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

 

 

 

 

Westgate’s Culinary Superstars: Chef Michael McNeilly of Fresco Italiano


Westgate’s unconventional Chef de Cuisine infuses every dish with his untamed spirit…

While Las Vegas continues to be a city of re-invention, some resorts in the Valley have been far more successful than others at maintaining their relevance. Westgate Las Vegas (previously the Las Vegas Hilton) continues to surprise with the levels of excellence it’s achieved in restoring the once-floundering property. It’s truly become Sin City’s most daring and innovative destination.

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

Since taking ownership in 2014, Westgate Resorts has set new standards for lodging, entertainment, gaming, service and fine dining. When launching this site, my very first article was a review of the outstanding Fresco Italiano. I’ve been back to Westgate many times in the ensuing months, enjoying the resort’s hospitality and amenities (you can read my recent review of their new spa here). 

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

Now I’m excited to publish the first in a series on the creative and gifted people behind Westgate‘s food and beverage offerings. As I’ve said in the past, there are great reasons why expert chefs leave some of the highest-profile restaurants in the city to make Westgate their new home.

Along the way,  we’ll explore how Westgate has become the new center of elevated dining excellence. More importantly, I’ll sit down with the creative minds behind these amazing dishes and cocktails. The artists will share their backgrounds, the influences behind their unique creations…and the personal drive that makes them some of the best in their fields.

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

And they’ll do all that it while serving me their favorite dishes. Bon Appétit!

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

Chef Michael McNeilly of Fresco Italiano                   

Nobody can prepare Italian food like a genuine Italian. At least that’s what I was told when growing up in a little town brimming with Italian immigrants. So don’t let Chef Michael McNeilly‘s last name fool you…he is indeed of Italian descent. Just don’t confuse him for a small-town boy. If you forget, his tough-talking uncensored manner of speech will remind you.

Chef Michael and his three younger siblings grew up in the tough areas of New York City. They were partially raised by his grandmother, who taught him her style of Italian cooking…and the importance of food in our everyday lives.

Food is power. It controls your day. Everything you do is planned around when you eat, what you eat and where you eat.

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

                          Michael (left) with father and little brother Johnny… 

As part of a hard-working blue-collar family, Chef Michael looked out for his siblings when not lending a hand at his father’s trucking firm. Delivering food and merchandise to businesses taught him early lessons in discipline. And no matter what went on before it, the family meal was always the best time of the day.

With Italians, the party starts in the kitchen. And it ends in the kitchen.

McNeilly admits that in his youth he was very prone to getting into trouble, some of it quite serious. His personal problems sometimes threatened to get the best of him. Developing an appreciation for cooking became a salvation of sorts.

Each corner in New York had something different….it was a melting pot of people and smells. The bakeries, restaurants and outdoor carts had every different kind of ethnic food you could imagine. I could travel around the world by walking through my neighborhood.

Chef Michael’s first professional foray into the culinary world came at age 14…as a garde manger (or pantry chef) for a French restaurant. He amusingly referred to himself as a “soda jerk” at Long Island’s Brown Osprey Restaurant. Watching the methodical operations of fine-tuned kitchens intrigued the young man and created a desire to learn more. Much more. So he absorbed everything he could from each mentor along the way.

Eventually Chef Michael realized he needed a change of location. A bad situation threatened to consume him if he didn’t seek a drastic change, so at 28 years old he headed for Texas and settled in Austin. That’s where his real adventure in culinary arts began.

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

Despite having no formal culinary degree, the Irish-Italian threw himself headlong into Austin’s dining scene. From Sous Chef at Roux to Chef at Mesa Ranch Bar and Grill, McNeilly learned the finer details on a wide array of food preparation. From “breaking down” large exotic fish to smoking and curing meats, nothing was too big or too challenging.

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

“I can do that” was the mantra that got McNeilly into higher positions…and greater opportunities to create. He recounted an amusing story involving a particular job he desired:

I showed up with my chef coat and utensils, let myself into the kitchen and took a place in the line. I started filling orders and sending them out. Others were looking at me like “Who are you?”. So I introduced myself and kept on working…for hours. I did so well that when I was discovered by management, they offered me a job.

Not everyone has the guts and gumption to spontaneously create their own position at someone else’s business. But Chef Michael refuses to follow the rules. His unconventional approach still works for him in his current role:

Whenever I’m told “You can’t do that”, my answer is “Why not? If it makes sense and will improve performance, morale, efficiency and the bottom line, I’ll find a way to make something happen…and prove that I was right.

Life in Austin was a time of constant growth… both personally and professionally. It was there that he met his wife Kelsey, settled down and started a family. From his home kitchen to the grill at legendary Four Seasons, Chef Michael balanced his family time with creating new recipes (and entire menus) and managerial responsibilities of running a kitchen.

The business aspects (like controlling food and labor costs to operations in both front-of-house and back-of-house) were modeled after the lessons he’d learned from his father.

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

By fall of 2012, the outspoken N.Y. badass with his signature baseball cap had become Executive Chef of Trattoria Lisinia, a highly-regarded restaurant on the Mandola Estate and Vineyard outside of Austin. McNeilly’s talent for charcuterie was a great fit for the Tuscany-styled eatery, where hand-made pastas and hand-stretched pizzas wrestled for attention with flame-grilled steaks.

Trattoria Lisinia‘s support of various youth organizations also struck a chord. Being appreciative of the opportunities he’d been given, Chef Michael began mentoring other young people that faced difficult situations (more on that in a bit).

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

      “Start them young” says Chef Michael McNeilly, pictured with his children… 

A role as Chef Partner for Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar became McNeilly’s final position in Austin before taking the next big step…to Las Vegas. Much like other noteworthy chefs in the Valley, he was drawn to the unique opportunities at Westgate.

There’s a certain “something” that attracts extremely talented people to the historic property. Culinary artists with successful runs at The Cromwell, Caesars PalaceMGM Grand, Cosmopolitan and Wynn have made this off-Strip resort their home. Chef McNeilly seems to know why:

My worst day here is better than my best day when I’ve worked elsewhere. They (Westgate’s administrative team) allow us to have creative freedom and take chances. I love my bosses because they let me be me.

After a lengthy conversation filled with “colorful” language and plenty of laughter, Chef Michael took me to his dining room to enjoy a wide array of spectacular dishes. As I dove in with fork and knife, he told me about some noteworthy experiences since coming to Westgate.

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Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

Fresco Italiano opened two years ago. Chef Michael has been there from the beginning, hand-picking the ingredients, staff and every dish on the menu. It’s a culmination of all the training and exposure he’s had since being a boy. He’s now a familiar face on local talk shows, demonstrating what makes his offerings unique and delicious.

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

Early this year, McNeilly and several other chefs from Westgate had the privilege to participate in one of the nation’s most prestigious culinary honors – preparing a meal for the legendary 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.

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

Westgate‘s landmark event at James Beard House was called Valentine’s Day with a Vegas Kiss. Seven experts from the resort’s culinary team traveled back to McNeilly’s old stomping grounds in NYC, 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 Westgate’s team.

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

The experience was immensely gratifying for Chef McNeilly. The son of a humble trucker had come full circle…and prepared the ultimate meal at the city’s most prestigious venue.

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

    Looking over a memory book from the James Beard Foundation dinner….  

It’s in that spirit that he continues to foster the young people of Las Vegas. He’s taken several members of Fresco Italiano‘s staff under his wing, training them in various aspects of restaurant operations. And hopefully grooming them for a lifetime of success.

This is a tough world that we live in. I want to help hard-working young people the way that I was helped. To give them a chance. If they’re willing to put forth the effort, I’ll do whatever it takes to improve their lives. It’s my goal to leave people better than I found them.

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

Fresco Italiano is open for dinner from 5pm daily with lunch on select days. Call 702.532.5276 for more information or to make reservations.

Photos: Sammasseur, Michael McNeilly via Facebook/Instagram, Greg C.