Eddie opened his book to a design concept he created for the hotel that is still in use:

I was fascinated about the efficiency of drive-through fast food restaurants. You place your order in one place, pay for it at the next, and your order is waiting for you at the end. It’s so efficient and made total sense…so why not integrate that idea for cocktail servers and bartenders to get your drinks to you faster?

Along with changing the overall way that drinks were prepared and delivered, Perales held numerous classes for the staff, sharing his knowledge and inspiring his students to think outside of the box. Simultaneously, he was looking for bigger, bolder boxes for his own future concepts.

Eddie Perales Westgate

One of those boxes turned out to be an icebox…sort of. Eddie’s catering enterprise frequently made use of his own ice sculptures. Eye-catching crystalline displays became a natural evolution of his desire for theatrical and awe-inspiring presentations for his cocktails, too.

Making a name for one’s self in a city focused around beverage presentation would be a challenge for any expert in beverage creation. But very few mixologists have gone so far as to participate in a global-scale beverage competition in New Zealand involving bungee-jumping, speed boats and helicopters. Yes, really.

As his profile rose, so did the offers and responsibilities. Eddie found himself as a “Tequila Ambassador” for Tres Generaciones, “Assistant Beverage Director” for all of Caesars properties and eventually as “Director of Foundation Room Las Vegas” for Mandalay Bay’s House of Blues.

That photo-journal of Eddie’s was getting pretty filled by this time. Journalists were clamoring for profiles of his adventures…and secrets to his unique concoctions. Vegas Player Magazine, Scott Roeben (of VitalVegas.com), Las Vegas Weekly, Las Vegas Sun, Review-Journal, Hotel F & B and a host of others helped to add pages to the Eddie Perales scrapbook.

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When David Siegel‘s corporation took ownership of the Westgate Las Vegas, they began gathering the best and brightest Vegas talent for their food and beverage operations. From Sid’s Cafe‘s Chef Bruno Morabito (of Giada’s fame) to Edge Steakhouse Executive Chef Steve Young (you’ll meet him in an upcoming piece), the team grew more impressive with each addition.

Eddie was the perfect person to spearhead Westgate‘s new beverage offerings. His unique style, daring “why not?” creativity and contemporary flair perfectly aligned with the resort’s plan to bring the former Las Vegas Hilton into 21st-century relevance.  The wide array of restaurants launched in the ensuing months gave him plenty of room to spread his wings and add color and flair to the off-Strip destination’s beverage menu.

Eddie Perales Westgate

My first formal taste of Eddie’s work came from a visit to Fresco Italiano, the excellent Italian restaurant whose review happened to be my first column when launching Vegas Unfiltered last June. There my guest and I enjoyed the most colorful and delicious red and white sangria. As is Eddie’s style, they were brimming with fresh fruits and lots of pizzazz:

Eddie Perales Westgate

I then sampled some of his creations for Bar Sake, a new hidden gem within the Benihana Village (you can read my full review here). There my group enjoyed unique drinks like the Jaded Midori (Midori Melon LiqueurTyku Cucumber Sake and lemon juice) and the Ginger Kamikaze with Tykusoju, Tyku Cucumber Sake, Domaine de Canton, lime and simple syrup.

Eddie Perales Westgate

We also indulged in a Paris To Tokyo (ST-GERMAIN elderflower liqueur, Tyku Cucumber Sake and Mionetto Prosecco) and a Strawberry Coconut Mojito created with Tyku cucumber and coconut sakes, Southern Supreme Mojito Lime and Sweet & Sour.

Eddie Perales Westgate

Last April I attended a post-show party at Westgate to honor the amazing Prince (at the time, the Purple Reign tribute show that was packing them in at the resort’s International Theater). Servers were passing around trays filled with the “Purple Cocktail” which was created to honor the Minneapolis funkmeister. They were kind enough to share the recipe:

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The Purple Cocktail:

Blueberry puree – 1 oz.
Mint – 4-6 leaves
Lime fresh – 1/2 fresh squeeze
Sweet and sour -1 oz.
OJ – 1 oz.
Vodka citrus 1 1/2 oz.
Float – Champagne
Garnish – mint and blueberry

Build in a glass shaker. Add in all ingredients, then ice and shake. Strain over fresh ice, top with champagne and garnish…

As part of the top-to-bottom renovation of the property, the casino’s front-and-center bar received a dramatic and bold overhaul. Now dubbed the International Bar, this sleek 24/7 hangout features comfy seating, live musical acts and continuously-changing lighting effects.

Eddie Perales Westgate

Naturally, Eddie had to come up with a beverage menu to compliment the new bar/lounge area. He did so both literally and figuratively…by designing a list of signature cocktails etched onto an electronically-enhanced acrylic menu that changes colors…just like the bar decor itself.

Eddie Perales Westgate

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Someday when he has added his contributions at Westgate Las Vegas to the pages of his memory book, Eddie may consider publishing his own original volume. In it, he’d like to explore the diversity of the cocktail world and chronicle its evolution. He’s even chosen a title for it – “Passion From Spice”.

Eddie Perales Westgate

If Eddie Perales’s epicurean treatise on cocktails manages to be thorough as I expect, then he’d better commit at least a few chapters to focus on himself. And there would still be plenty of room for a sequel.

Photos: Sammasseur, Eddie Perales via LinkedIn, Scott Roeben via YouTube, Westgate Las Vegas

Westgate’s Culinary Superstars: Chef Bruno Morabito

Sid’s Cafe’s “Master of Brunch” is serious about the joys of casual dining…

Part Two in my series on the fabulous culinary family of Westgate Las Vegas

Sometimes you talk at length with someone whom you’ve previously encountered only in passing…and they blow your expectations away. That’s what happened during my recent morning sit-down with Chef de cuisine Bruno Morabito of Sid’s Cafe. And it was a surprise that made my day.

Chef Bruno Morabito Westgate

Being a semi-regular diner at Westgate’s casual-dining restaurant, I’d seen Chef Bruno strolling by from time to time, greeting patrons at their table to check on their experience. This mild-mannered gentleman was personable, professional and seemed somewhat reserved. But give Chef Bruno the opportunity to relax for a bit of private conversation and this native of Rochester NY will light up the room.

Chef Bruno Morabito Westgate

Perhaps it’s the dazzling white coat that keeps his bubbly personality in check. Maybe it’s the presence of dozens of diners enjoying his creations. Or the years of disciplined experience in world-class kitchens around the city. Whatever the reason, when this veteran of the Las Vegas dining scene gets a moment away from the focus of responsibility, an entirely different person shines through.

Chef Bruno Morabito Westgate

The two of us got acquainted in a corner booth on the tail end of a Sid’s Cafe breakfast rush. Both of us had just returned from visits to Italy, so it was a nice ice-breaker. I confessed that I’d just watched one of his cooking segments about brunch on a local network affiliate page. “Oh, No! I can’t stand doing those!”, he chuckled with a mild flush. “I’m not a TV kind of guy. But I do like to talk about my food”.

Chef Bruno Morabito Westgate

    Jennifer Jean Snyder of KTNV Morning Blend reacts to Chef Bruno’s creations… 

Indeed he does. As is the case with many artists, Chef Bruno beams when discussing how he began to create delicious dishes…and which inspirations set him on the path to success. For Chef Morabito, it was exposure to a combination of many different cultures.

During his culinary school days at Lougheed College in Kitchener Ontario, this descendant of Italian immigrants was affectionately known as “The Yank”. He was nicknamed that by program director Wolfgang Stutz (one could safely assume that Stutz was German). But it was years of experience at a famous French restaurant that secured his place on the Valley’s list of superb culinary masters.

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Visiting the Amalfi coastline of southern Italy with brother Phil…               

After coming to Las Vegas with his wife, Morabito began a 17-month stint as Sous Chef for renowned Charlie Palmer at Mandalay Bay‘s gorgeous Aureole. Then came his first really big opportunity – a position at Venetian‘s world-famous Bouchon Bistro. Tucked away inside an exclusive area of the resort’s Venezia Tower, Bouchon is where Westgate‘s “Master of Brunch” developed his reputation for morning-meal brilliance.

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Chef Bruno (fourth from right) with Chef Thomas Keller and the team at Bouchon…               

Challenged by Bouchon founder Chef Thomas Keller to create a pork-belly BLT from a sketch, Morabito went “off the menu” and took a detour to the unexpected. With free reign to create any special he wanted, Chef Bruno added a personal “why not” favorite of Chicken and Waffles as a special.

A succulent serving of roasted chicken atop a bacon and chive waffle, sauce chasseur (aka “Hunter’s Sauce”), Tahitian vanilla bean butter and maple syrup, Chicken and Waffles was a runaway hit…and continued to grow in popularity. It became the cornerstone for an entire brunch menu that Morabito urged Kelly to try.

Chef Bruno’s brunch menu remains his legacy there and is now served in every Bouchon Bistro nationwide. It was also Forbes Travel Magazine‘s pick for Best Brunch in Las Vegas.

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                  Chef Bruno flanked by his lovely 14-year-old daughters….

After a decade with Chef Thomas Keller, this thoroughbred horse-racing enthusiast (he’s attended the last eight Breeder’s Cups and owns several horses back in New York) was now the proud father of twin girls.

The increased responsibilities of being a parent and husband to wife Tracy didn’t deter Morabito from taking on a new challenge, though. In 2014 he was recruited by celebrity Giada De Laurentis to be her new Chef de Cuisine at Giada inside The Cromwell.

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Chef Morabito and Giada De Laurentis remain friends…                     

History repeated itself a bit at The Cromwell. Morabito’s reputation for success allowed him to create a brunch menu for De Laurentis at the trendy eatery. If you seem to recall Chicken and Waffles in the Giada line-up, you aren’t mistaken…although he gave the dish a new distinctive Italian twist. It came as no surprise when the new offerings were lauded by Las Vegas Review Journal readers as “Best Brunch”.

Nearly two and a half years later, the visionary “Master of Brunch” joined the ever-growing list of superlative chefs at Westgate Las Vegas. And now he’s serving his award-winning food at Sid’s Cafe.

Sid’s Cafe is named after Westgate founder David Siegel‘s father, who absolutely loved Las Vegas. Sid’s may be the most casual of Westgate‘s restaurant, but the home-style menu is meticulously prepared and served with pride. Chef Bruno runs the entire operation, from kitchen to staffing. He’s a hands-on kind of man when it comes to ensuring quality:

What goes out on that plate has my name on it. I personally answer Yelp! and other guest reviews, both positive and negative. Kindness is an easy way to build rapport with our guests. I want you to be satisfied with what we bring to your table.

Bringing things to the table is exactly what Chef Bruno had planned for me. Being a frequent visitor, I was already familiar with lunch and dinner offerings at the Cafe (Matzo Ball Soup, Free-Range Turkey Burger and Chopped Italian Salad are my personal favorites). So it was with a bit fortuitous that I’d be sampling his brunch creations for the first time during our meeting.

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 Mojito Fruit Bowl with lime juice, mint and toasted coconut…                    

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Smoked Salmon Platter…                 

My host could scarcely hide his enthusiasm when describing each dish that arrived at the table.That carefully-hidden smile of his surfaced frequently…and it continued to grow with each visit back.

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Grande Cinnamon Roll is big enough for the entire table…                   

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Cinnamon Roll French Toast and several hearty skillet breakfasts…                 

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As Chef Bruno promised, everything he creates is fresh, delicious, gorgeous to look at and downright satisfying. Brunch is available at Sid’s Cafe every Thursday through Sunday from 7 am until 2 pm. You can add unlimited mimosas for $10.

Echoing sentiments from other Chefs I’ve spoken to at Westgate, Sid’s chef de cuisine is thrilled with the opportunity to add, fine-tune and elevate his cafe’s line-up. And no doubt the resort is pleased to have attracted another major player to their team.

As with all members of the Westgate culinary family, Chef Bruno Morabito aims to bring happiness to your table and a smile to your face. Be sure to ask for him when you visit…and don’t you dare miss that Chicken and Waffles masterpiece.

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Sid’s Cafe is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Hours are 7 am to midnight Sunday through Thursday, 7 am to 2 am Friday and Saturday. Call 702-732-5755 for more information. Dress code is casual, restaurant is non-smoking.

Photos: Sammasseur, Bruno Morabito via Facebook/Instagram, KTNV Morning Blend