Bring Your Summer Sexiness to THE PLAYGROUND


New adults-only day club advances the Westgate evolution and invites you to be a kid again…

Earlier this year I introduced you to Eddie Perales, the famed master mixologist who bubbles with as much excitement as his creations. Known to the world as a Guinness record-holder and creator of outlandish displays of liquid madness, Perales promised me that he would have more in store for the summer season at Westgate. After my most recent visit, I can say that he was true to his word…and then some.

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

While other Vegas resort pools are just getting started, Westgate has been in the game since March. The sleek, sunny deck was opened two months ago with a heated pool, bright luxurious loungers, dazzling cabanas, attractive model-servers and a fresh, inviting color scheme.

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

Over on the south end of the sprawling deck, The Playground day club has been launched. This area’s designed for revelers twenty-one and over. Says Eddie “Our pool deck is a hidden gem. Families can share in the fun and excitement every day, but for the grown-ups, it’s The Playground“.

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

The Playground invites partiers to toss their inhibitions out the window and act like a kid again. The 21-and-over space has daily DJ’s starting at 1pm. There are games like cornhole, chess and jenga and plenty of space to stretch out in VIP Cabanas. Drink specials, discounts for WOW Reward Card members and themed days should have fun-lovers coming back all summer.

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

“Our ultimate goal here was to create something for everybody. The pool was like a blank canvas to me. It’s an great space and part of an iconic resort. I mean…just look at that view! We’re doing things in a different way here at Westgate” he added “and how we’re doing it is the key”.

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

Eddie’s unique background in the world of beverage service gives him a distinctive edge that few in the city can boast about. “I’ve worked on the supplier side as well as being a mixologist, so I understand all aspects of this business. I’ve been able to identify liquor partners that other resorts blindly miss. We highlight them to make unique drinks that you won’t be able to find elsewhere”.

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

For instance, Eddie is big on Santoyo Grand Leyenda Organic Tequila. The premium tequila is derived from agave grown on Mexican lands that must be virgin for at least four years. Tequila Tuesdays feature the product and WOW Reward Card members get happy hour prices all day. “You may remember that I was once a Tequila Ambassador. I know my tequilas, and this one is terrific”.

Another hot-ticket new partnership is with the legendary Dole Whip. That frozen pineapple soft-serve from Oahu’s Dole Plantation was once an exclusive to guests of Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Now, along with The Golden Tiki and Cowabunga Bay Water Park, Westgate is one of the few places in the continental U.S. to offer the refreshing treat.

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

As you’ve probably guessed, Perales created a special cocktail using Dole Whip and Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum. Topped with a slice of fresh pineapple and an orchid, the Dole Whip Cocktail ($13) comes with both a spoon and a sipping straw.

The Playground‘s Signature Cocktail Menu has thirteen varieties, each running thirteen dollars. Eddie points out that any of them can be ordered as a pitcher for $27, which equals four servings for roughly the price of two. “Our prices are way cheaper than what you’ll find on the Strip”.

Perales has a signature style of combining fresh fruits, bright colors and unusual combinations for the brightest, funnest cocktails imaginable. One look above will show you what I mean…a bright array of tempting and luscious indulgences that will have you feeling happier with each sun-drenched sip.

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

Perales and I met early one morning at The Playground before the crowd started kicking up. After sampling all thirteen concoctions with names like Strawberry Blonde (Ketel One, lemonade, Mike’s Hard Strawberry Lemonade), Bigger in Texas (Tito’s Handmade Vodka, lime, Baritt’s Ginger Beer), Passion Fruit Smash and Bananarama, I had to choose one to relax and chat over.

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

               Eddie whipped me up a special size of Fireball Mojito…in a bucket!

Eddie watched closely as I stood up…and reached for the Fireball Mojito (Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey, lime, mint and club soda). “Really?” he exclaimed. “It’s my favorite, too. People said that you can’t do something like that. So of course I had to try it”. And yes, it was a fabulous contrast of flavors that had me back for an industrial-sized serving the next day.

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

Along with The Playground‘s new specialties, there are also familiar frozen drinks, beer, wine, and what Eddie calls “The least expensive bottle service in Las Vegas. It starts off at $65 for Hug L’originale Sparkling Wine (a European import that’s being called the hottest brand for summer 2018). Nobody else offers bottle service at that kind of price”.

Next to The Playground, Cabana Pool Bar and Grill offers a wide variety of snacks and meals. Choose from pizzas, beef and turkey burgers, sandwiches, wraps and healthier fare like California Rolls and Chef Bruno Morabito‘s famous Mojito Fruit Bowl from Sid’s Cafe. Of course, all of these items and more can be brought directly to your chair or cabana by the poolside servers. Check out the online menu here.

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

Also ready for roll-out are cabana-side cocktail carts. “I was inspired by the table-side guacamole carts at Mexican restaurants. Why not do that for cocktails? We can fill them with colorful fresh fruits and make drinks right at your own space”.

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

Sounds like a great idea to me…why bother to leave your lounger when you can be pampered like a celebrity? And the sight will surely attract new friends to your space. Eddie’s presentation certainly was a hit with these Vegas newbies who came over to hang out with me.

And speaking of pampering, adjacent Serenity Spa has joined The Playground to formulate a collection of Summer Spa Cocktail Body Treatments. Based on your favorite Playground Signature Cocktail, these pedicures and body scrubs include a serving of the actual cocktail, too.

Fox-5 KVVU-TV recently ran this segment on the Playground/Serenity Spa mash-up:

http://www.fox5vegas.com/clip/14352395/kicking-it-poolside-at-westgate-spa-pool

And here’s a terrific video of Eddie and the team in full “party mode” –

With the summer pool season just gearing up, now’s the perfect time to discover The Playground. You can party like a rock star without breaking the bank. And you might make a few sexy new friends before pool season is over. I know I will…wink wink.

Playground Westgate Pool Eddie Perales

The Playground launches daily at 1 pm during the summer season at Westgate Las Vegas Casino Resort, 3000 Paradise Road.

Photos: Sammasseur

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vegas Pastry Chef Earns Top Nationwide Honor In NYC


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.

Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan

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.

Pastry 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.

Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan

    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”.

Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan

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.

Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan

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.

Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan

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”.

Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan

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.

Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan

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.

Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan

                     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”.

Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan

       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.

Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan

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.

Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan

       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.

Chef8

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.

Chef102

                  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.

Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan

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.

Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan

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

 

 

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Westgate’s Culinary Superstars: Chef Masato Shiga


International man of mystery lets his Asian cuisine do the talking…

Last summer I introduced readers to Bar Sake, the newly-launched Japanese Robata-style grill restaurant that I referred to “Westgate’s Hidden Gem”.

Unique in location, offerings and atmosphere, Westgate’s Bar Sake & Robata Grill is the perfect little venue to gather at with friends, a loved one…or to discover all by yourself.

Bar Sake‘s menu is as much about the great food as the unique beverage offerings. And while I had the privilege to discuss cocktail creation with Chief Mixologist Eddie Perales during that initial visit, Chef Masato Shiga stood off to the side and was noticeably quiet. I was to learn later that this is the norm for Chef Shiga. He’d much rather communicate via his food than chat with you about it.

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

Naturally, I wanted to discover what inspired and influenced the man behind these sumptuous dishes. And of course, to sample (quite) a bit more of his delicious creations…so we sat down to talk on a return visit before I enjoyed another great meal courtesy of Chef Shiga. Despite sampling plate after plate, it was me who did most of the talking.

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

I was surprised to learn that as Executive Chef, Shiga oversees not one but four distinctive restaurants within Westgate‘s “The Village”. Taking up a substantial portion of the resort’s restaurant row, the two-story Village complex is home to world-renowned Benihana, Silk Road Asian Bistro, Rikki Tiki Sushi…and of course, Bar Sake.

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

Masa25

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

       Rikki Tiki Sushi overlooks the flowing water and gardens in The Village

Presenting such a vast array of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese specialties would be a daunting task for any cuisinier, but Chef Masa (the name he most frequently goes by) is no ordinary culinary expert. He brings a lifetime of authenticity and experience to the kitchen…and your table. He began cooking in Japan and has continued to expand his collection of recipes through an illustrious career at top Vegas restaurants.

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

                                               Chigasaki, Kanagawa

Chef Shiga was born in Chigasaki, a resort community on the Sagami Sea in the Kanagawa Prefecture of Japan. This largely tourist-based city is home to about 240,000 permanent residents. Considered to be a sister-city to Honolulu, Chigasaki is rich with Hawaiian and other Pan-Asian influences. It also lays claim to being the birthplace of Japanese surfing.

Growing up while surrounded by such a rich fusion of cultures undoubtedly presented many memorable dining experiences for the young Shiga. With Tokyo merely an hour’s trip away, it would have been easy for him to savor and learn how to prepare many regional delicacies and those from around his country and the world.

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At the age of nineteen, Shiga began his education in culinary school. Along with Far East cuisine, he learned the fine art of French cooking…quite an interesting combination! And much like his previously-profiled colleague Chef Bruno Morabito (of Westgate‘s Sid’s Cafe), Shiga developed an affection for whipping up all-American breakfast dishes. Perhaps that’s why he eventually migrated to the heartland of the United States.

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       Vintage postcard image of Mikado Japanese Cuisine, Mirage Resort…

When we arrived here, I looked around and was…WOW! So much to see….so big! I knew this was where I wanted to be. We stopped at The Mirage and I went straight into Mikado Japanese Restaurant to apply. I’ve been in Las Vegas ever since.

After Mikado, Chef Masa moved next door to become assistant chef at Caesars Palace‘s famed Hyakumi. That was the first of several positions within the resort. Then came Bacchanal Buffet, probably the most famous high-end buffet in the world. After its successful launch, he moved over to the highly-acclaimed Nobu Japanese Restaurant at Caesars‘ own Nobu Hotel.

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

As has happened with so many other wonderful Vegas chefs, Shiga’s next step led him to Westgate Las Vegas. He oversees operations of all four of their Asian restaurants. On some evenings you may find him behind the robata grill that he personally selected for the opening of Bar Sake. It’s there that you’ll see him searing skewers stuffed with succulent meats, colorful vegetables and glorious seafood in an ancient and revered method.

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

Despite being an extremely reserved and private man, Chef Shiga loves the camaraderie of being on the Westgate team. He enjoys the mutual support of his colleagues and appreciates the ability to have creative control over the meals he creates for guests.

The Chef recounted an especially memorable time with his professional family at a company golf outing:

We were all dressed alike. Nobody had different kinds of shirts. Managers played side by side with staffers. Everyone was equal there. You could be talking to your boss, an executive, a server…it didn’t matter. I like that about working for Westgate.

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

The culinary artist was quite reluctant to discuss his personal life, as he values his privacy. He did tell me that he’s married and returns to Japan on yearly excursions to visit friends and family. He also enjoys attending American football games. But what he really likes to do is head out to the greens for a round of golf…even when he travels abroad.

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

Luckily for Chef Shiga, Westgate’s neighbor to the east happens to be the gorgeous Las Vegas Country Club. The two destinations have a long-standing relationship that offers hotel guests the opportunity to visit the private club via Westgate Golf Packages. So when the golfing bug hits him at home, Chef Masa doesn’t have very far to go.

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

With all of that responsibility and ambition, Chef Shiga somehow maintains a calming presence that suits the soothing atmosphere of the restaurants he operates. Those admirable talents and twenty-plus years in the business have made Westgate Las Vegas a go-to place for lovers of fine Far East cuisine.

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

                Benihana fires up traditional Japanese steakhouse fare…

Chef Shiga is proud to offer unique items in an environment that exudes small-town charm. His dishes are pieces of art unto themselves, which is exactly how he likes it.

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

Now that there’s talk of an Oyster Bar possibly being added to the line-up at The Village, Chef Shiga may have trim back on his number of golf outings. But it’s unlikely that he’ll give up a place behind his treasured Robata grill. It’s the one sure thing tho make him smile.

Chef Masato Shiga Westgate

Silk Road Asian Bistro, Rikki Tiki Sushi and Benihana open daily at 5pm. Bar Sake & Robata Grill operates limited hours – call (702) 732-5755 for more information.

Photos: Sammasseur, Westgate Las Vegas/Chef Masato Shiga via Facebook

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

2017 In Review – Ranking The Resorts


There’s something for everyone when choosing a hotel. But not all of them deserve your business…

Best Luxury ResortPalazzo

Best Worst Vegas 2017

The Venetian‘s more contemporary sister property has what it takes to satisfy your luxury needs without overt attempts at “hipness” (Cosmopolitan) or coasting on a previously-established reputation (Bellagio).

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Palazzo2

The Palazzo offers easy access from Las Vegas Boulevard, free parking, spacious rooms, flawless service, gorgeous common areas, lush pools and an airy, high-ceiling casino. Visitors can indulge in top-notch lounges (check out my write-up of the new Rosina Cocktail Lounge), restaurants, shops, the famous Canyon Ranch Spa and the Best Overall Show in Vegas (BAZ: A Musical Mash-up). You can learn more by visiting my full write-up here.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Palazzo is easily my choice for best five-star accommodations in Las Vegas.

Most Improved ResortWestgate Las Vegas

My relationship with Westgate (aka the former Las Vegas Hilton) began three years ago….and was rocky to say the least. An unflattering article I had penned for VegasChatter.com got a very professional response from a member of the team in charge of transforming the aging off-Strip giant into a newly-born destination.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

“Give us another chance. We’ve got great things happening here”. That was the message, in essence, of the Westgate Las Vegas representative. And he wasn’t just tossing some pretty words and glitter in my direction. Promises were kept…and I’ve been back many many times since.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

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The current state of Westgate is one of gloriously-restored elegance. Brass has been polished, gorgeous chandeliers have been restored, the marble flooring is immaculate and guest rooms are all modern and sleek.

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The property has recruited some of the finest chefs in the city to operate an admirable line-up of new restaurants (see my monthly series of profiles to learn more about the people behind the dishes). Then there’s the glorious new Serenity Spa, an extension of Westgate’s acclaimed facility in Park City, Utah (you can see my detailed experiences at Serenity Spa here).

Serenity Spa Westgate

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Every Westgate staffer from valet to reservations to the hostess at Sid’s Cafe will offer their name and ask you for yours. There’s a vibe throughout the casino that’s palpable and contagious. You’ll feel that your patronage and presence are appreciated…and you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck.

Chef Bruno Morabito Westgate

You can expect lots of new entertainment offerings to take up residence at Westgate this year (Barry Manilow is coming back!) and you can continue to enjoy free parking as a hotel/casino guest.

By the way…don’t be put off by the off-Strip location. A convenient monorail station at the FRONT of the hotel (not far in the rear like everywhere else) can get you from your room to center Strip in a matter of minutes.

Re-think your ideas of how a 2018 visit to Las Vegas should be. Give Westgate a try…and prepare to be wowed.

Steepest DeclineRio Las Vegas

Best Worst Vegas 2017

A short decade ago, the Rio was one of my favorite places to stay and play. There was a vibrance throughout the resort that made it worth the visit. These days, it’s just a sad red-and-blue stepchild of the Caesars family, mostly forgotten and seemingly just hanging on.

The restaurants are nothing to brag about, Masquerade Village is still a giant echo chamber, Kiss by Monster Mini Golf turned out to be a dud and the once-legendary Carnival World Buffet now operates on limited hours. At least there’s still the wonderful Chippendales and new WOW – World of Wonder to keep me stopping by for a few hours.

Miniature stages throughout the gaming floor used to light up regularly for songs and dances by “Bever-tainers”. Now those performance spaces sit empty and ignored (a current cocktail server told me that “most of them are broken and just don’t work anymore”). The stage and overhead tracks for once-popular Rio Show In The Sky also remain, dusty and forgotten.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

An unpleasant odor permeates certain areas of this hotel, uncomfortable reminders of the Legionnaire’s Disease incident that affected numerous visitors last year. Guest rooms and common areas are maintained with indifference. The conditions of the fitness facilities and spa areas have badly deteriorated as well.

There are better places to choose than Rio Las Vegas…and the ever-rising mandatory resort fee (currently $34.01 per day, up from $18.99 plus tax in 2016) does nothing to make me want to book there again. After a lackluster stay in mid-December resulted in my complaining via email and phone to the manager, I cancelled my next visit (which was scheduled for the very next week).

Staffers at Rio seem to be going through the motions of their chores across the board, much like the team at Sahara did in the years leading up to its closure. Which brings us to…

In The Throes of DeathSLS (the former Sahara)

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Driving towards the north Strip property once know as Sahara, you’d be hard-pressed to know exactly what the name is. The sign reads SLS at the bottom and a giant twinkling W at the top. Why, exactly? Because this is a property with an identity crisis…and no good reason for existing in its current state.

SLS Las Vegas answers a question that nobody in their right mind would ask: “What would happen if you whitewashed (literally and figuratively) a heavily themed historic property, filled it with Vegas-lite duplicates of Los Angeles dining/nightclub favorites, then tried to lure the L.A. millenials over the state line?”.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

The answer is “not much”. There’s no reason for the hip L.A. crowd to come to Vegas for inferior copies of what they already have. Nevertheless, the combined arrogance of Sam Nazarian and SBE led to betting heavily…and losing…on a proposition that was never going to work.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Best Worst Vegas 2017

All seven Fred Segal stores were shuttered, along with LIFE Nightclub and an excellent buffet that lasted all of three months. SLS promised to reopen the buffet in early 2015. I’m still waiting.

If only SBE has taken a cue from Westgate and honored the Sahara‘s legacy with a little updating instead of throwing it out the back door, they’d probably be sharing a different place on this list.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Someday, logical will prevail and SLS (which sold off a portion of the resort to the W hotel chain…that tower now operates as a separate entity) will be reborn once more as “The New Sahara”. Until that time, you can consider SLS to be as good as….

DeadLucky Dragon

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Here’s another resort with no good reason for existing. Stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing worthwhile to offer guests, the Lucky Dragon announced the closure of its casino and restaurants just yesterday.

This has got to be some kind of record. After only 13 months and one day of operations, a brand-new casino resort has shut down everything but the tiny little hotel. Employees have been sent packing only four days into the new year…a sad start for them and a bad omen for any hope of Resorts World actually making an impact on the north end of the Strip.

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It was clear after a highly-touted early opening that just a few months into the year, Lucky Dragon was anything but lucky. Restaurants Pearl Ocean and Dragon Alley were reworked along with the high-limit areas of the gaming floor. The excitement of a brand-new hotel casino had completely fizzled, and by the time I visited in late mid October, at least one restaurant was shuttered and the entire complex was virtually empty.

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Dragon1

As the financials are reworked and optimistic press releases tout a full reopening of Lucky Dragon, expect the northern face of the famous Las Vegas Strip to continue fighting some really persistent blemishes. And one big blue tumor.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Abandoned Fontainebleau Resort                         

 

Photos: Greg C., Sammasseur

 

 

 

 

 

 

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